Advertising: helping and influencing people to make choices

Think smart, and avoid telling people brands will save the world

It has been the hottest year on record…

I don’t even need to post a chart to prove it — even if it has been a thoroughly damp summer in the UK. From the extreme heat waves witnessed across much of southern Europe to the wildfires that have devastated parts of Hawaii, it is clear that the planet is heating up to unsustainable levels. The question of what to do about this is the hardest challenge we all face, and there are no easy answers. I’ll be honest, my initial reaction was that ‘we are all fucked’, but that wouldn’t make for a very interesting article, nor would it help future generations. This question also appears even harder to answer when sitting in a glitzy ad agency trying to write brand strategy.

Surely brands are part of the problem? It would be easy here to cite all the brands and campaigns which have made commitments ‘to do more for the planet’, ‘to protect the environment we live in’ and ‘to work for a greener future’. But the fact that I’ve just summarised every green brand campaign in one sentence highlights how much good they will do for an already dying planet. These campaigns have also resulted in a superficial understanding of what we can do as an industry.

There are people who have been hoodwinked on the promise of ‘purpose’, and believe that we can somehow save the world when we obviously cannot. We can’t simply throw our hands up and give up either, because it would be naïve to think that we could simply close the system and live out our lives in small, self-sustaining hamlets.

Consumerism, in some form or other, will continue to exist and bring along with it many benefits

The real question is how we influence it — which when you think about it is the main role agencies play. This is where the quote from Nudge theory comes in, ‘the first misconception is that it is possible to avoid influencing people’s choices’. Advertising is about helping and influencing people to make choices. There’s no avoiding that. And the very best advertising is hugely successful at it — even if it doesn’t do anything to save the world.

Another important recognition of Nudge theory is understanding that big change won’t happen overnight. Change is often incremental, taken in small steps in order to reach a bigger goal. This is why a lot of the purpose campaigns referenced above fall down — they just seem too overblown and bombastic and they fundamentally fail to understand human nature. However, there are plenty of good campaigns which have successfully influenced human behaviour in small, but significant ways and as an industry we can learn from them. For example, a lot of the Think! drink driving work focused on how uncool it was to get caught drink driving.

Meanwhile, over in the US, the famous Got Milk! campaign made drinking milk glamorous again. In both cases, they made the desired choice seem cool and played with the human desire to be part of ‘it’. In a similar vein, and with a focus on the environment, Back Market has successfully sought to reposition refurbished phones as cool and desirable. They figured that instead of beating people over the head with an overblown ‘save the planet’ message, they just need to make buying a refurbished phone seem like the obvious choice.

So if we’re going to be part of the solution rather than the problem, we need more smart thinking like the above and to avoid telling people we’re going to save the world.

Featured image: Think! Fifty years of anti-drink driving ads

Mike Alhadeff, Senior Strategist at AMV BBDO

A creatively inspired person who likes a challenge or two. A native of East London, Mike has almost 10 years of agency experience at two top London agencies, Grey and AMV BBDO.  Mike has been published in several publications, sharing an opinion on advertising and beyond. But his passion remains in agencies which he believes remain a hotbed for cultivating some of the most powerful ideas. The challenge is to convince clients that this still provides a bedrock to everything they do. Outside of this, Mike is an ardent Manchester United fan.

All articles