News Analysis: Change of behaviour

The government is having to think beyond advertising to get through to people on emotive issues.

As marketing tasks go, persuading people to stop using guns is slightly tougher than enticing them to buy a can of beans or a bar of chocolate.

Reaching the socially excluded takes a lot more than a few public information ads slotted into episodes of Coronation Street and Hollyoaks. Little wonder, then, that agencies working on government communication projects are forced to push the planning boat out that bit further when considering how to change people's behaviour.

In the latest example of this kind of radical thinking, the Home Office, working with social communications agency Urban Concepts and pressure group Mothers Against Guns, is releasing a music record as part the 'Don't trigger' campaign (Marketing, 15 June). A six-minute promotional video for the track Why? will be shown on MTV, followed by a BBC documentary.

Finding new ways to reach the socially excluded is just one challenge of working on this kind of account, says Nick Southgate, head of strategy at ad agency DFGW. He has worked on a number of government projects and is currently producing ads to persuade migrant construction workers to register to pay tax.

'The problem is that people like this fall outside traditional media data collection. Researchers tend to ask when you last bought a bar of chocolate, not when you last considered dodging tax.'

DFGW has developed its own ways to hone the work on its account for Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC - the merged former Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise). Tax dodgers, who need plenty of reassurance that they will not be turned in to the authorities if they participate, are recruited to give their opinion on ads. They generally refuse to admit any ad would prompt them to register for tax, but Southgate has found that 'the length of the silence before they speak is often an indication of how persuasive the ad is'.

Breaking down apathy

The difficulty with devising ads on issues such as tax is that 'people really don't want to know about it', says Mike Davis, executive director of Euro RSCG London. Davis was part of the team that created the Hector tax inspector character for the Inland Revenue in 1995. His experience on government advertising stretches back to the notorious 'Icebergs and tombstones' AIDS campaign in 1986. 'With anything involving the necessary evils of life, such as taxes, you have to use unconventional ways to get around the apathy barriers,' he says.

The Hector character used humour to make tax self-assessment less daunting.

The task was made trickier as the target audience was so large and diverse.

It is a common difficulty in government communications that is made more complex when a campaign targets a variety of public groups.

Last year's changes in anti-social behaviour legislation, for example, had to be communicated to police, education, environment and planning groups. The COI's events department arranged for representatives of these groups to meet in local sessions, increasing the chances that they would subsequently work together to tackle problem families.

Communicating messages about dull or complex issues is hard enough, but what is often tougher is tackling subjects that touch on deep-seated beliefs and emotive or highly personal issues, says Davis. 'Attitudes that have been formed unconsciously can take generations to change.'

Ad agencies need to toe a careful line between giving information and intruding too far into people's lives.

When the first AIDS awareness TV campaign launched in 1986 it was criticised for using esoteric imagery. What most people did not know at the time was that the politicians involved had deemed that specific references to anal and vaginal sex, although informative, would have been offensive.

Caring attitude

The key to effectiveness in campaigns that refer to personal behaviour is not to preach or patronise. Euro RSCG London's award-winning anti-smoking ads from last year were made for the British Heart Foundation in conjunction with the Department of Health, and are widely regarded as successful.

'They made the cigarette the villain, rather than the hardcore smoker', says Davis. 'It avoided putting smokers on the defensive.'

The Department of Transport's anti-speeding campaigns have recently been altered to put greater emphasis on the 'Think' message. The advertising previously ended with more prescriptive messages such as 'Don't drive too fast' and 'Slow down'.

'Think' became a brand in itself, allowing police officers to use it as a theme for local initiatives. But the most important change to the campaign was switching the focus on encouraging people to consider the issue themselves, rather than simply follow an instruction.

Research found that people did not understand why driving at 10mph over the limit in a 30mph zone was so dangerous. This prompted the '30 for a reason' campaign, which broke earlier this year. A child's voiceover explained 'At 40mph, there's an 80% chance I'll die. At 30 mph, there's an 80% chance I'll live.'

'We were trying to reframe people's attitudes to this kind of widespread speeding,' says Clare Hutchinson, board account planner at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. The agency found that it was much more effective to explain the reasoning behind the law to people, rather than just enforce it.

DATA FILE - BEYOND ADVERTISING

Gun crime is not the first issue for which the COI needed to find a non-advertising medium. It set up an advertiser-funded programming unit two years ago to communicate messages that 'need more explaining than the average ad would provide'.

The first films it produced were for the National Blood Service. A half-hour film, shown on daytime on Five in December 2003, encouraged young mothers, who may have received blood during childbirth, to donate.

A later series of three-minute shorts, shown just before Channel 4 News, encouraged people of African, Chinese and Indian descent to give blood.

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