July 14, 2008
Using Corporate Marketing for Good
By Charles Duhigg
A few years ago, a self-described "militant liberal" named Val Curtis decided that it was time to save millions of children from death and disease. So Curtis, an anthropologist then living in Burkina Faso, contacted some of the world's largest multinational corporations and asked them, in effect, to teach her how to manipulate consumer habits worldwide.
But getting people into a soap habit, it turns out, is surprisingly hard. To overcome this hurdle, Curtis called on three top consumer goods companies to find out how to sell hand washing.
She knew that over the past decade, many companies had perfected the art of creating automatic behaviors - habits - among consumers. These habits have helped companies earn billions of dollars when customers eat snacks, apply lotions and wipe counters almost without thinking, often in response to a carefully designed set of daily cues.
"There are fundamental public health problems, like hand washing with soap, that remain killers only because we can't figure out how to change people's habits," Curtis said. "We wanted to learn from private industry how to create new behaviors that happen automatically."
Many of the products we use every day - from chewing gum to vitamins - are the result of manufactured habits. A century ago, few people regularly brushed their teeth multiple times a day. Today, because of canny advertising and public health campaigns, many Americans habitually give their pearly whites a cavity-preventing scrub twice a day.
"Our products succeed when they become part of daily or weekly patterns," said Carol Berning, a consumer psychologist who recently retired from Procter & Gamble. "Creating positive habits is a huge part of improving our consumers' lives, and it's essential to making new products commercially viable."
Through experiments and observation, social scientists like Berning have learned that there is power in tying certain behaviors to habitual cues through relentless advertising.
As this new science of habit has emerged, controversies have erupted when the tactics have been used to sell questionable beauty creams or unhealthy foods. But for activists like Curtis, this emerging research offers a type of salvation.
For years, many public health campaigns that aimed at changing habits have been failures. This decade, two researchers affiliated with Vanderbilt University examined more than 100 studies on the effectiveness of antidrug campaigns and found that, in some cases, viewers' levels of drug abuse actually increased when commercials were shown.
To teach hand washing, about seven years ago Curtis persuaded Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever to join an initiative called the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing With Soap. The group's goal was to double the hand- washing rate in Ghana, a West African country where almost every home contains a soap bar but only 4 percent of adults regularly use it after using the toilet.
Over the past several years, such partnerships between corporations and those trying to save the world have become commonplace. Companies like Microsoft, Pfizer and General Electric have worked with nonprofit groups on health, technology and energy programs.
Not everyone is comfortable with the arrangements. Some critics complain that public health professionals are becoming too cozy with companies ultimately focused on their bottom lines. Others worry that these advertising techniques may be manipulative.
But what Curtis learned in Ghana suggests that saving the world may be as easy as hawking chewing gum, or, to use a more contemporary example, as simple as training Americans to spray perfumed water on couches that are already clean.
Febreze - the perfumed water - is one of the most successful examples of a habit-creation campaign, and, in a sense, the playbook for how Ghana learned to wash its hands.
Procter & Gamble introduced Febreze in 1996 as a way to remove odors from smelly clothes. The company ran advertisements of a woman complaining about a blazer that smelled like cigarette smoke. Other ads focused on smelly pets, sweaty teenagers and stinky minivan interiors.
But Febreze flopped.
One of the biggest problems, P&G's researchers discovered, was that bad smells simply did not happen often enough in consumers' lives.
Around the same time, the company's staff psychologists were beginning to extend their understanding of how habits were formed.
"For most of our history, we've sold newer and better products for habits that already existed," said Berning, the P&G psychologist. "But about a decade ago, we realized we needed to create new products. So we began thinking about how to create habits for products that had never existed before."
Academics were also beginning to focus on habit formation. Studies revealed that as much as 45 percent of what we do every day is habitual - that is, performed almost without thinking in the same location or at the same time each day, usually because of subtle cues.
Because bad smells occurred too infrequently for a Febreze habit to form, marketers started looking for more regular cues on which to capitalize.
The perfect cue, they realized, was the act of cleaning a room, something studies showed its target audience did almost daily. P&G produced commercials showing women spraying Febreze on a perfectly made bed and spritzing freshly laundered clothing. The product's imagery was revamped to incorporate open windows and gusts of fresh wind - an airing that is part of the physical and emotional cleaning ritual.
Today, Febreze is one of P&G's greatest successes.
For Curtis and the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing With Soap, the tactics offered enormous promise in a country like Ghana.
"We could talk about germs until we were blue in the face, and it didn't change behaviors," Curtis said. So she and her colleagues asked Unilever for advice in designing survey techniques that ultimately studied hundreds of mothers and their children.
They discovered that previous health campaigns had failed because mothers often did not see symptoms like diarrhea as abnormal, but instead viewed them as a normal aspect of childhood.
However, the studies also revealed an interesting paradox: Ghanaians used soap when they felt that their hands were dirty - after cooking with grease, for example, or after traveling into the city. This hand-washing habit, studies showed, was prompted by feelings of disgust. Surveys also showed that parents felt deep concerns about exposing their children to anything disgusting.
So the trick, Curtis and her colleagues realized, was to create a habit wherein people felt a sense of disgust that was cued by the toilet. That queasiness, in turn, could become a cue for soap.
A sense of bathroom disgust may seem natural, but in many places toilets are a symbol of cleanliness because they replaced pit latrines.
The team's solution was ads showing mothers and children walking out of bathrooms with a glowing purple pigment on their hands that contaminated everything they touched.
The commercials, which began running in 2003, did not really sell soap use. Rather, they sold disgust. Soap was almost an afterthought. But the message was clear: The toilet cues worries of contamination, and that disgust, in turn, cues soap.
"This was radically different from most public health campaigns," said Beth Scott, an infectious-disease specialist who worked with Curtis on the Ghana campaign.
The ads had their intended effect. By last year, Ghanaians surveyed by members of Curtis's team reported a 13 percent increase in the use of soap after the toilet. Another measure showed even greater impact: reported soap use before eating went up 41 percent.
And while those statistics have not silenced critics who say habit-forming advertisements are worrisome, they have convinced people who run other public health initiatives that the Ghana experiment is on the right track.
Today, public health campaigns elsewhere for condom use and to fight drug abuse and obesity are being revamped to employ habit- formation characteristics, according to people involved in those efforts.
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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