Skip to content

Is just say no, really making us say yes?

16 November 2012

Public information notices telling us not to drink drive, drop litter or smoke inside, clutter our busy urban environment. So much so they almost blend into the background, and we barely even register they are there. So perhaps it’s not surprising to see new research published this week claiming that these notices have precisely the opposite effect on us, subconsciously encouraging us.

However it is a big assumption to go from accepting that subconscious cues may lead us to behave in certain counter intuitive ways, to believing that the £50 million spent by Department of Health annually on advertising is a waste of money.

Awareness campaigns have a different effect when they are actively noticed vs. subconsciously entering our awareness through the backdoor. So this research once again raises the question about how we ensure that campaigns are being noticed and actively processed. Shock tactics have been a popular choice traditionally, but there is much debate about whether this really generates cut through and behaviour change.

I would argue that audience insight and face to face engagement should still form the heart of effective public information campaigns. When we worked with Department of Health and Department for Children Schools and Families campaigns on sexual health and teenage pregnancy, we saw firsthand that it wasn’t enough to communicate these complex issues through one channel such as a website, a flyer or TV advert. But rather it was essential to uncover how this issue was perceived by all the relevant stakeholders from teachers and youth workers, to medical professionals and the teenagers themselves. Then use this information to build tailored information for individual groups.

We live in the age of mass communication, so it can be tempting to focus on generating critical mass by shouting loudly. But as the sexual health campaigns showed by speaking to influencers and equipment them with relevant information and materials to go have those conversations directly within their communities, we were able to generate a much more compelling response. Perhaps it’s not that we should be saying no to public information campaigns, but rather no to poorly planned untargeted mass campaigns.