What really creates social change?

In an interesting post on Toronto blog The Grid, Edward Keenan disparages TO Mayor Rob Ford for wanting to scrap the city’s 2009 requirement that all shops charge 5¢ per plastic bag.

Edward writes:

“I think the reason people resent the bag fee so much is that it forces them to think about something they do not want to think about. “Do I need a bag?” They know, as we all do by now, that these little things are bad for the environment in many ways—they’re made of oil, they clog up landfills if they’re thrown out, they use up a whackload of energy if they’re recycled, they kill wildlife and produce unsightly litter if they get loose, as they historically and iconically do—and so the fee asks them to think for a split second whether they want those bags and if so, how many they want. The tiny, inconsequential fee forces both the retailer and the customer to spend a few seconds discussing the issue of bags.


As it turns out, of course, that this has been effective, reducing the number of plastic bags used in Toronto by 53 per cent since it was introduced. Because when people have to think about it at all, when it costs them even a few seconds’s worth of income, they realize they can do without so many. When asked, they’d prefer to do right by the planet. But if you don’t ask, they don’t think about it.”

(He’s a very funny writer, BTW — I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing.)

As social issues marketers, reading about this kind of radical behaviour change should make us stand up and take note. Not that everyone will be supportive of government-imposed financial disincentives to negative behaviour. (It goes against the beliefs of anyone with a strong libertarian bent.) But nobody can deny that it puts the results of individual, unsupported social marketing efforts to shame.

This is where self-interest trumps community-mindedness. I stopped speeding so much, on the highway, after Ontario significantly raised fines. A similar effect has been noted as a result of the cell-phone handset ban — Health and Safety Ontario reports a self-reported 40% drop of in drivers reported talking on handheld and hands-free phones since the ban was enacted.

It’s the same thinking behind Federal and Provincial “sin tax” on alcohol and cigarettes, aimed at reducing consumption. Or Provincial and Municipal smoking bans, which really do work.

Social changes are not always the result of intentional effects. While there are heavy sin taxes on gasoline in Canada, market forces also push the price of gas up, leading to less single-passenger driving and more use of sustainable transportation like buses, bikes and carpools.

Great news for environmentalists and public health promoters. But if the answer is so simple, why even bother with social issues marketing?

I would like to argue my professional case on two strong facts:

1) Regulation follows public will

Think about the fight against tobacco. Two or three decades of massive social marketing campaigns gradually moved the needle on public opinion about smoking. When the bans came up, they had enough support to give legislators a strong mandate.

Social issues marketers are the advance guard on change. We work with governments, consumer groups, industry, and not-for-profits to introduce the issue and provide rational and compelling reasons for support. You can see it happening right now with the issue of indoor tanning.

That PSA was from 2008. Since then, tanning has become a subject of disdain and ridicule, and more and more jurisdictions are placing increased regulations on the industry (especially with teens). Cause promotion, pop culture and regulation are inextricably tied into this change.

2) Industry follows consumer opinion

McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King have all stopped sourcing pork from producers that use gestation cages on their pigs, after successful campaigns by PETA and the Humane Society of the United States. This is a big deal. A similar effect was seen when food safety advocates branded “boneless lean beef trim” as “pink slime”. This resulted in a massive drop in demand by fast food retailers, and caused a major producer (Beef Products Inc.) to shut down three of its plants.

In short, no big change — legislative or commercial — happens without a sea-change in public opinion. And public opinion change is the whole point of social issues marketing.

Scary, eh? It’s actually a big responsibility for those of us in “the business”. And it’s why there’s so much outcry when corporate social responsibility campaigns or products try to “greenwash” or “astroturf” — people want information they can trust. It’s also why smart consumer marketers team up with credible not-for-profits who can provide objective and trustworthy information to support the campaigns.

What social issues would you like to see begin the long trek from cause to normalization? Maybe we can help…

Thanks to Josh Rachlis for the inspirational tip.

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