OPINION: Where's the shock value?

Richard Chataway
By Richard Chataway | 21 June 2013

Australians are gluttons for punishment. We have the most gruesome public advertising in the world, says Arwa Mahdawi on the Guardian website.  She cites the current ‘Breathless’ anti-smoking TV ad (developed by AJF for the Australian National Preventive Health Agency) as an example of how our public bodies like to scare us out of our wits. And they’ve done it consistently, over a prolonged period of time, on issues like road safety, drugs, cancer… Like a kid on a roller-coaster, governments and agencies love consumers to be confronted with the fragility of their own existence.

Leaving aside the convenient absence of the fact that there is in fact a positive companion ad in the ANPHA campaign called ‘Symptoms’ (emphasising the positive effects of quitting), why do we feel the need to shock in this way? I’ve written here before that the accolades showered on McCann’s ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ suggest that there are equally effective, ‘softer’ ways of changing behaviour. Surely by now citizens are getting fatigued by all this scare-mongering?

As a relatively recent arrival in this country, and someone who works closely with the Federal Government, I can’t say I’ve noticed any deliberate emphasis on scare tactics. And certainly no more than in my UK homeland, where the bar has been set high again with the new viral drink driving campaign from Leo Burnett (six million views and counting - though I tend to agree with the top comment: “The only message I get is, don’t wash your hands”).

It’s by no means a recent phenomenon. Shocking public health ads (or ‘public information films’ as they were then called) were pioneered by my former employer, the now-defunct COI – in the 1940s. If you really want to give yourself nightmares, check out this terrifying film from as long ago as 1973.

Critics of the scare ‘em stupid approach - including me - argue that it alone is insufficient to change behaviour. Certainly if you’re not employing the carrot as well as the stick, and making the change in behaviour as easy as possible (or at least seem worth the effort, hence why the ‘Symptoms’ ad is so crucial), you’re only doing half the job.

Fortunately, the everyday risks in life here in Australia are generally pretty low, certainly compared to the rest of the world (though not so much if you’re poor, live in regional areas, or are part of the Indigenous community). Smoking rates are some of the lowest in the world, as are road fatalities. Eight people out of 100,000 die on Australia’s roads - which sounds a lot, but is nothing compared to Egypt at 42.

All of which explains why shock tactics are sometimes still necessary. Behaviour like drink driving or smoking are now a minority activity, and no longer so visible - but because the risks are so well established the barriers to change must be pretty ingrained. We’re getting down to a hard core of people, unwilling or unable to change. And, frankly, sometimes everyone needs a kick up the arse.

Richard Chataway
Director, Behaviour Change Unit

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