The art of the public information ad

The art of the public information ad

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

Bring back the Tufty Club. Bring back the Green Cross Code. Bring back ‘Charley says’. Bring back ‘Only a fool breaks the two-second rule’. Bring back Vinnie Jones and ‘Stayin’ Alive’. Bring back the Country Code and ‘Always take your litter home’. Bring back public information films. Bring back the Central Office of Information.

For younger readers, I probably need to explain what the hell I am talking about.

Tufty was created for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, and was an implausibly sensible young squirrel whose behaviour (in contrast to the foolish antics of the louche Willy Weasel) gave lessons to children on road sense. At its height, the Tufty Club had two million members. The Green Cross Code was intended for older children, and showed good behaviour being enforced by the Green Cross Man in the person of Dave Prowse, later to find greater fame in the role of Darth Vader (in body not in voice — as no plausible arch-villain can ever have a strong Bristolian accent). Charley was an animated cat whose sage advice, delivered in a series of miaows, was translated by his young owner with the prefix ‘Charley says’. Usually this involved exhorting children to ‘tell your mummy’ before planning anything more dangerous than sitting in a chair.

The interesting insight here was that, while children often won’t listen to a word their parents say, they become highly obedient when the figure of authority is a 6ft 7in Bristolian or a hastily drawn cat. It is a central plank of behavioural science that the person who delivers a message has a hugely disproportionate effect on how we respond. (Chris Whitty and Jonathan Van-Tam are perfect messengers in this regard for their ingenuousness, as was Ian McDonald during the Falklands War. All seem like the kind of people who, had they discovered the family drinks cabinet unlocked while they were teenagers, would have alerted their parents to the potential security breach.)

‘Only a fool breaks the two-second rule’ was something rather more ingenious. Car braking distances at different speeds are extremely non-linear and obviously not easy to memorise. So someone came up with an inventive heuristic. If you leave two seconds between the car in front passing a given point and you reaching that same point, you are at a safe stopping distance. It isn’t perfect, but for most relevant motorway speeds it is a good rule of thumb to avoid the dangerous practice of tailgating. Best of all, it takes about two seconds to voice the phrase, and so it became something of a motorway mantra. A similar recent approach to this is to paint chevrons on certain stretches of road with the instruction to ‘Keep two chevrons apart’.

Finally, Vinnie Jones’s film for the British Heart Foundation is superbly rich in all kinds of useful heuristics. Most valuable of all, perhaps, it overcame the reluctance many people had of performing CPR on a heart attack victim because of the false belief that this entailed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I know it may seem bizarre that people might die because of something so trivial as embarrassment, but such behavioural oddities are surprisingly common (my grandfather, a GP, once encountered a patient in a near fatal stage of hypothermia, and immediately started wrapping him in newspaper, only to be scolded by the victim’s wife: ‘Hey, that’s today’s paper’).

All of these things come under the general category of public information. It is a category which, until the pandemic struck, had fallen into relative disuse. For some reason, it is OK for the government to lay down laws or take your money, but it is completely unacceptable for it to encourage people to do good things voluntarily. What is noteworthy about these ads was that they weren’t hectoring — they were useful. No one likes a nanny state, but there’s nothing wrong with a helpful state.

This is important because the pandemic has retaught us something interesting. Contrary to the assumptions of doctrines that assume self-interest governs all, people rather enjoy voluntarily contributing to the public good if you present your appeal in the right way. This is particularly true when you can combine a mixture of self-interest and collective benefit in a message. Yes, a large part of our pandemic behaviour has been driven by fear, and some has been enforced by the rule of law, but a very large part has come from voluntary action or social self-regulation, not coercion.

The Germans probably win the gold medal for combining the selfish and altruistic motives for self-isolation in an ingenious Covid campaign that (implicitly) contrasts what it means to serve your country today with what it meant to their recent ancestors. Rather than being shot at by the Ivans while starving in sub-zero temperatures, it obliquely implies, all we’re asking you to do to be a national hero is lie on the sofa and watch Netflix.

The British campaigns have made heavy use of eyes, the 21st-century equivalent of having Lord Kitchener point at you. This comes from the widely attested finding that people behave more responsibly when they feel under scrutiny — even if the scrutiny is artificial. Some people find the approach overbearing, but there is no questioning its heritage. It is an observation that dates back to Plato and his discussion of the Ring of Gyges; it is also believed that totem poles performed the same function, by reminding villagers they were always acting in the sight of a deity. One putative benefit of religious belief is that when people believe their every action is visible to an all-seeing god, they instinctively behave much better. Reputation is an immensely powerful unconscious force.

Indeed, reputational fears have driven my own Covid behaviour. Long before lockdown, I had ordered a futon to be delivered to our flat in Deal, and was tempted to scoot down to Kent to enjoy a few days self-isolating by the seaside under the guise of taking delivery of the furniture. What prevented me from stretching the rules was the eagle-eyed nature of the local Facebook groups. There are two of these: the more official ‘Deal Watch’ and a renegade splinter group called ‘Deal Watch Rejects’. (To understand the relations between the two, it might be helpful to consider the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA, or possibly that between the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS.) I realised that if I, an obvious DFL — a local term of abuse that stands for ‘Down from London’ — were outed as a visitor by either group, I’d be as welcome as Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock. In the end I bottled it and paid someone to take the damned futon into storage.

In times of crisis it seems natural to appeal to these collective and reputational instincts — and to the simple fact that people feel good when they do the right thing. But why not appeal to them at other times too? The same techniques which helped contain the virus can also be used to speed the recovery — encouraging people to holiday in the UK, for instance. The government has extraordinary power as a messenger. Why not use it more?

One reason is that, as the economist Richard Thaler observed, government is dominated by lawyers who take advice only from economists. Such people will always prioritise legal or economic solutions (which inevitably involve central, top-down approaches) over the power of more local, voluntary actions. But by defining problems in economic or legal terms, you confine yourself to economic or legal solutions, hence relying solely on central government to solve every problem. Not all problems can be solved this way. This approach also contributes to people feeling isolated from government — since they can play no part in contributing to the common good. Along with laws and economic incentives, we need a different kind of intervention from government, more akin to painting the lines on a car park than telling people where to park or changing the parking charges. Useful cues and norms — like chevrons on the motorway — which provide encouragement and guidelines, but leave people room for independent action and judgment.

Now at this point you’re probably thinking that it is a bit self-interested for an advertising man to propose more use of persuasion. I agree. But I am not alone in supporting this. Quite simply co-operation and innovation are almost always reliant on persuasion. The human talent for co-operation is inseparable from our ability to cajole others. Very little progress happens automatically. As a now comical advertisement from the Dublin Corporation shows, people once needed persuasion to install electricity in their homes. Similarly, I had always assumed that once Edward Jenner discovered vaccination for smallpox, he was immediately thanked by a grateful nation: not a bit — he had to spend his whole life defending the practice against detractors. Mary Wortley Montagu, promoter of an earlier practice called variolation, where people were immunised with a small dose of the virus (an approach never investigated with Covid, for reasons I don’t fully understand) scored her coup through an act of highly targeted persuasion. She successfully encouraged the royal family to adopt the practice, from which it rapidly spread to the wider population. It’s persuasion all the way down.

If you don’t believe me — and why should you — here’s the fabulous Deirdre McCloskey in the recently published ‘White paper on humanomics’: ‘Economics ignores persuasion in the economy. The economics of asymmetric “information” or common “knowledge” over the past 40 years reduces to costs and benefits but bypasses persuasion, “sweet talk”. Sweet talk accounts for a quarter of national income, and so is not mere “cheap talk”. The research [into humanomics] would direct economics and the numerous other social sciences influenced by economics back towards human meaning in speech — meaning which has even in the most rigorously behaviourist experiments been shown to matter greatly to the outcome.’

Meaning, not reality, is what counts. Charley says wear a bloody mask.

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