Why ad agencies need to help fix public behaviour

John and Carrie Bradley implore advertisers to use their powers of persuasion now to prevent more draconian restrictions down the line.

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By John Bradley and Carrie Bradley

We are living through unprecedented times, the biggest international health crisis for a century.

The Government has two overriding imperatives: to save many lives by preventing the collapse of the healthcare system, and to save the country from civil disorder by securing the food supply system. Failure in either would be catastrophic. Failure in both would be apocalyptic.

The achievement of both imperatives requires all Canadians to change their attitudes and behaviours in two key ways: rigorously practice self-isolation or social distancing, and to shop only for what we need, not what we think we might need.

The Government has two tools at its disposal: persuasion and coercion. So far, persuasion hasn’t worked well enough, which shouldn’t surprise us. If all it took to change the attitudes and behaviours of a nation was to put unknown subject-matter experts in front of a camera reeling off what are, to them, compelling statistics, then we could just put brand managers on camera to reel off their blind preference scores and sales would dramatically increase. Advertising agencies would not be necessary.

But they are necessary. Because they are experts in the art and science of effective persuasion; they are just terrible at proving it. But the effectiveness of advertising to change the attitudes and behaviour of millions has been shown before.

Advertising played a key role in the now universal use of seat belts, the demise of smoking, the (relative) reduction in drunk driving, even sexual behaviour during the Aids epidemic. Creativity can change the behaviour of millions.

Even more compellingly, during times of international crisis, the industry reached greater heights. The personalization of the WW1 conflict via Lord Kitchener’s eyes and pointing finger helped create a volunteer army of over one million men in 1914. “Keep Calm and Carry On” encapsulated the British stoicism during the Darkest Hour. Rosie the Riveter filled America’s factories with women, turning U.S. industrial potential into a war-winning advantage. Advertising that had enormous impact, altered attitudes and changed the behaviour of millions for the common good. And not a statistic in sight.

We have heard much about brand purpose before COVID-19 changed our world, but what about industry purpose? Seventy years of peace and prosperity have convinced the advertising industry that its sole purpose is to respond to client briefs to sell more stuff, garner more donations and, very occasionally, do some societal good. But now is the time for the industry to rediscover its true purpose as being primarily a force for good.

The Canadian advertising industry needs to step up, right now. The country is rapidly heading toward being on a war footing, so the ad industry must do the same. Don’t wait for a brief from the Government, it may not come; they have enough to do trying to keep the food supply and medical systems going. Collaborate with other agencies. Get the best creative brains the industry has to offer together (virtually) and come up with work that can and will alter attitudes and behaviours on panic buying/hoarding and social distancing. Shame clients into giving up their now redundant media buys.

No one else can make persuasion work over coercion. Save our country from curfews, armed soldiers in the streets, warrantless arrests, food and ventilator rationing, mass graves, black markets and all the other inevitable consequences staring us in the face. Show that this industry is an indispensable part of Canadian society. And create the student wall art of the 2040s.

John Bradley and Carrie Bradley are managing partners of The Bradley Group. John is also an author, strategy columnist and former VP of marketing for Cadbury. Carrie (no relation) is a strategy and organizational effectiveness consultant that has worked at Merck and HSBC.