USU Sustainability Coordinator Provides Businesses and Advertisers with Tools of Effective PSAs

Changing public behavior through advertising is no simple task, but a few tweaks in how a message is delivered can help the call to action ring louder. An example? Asking people to go green.

USU sustainability coordinator Alexi Lamm carefully dissected the characteristics of effective service advertising campaigns to see just what factors help them go the farthest to change public behaviors that cause environmental damage and pollution.

Lamm, who presented some of her research at the Intermountain Sustainability Summit in Ogden last week, noted that even something as simple as figuring out an audience’s demographics can help admakers tailor their message just right.

For example, Texas had a successful anti-littering campaign dubbed “Don’t Mess with Texas”. The campaign was designed to instill a sense of pride in males ages 16-24, who had been identified as the primary litter bugs. Lamm said in 1985 alone, the campaign’s first year, roadside litter decreased by 29 percent, and then through 1990, reduced litter by 72 percent.

“The challenge is, we are trying to direct pro-social behavior—like not idling, things that will improve air quality—but we’re trying to do it with posters on a wall. People need to think about that message much later when they are in their cars driving, or picking up their kids at a school,” she said. “So, you’re trying to influence people’s behavior in the future and get them to reference the message you gave them at a later time. And that’s hard! So we need our messages to be vivid. We need them to be emotionally and personally relevant to people and we need them to be memorable, something that people are going to remember.”

Lamm listed a series of characteristics businesses can use to create impactful and efficient PSAs to help decrease the amount of emissions in the air and increase the appeal for businesses and tourists to come to Utah. She conducted a study in which she compared various PSAs and analyzed the characteristics of the most successful campaigns.

“Here’s what we’ve learned so far: Call to action is good at giving people practical behavior to address air quality. Informational campaigns work best with analytical personalities,” she said. “It is important to avoid overloading people with information. People aren’t going to read paragraphs. Emotional appeals foster relationships between the audience and the behavior you are proposing, and it works best with positive emotions, rather than shame or guilt. Bandwagon appeals to people’s desire to belong and promote a positive behavior as praiseworthy.”

Using fear to promote change can also be successful, she said, but it needs to be done carefully.

“Moderate fear promotes action while too much sends people into denial. Humor uses laughter to evoke positive feelings in the audience. If you can relate the humor to your message, it makes it more memorable. But be cautious because you don’t want to offend, confuse or warp people,” she said.

Additionally, Lamm indicated that a focused target audience is key to developing an effective campaign.

“People interpret messages through their views, attitudes and interests, and we have to know what those are,” she said. “The stronger connection our message has to our target audience, the more effective we can be.”

She provided the example of the Smokey the Bear campaign, “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.” The campaign began in 1944 and was targeted to children, who would then influence their parents as they were out on camp trips and visiting state and national parks. Before the campaign launched, 22 million acres per year were decimated in fires, with 9 out of 10 of those fires caused by humans. After Smokey’s introduction, that number was reduced to 8 million acres.

Lamm’s purpose in her PSA research was to provide advertisers and businesses with the tools needed to create an effective and consistent air quality campaign.

“Some evidence indicates that air pollution might discourage businesses, prospective employees, and maybe their familys from wanting to relocate to Utah,” Lamm said. “Interestingly, air pollution has not been the target of one of these messages yet.”