The old bait and switch

Can a deceptive cause campaign shock offenders into changing their ways, or will it just alienate them further?

This story appears in the April issue of strategy.

It’s November and cold weather is about to come to Montreal. You take to the internet to find a sharp new fur coat at the right price. You remember seeing a poster for a fur discount site the other day while shopping in Lush, so you start there. Just as you think you found your coat, the site freezes, a black spray-paint effect covers it up to display this message: “Over 100,000 animals are killed for their fur every year worldwide.” It seems your shopping is done for the day, as you’ve been redirected to an anti-fur website set up by Fur-Bearer Defenders of Canada and the Montreal SPCA.

You feel pretty crummy about yourself. Maybe a vacation to Mexico will lift your spirits. Except, why does this travel site offer prison cells as lodging and beatings as package features? You click around for more information and you’re sent to Amnesty International’s website, featuring information about human rights violations and police brutality in the country.

How about some companionship? An app that lets you adopt a puppy and trade it in when you can’t take care of it anymore sounds promising. But you can’t sign up because every time you try, you’re redirected to a Toronto Humane Society site highlighting stats about pet abandonment.

All of these campaigns were launched by non-profits and brands since the fall. Any good ad campaign is going to capture attention and reach audiences, but for organizations looking to do good, a great campaign is one that results in change. Maybe this is why some have turned to more deceptive tactics – like setting up a fake website or promoting a non-existent service – to draw in the people who are causing or perpetuating the issue and, hopefully, change their minds. But then again, a lecture, no matter how it’s packaged, is still a lecture.

Rob Young, SVP of planning services at PHD Canada, believes this is strategically sound because it recognizes and effectively triggers something called a “somatic marker,” one of the principles his agency uses in its planning system. A somatic marker is the moment of a gut-level, emotional reaction to a stimulus. These reactions are sudden, instant and cause automatic decision-making before they are followed up by a rational thought.

There can be positive somatic markers, like associating certain kinds of food with feelings of happiness because of memories of eating them at family dinners, or negative somatic markers, like being repulsed by a certain kind of alcohol because of a bad experience. Young points out these campaign tactics are actually forming negative somatic markers, creating a repulsion towards things like buying fur or abandoning pets.

“[In these cases] there is a deliberate action the consumer undertakes before the emotionally intense experience occurs,” Young says. “Then, there is an element of surprise, a kind of ad message version of someone jumping out from behind a tree at night and scaring the shit out of you, and those are what is required to create a somatic marker.”

Young adds that a more emotionally intense experience creates a more effective somatic marker, so the moment of shock in these ads could potentially be more effective in changing behaviour than a traditional ad that simply presents facts. But, while somatic markers motivate sudden decisions, it’s hard to gauge their impact in the long term.

Philippe Garneau, president and ECD at GWP Brand Engineering, believes the cause advertising space is the only one where this kind of strategy could work. Non-profits have a moral ground to stand on against criticism for the false pretenses they set up. Also, because of the tight budgets or short-term fundraising initiatives common for non-profits, they’re well-suited for these deceptive campaigns, as their effectiveness wears off the more they are used.

In addition to more than 470,000 impressions and 300,000 video views, the Toronto Humane Society’s “PuppySwap” campaign, created by Grip, earned international press attention. The anti-fur campaign, by Republik, saw 40,979 people visit the fake site. So employing misdirection might be a way to get a short burst of attention from those who already believe in a cause, but Garneau is doubtful it draws the kinds of people it seems to be targeting or changes their behaviour. In fact, it might have the opposite effect.

“You can’t change peoples’ fundamental behaviour by trying to shame them,” he says. “These people are almost always going to win by persuading themselves, and the more extreme you go, the more they can feel like they’re just ignoring someone shouting at them. Attracting people is always better than surprising them and potentially repelling them.”

Nancy Lee is the president of non-profit and public sector consulting firm Social Marketing Services in Seattle, WA, and a professor of public affairs at the University of Washington. She’s also written several books on effective cause marketing, including Social Marketing: Influencing Behaviors for Good. She says the key with cause campaigns is knowing what mindset people are in, specifically the state of change.

While some scholars put the number of states of change as high as seven, Lee boils it down to four: pre-contemplation (the time before an issue is brought to someone’s attention), contemplation (when someone is aware of an issue and is thinking of how to address it), enactment (taking action to make a change) and maintenance (keeping up their new behaviour).

Someone in the later two stages has already made up their mind and is unlikely to be persuaded to change. But if they are in the former, a campaign could be more effective because it gives them a new tool with which to change their behaviour.

Lee says audience research is important – determining whether or not it’s going to work by asking your target, and finding who might be concerned about the issue but hasn’t been motivated to do anything. “We want to know what it is someone could say or show or give you that would motivate you to [change] this behaviour. Whether a campaign works depends on if you can find the target that says, ‘These are the facts I didn’t know about,’ and find a good way to deliver those to them.”

For some people, simply hearing an issue exists is enough to get them to do something about it. The key to effective social marketing, Lee says, is to discover the barriers that have been preventing the rest from taking action and find out what it takes to break them down. She isn’t sure whether a bait-and-switch strategy is more or less effective than others at encouraging a change in behaviour. While the conceit of these campaigns might catch people’s attention, their success depends on the fundamentals that back it up.

“It might be the way to get them to pay attention to the message,” she says. “But it still depends on the audience because they’re all in different stages of change. And even if they pay more attention, it likely won’t change their behaviour unless it’s something they didn’t already know.”