(Behavioural) Cues that bind

Among the many issues that any social marketer or behaviour change specialist has to contend with is that of salience. And, in framing for salience, it is often possible to uncover core truths within the messaging which will increase an audience’s propensity to act in a desired way.

However, when confronted with the most universally salient natural process of all – death – avoidance motivations can obstruct an individual’s ability not only to comprehend a message, but to adjust their behaviours accordingly as well.  Additionally, it’s often difficult to present death as a positive thing.

For those of us tasked with creating positive behaviours around terminal topics, this causes an issue.  How does one design messaging with a clear behavioural intent while reducing avoidance motivation and making it contagiously truthful too?

An answer, it seems, may have been uncovered by FATH – an Argentinian organ donor program.

Communicating to increase the number of people on organ donation lists requires the social marketer to overcome a number of obstacles including:

  • A lack of knowledge of, and education about, donation programs
  • Lack of trust in the medical profession
  • Discomfort in thinking about death
  • Prevailing socio-cultural attitudes towards death and the body (especially religious attitudes)
  • A perceived socially normative view that a refusal to consent to donation where an individual’s wishes are unknown or unclear is the correct thing to do in that situation

(Extrapolated from NHSBT primary research)

In addition to the NHSBT’s summary list, we could consider a range of other factors:

  • A conception that removal of organs will mutilate the body beyond all recognition
  • A belief that chronic illness renders all organs useless
  • The ‘ick’ factor

(Extrapolated from the introduction to the Organ and Tissue Donation and Recovery Course)

As if this wasn’t enough, while individuals may rationally understand that their actions (agreeing to donate an organ) may influence a person they’ve never met, as part of a future they can not participate in, how many people can honestly say that they can imagine the progression of a world without them (with the attending emotional baggage that non-existence may bring)?  Unless the individual in question is uncommonly altruistic, can a rational appeal really influence their behaviour, and can an emotional one realistically overcome avoidance motivations without resorting to cliched tactics which represent just as much of a turn off?

Argentina’s FATH has, in my opinion, answered some of these questions brilliantly in a work of minor social marketing genius.  Take a look:

In my opinion, the ad works on four key levels.

Storytelling increases approach motivations while minimising avoidance ones.  As a “simple trope“, the story engages even if we don’t have previous experience of dog ownership – from Disney upwards, dogs are imbued as ‘man’s best friend’ and we can intuit the bond.  This draws us into the story of a life as lived and shared, not a death mourned.

It underlines the universality of donation. The man is old, the recipient young and thus may challenge rationally held assumptions about the age criteria for donations.  Perhaps we give the old man qualities which we would like to see in ourselves – his bond with this dog, the time he enjoys with friends and, at a stretch, what appears to be contentment.

We are undistracted by the donor’s emotions.  The work does not seek to answer any questions about life after death, or how the donor might hypothetically feel about what their organ has enabled.  We don’t know the reason that the man became a donor, and in fact, that doesn’t matter.  Removing the emotional weight from both the donor and recipient allows us a much clearer opportunity to engage with the message ourselves, using the dog as a proxy.

It speaks to a desire for immortality – and uses the dog to express it.  This, for me, is the defining core, contagious truth of the work (and why I’m sharing it with you now).  I have never yet met a person who did not desire some level of immortality – whether in the religious context or ‘having people to remember me when I’m gone; to have made a lasting impression during my life’.  The dog’s reaction to the recipient allows us to consider our own self-validation and legacy issues and we do not need rationalise our reactions because we are being led to project onto the dog and experience those reactions at an emotional level.

And what could be more salient to a viewer than the idea of legacy, of mattering, of living and being noticed (even if it is in another body)?  Death might be salient, but rarely this engaging.

FATH have delivered a deft combination of story-telling, technically strong film making and an understanding of key behavioural principles to set this ad up well.

In terms of evaluation, the golden standard will obviously be the number of people signed up to the organ donation program (for that to happen, we naturally need to consider other factors – such as those in the EAST model to maximise any momentum created by the work.  At a less visible level, however, the advert may increase the conversation about donation between friends, family members, colleagues.  While less easy to track, perhaps this conversation may translate into an erosion of the social-norm ‘No’ position where there is a lack of clarity around a person’s wishes, increasing the amount of viable organs available.

So long as this work is supported with clear action pathways to lead from interest to engagement, I think that its core, contagious truth is one that will change behaviours.  In a year, when we have the sign up data, we’ll know if I’m right.

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