How Change Happens

As more brands seek to enter the “change” space and be more like causes than advertisers, the term “behavior change” is increasingly tossed around. When agencies talk about being behavior change experts, typically what they’re referring to is changing buying behavior — moving people from spending a dollar on one brand to another. But behavior change is actually creating a fundamental and lasting alteration in how people live their lives, e.g., they stop smoking, buckle seat belts, don’t drive drunk, reach for a carrot instead of a McNugget.

Pure advertising can achieve a measure of this — usually early in the change cycle when motivated people gain awareness of the issue’s benefit or risk. But just slightly farther along the cycle, ads alone produce less and less behavior change. A more expansive and substantive toolkit is required. What most agencies call a “360-degree approach” is only about 90 degrees as it applies to behavior change. The go-to set of cross-platform integration and earned media is only the skin of the behavior-change sphere. Filling the sphere are cultural interventions, grassroots activation, a new product, and even changing national laws and leaders.

Advertising to get people to recycle didn’t get traction until municipalities put programs in place for curbside pickup. Seat belt use did not increase for years despite tens of millions in advertising. Here we worked with advocates to pass laws, organized 10,000 law enforcement agencies to enforce, and then communicated this in a message (“Click it or ticket”) that didn’t just appear in spots, but on flashing municipal safety signs. Seat belt use rose from 61 to 83 percent. Thousands of lives have been saved.

But sometimes the people doing the behavior are impossible to reach and a cultural intervention has to find a way around it. “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” developed by DDB and the Ad Council, is a powerful example. They knew that trying to get intoxicated people not to drive was going to be less effective than creating a new social norm that used friends to prevent them from doing so. From 1990 to 1991 the campaign contributed to a 10 percent drop in alcohol-related fatalities — the largest ever one-year drop.

Also, advertising can’t create behavior change if the audience cannot act on the message. All the anti-obesity advertising in the world won’t impact the people of downtown Detroit where there are currently few if any supermarkets with healthy foods. Similarly, the Department of Health and Human Services ran ads telling mothers that not breastfeeding was as dangerous to their baby as riding a mechanical bull when pregnant. Not effective for many moms. More than 85 percent of mothers already know breastfeeding is best, but more than 60 percent have to go back to work in workplaces that don’t accommodate it. In both cases communications has to target something more causal to the behavior than the behavior itself — the environments that either help or hinder change.

Sometimes behavior change means altering behavior that isn’t human, like mosquitoes that cause malaria. A critical intervention isn’t advertising, but a product — a bed net. Thus, an initiative that we helped the United Nations and the NBA execute called Nothing But Nets. It involved grassroots mobilization and aggressive media outreach that was kicked off with American Idol’s “Idol Gives Back.” This approach yielded $19 million for bed nets in Africa.

In making the world a better place, behavior change also means the behavior of corporations. On the Save Darfur project, the movement leaders told us change would require divestiture from the government of Sudan. One of the movement’s targets became Fidelity Investments, as it was the largest shareholder in PetroChina whose oil purchasing from Sudan helped fund the genocide. Our interventions were grassroots and online organizing, demonstrations at Fidelity offices, and station-domination advertising at Fidelity’s closest subway stop. Fidelity sold 91 percent of its PetroChina NYSE holdings.

For brands trying to create change with products or CSR programs, the approach is the same: Identify interventions that work and use communications to support those interventions to achieve real, measurable effect. When Johnson & Johnson and Children’s National Medical Center wanted to prevent injuries to kids, we joined them on the National Safe Kids Campaign.  It included not just PSAs, but community coalitions, legislation to mandate safety seats in cars, building codes requiring fencing around pools, and ordinances requiring bike helmets. There was a subsequent 25 percent decrease in preventable injuries to kids.

Lastly, one of the most powerful ways to create behavior change is to give people their own tools to activate their communities. Our work with Obama for America was witness to an unprecedented amount of activism that was both the result of the inspirational leader himself and the strategic choice to convert that inspiration by providing online tools that enabled people to create their own mini-movements.

Our conditioning in the mainstream of advertising is such that we believe the Big Idea comes in the shape of a creative platform. But for behavior change we need to think bigger and more causal than that. We need to think of the Big Idea as concurrently happening in the cultural intervention — whether that is a supermarket, a new law, a flashing municipal safety sign, or a new leader.

Why should brands be interested? Look around. The audience has drawn a new line in the sand. This line divides whom they see as part of the solution from whom they see as part of the problem. There is no in-between space for brands to rest in anymore. To be in the solution a brand needs to demonstrate participation in changing lives for the better. This involves behavior change. And behavior change requires more than advertising.

David Mitchell and Kirk Souder are senior partner and executive creative director/partner, respectively, at GMMB. They can be reached at and

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