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The Deeper Truth of the ‘truth’ Campaign: Influence is Bigger than Persuasion

One of my favorite stories from 1998, just as we preparing to launch the now-iconic ‘truth’ anti-tobacco campaign, involves my encounter with a PR-guy supporter of Big Tobacco. In a voice that oozed confidence and patronizing sympathy, he told me, “go for it, Rob, and do your worst. You’re never going to be able to persuade kids not to smoke."

To that guy, of course, a big na-ni-na-ni boo boo.

But it’s a favorite story because the ‘truth’ campaign broke the stranglehold the “persuasion strategy” had held over behavior change campaigns.  The Big Tobacco PR guy was actually right: You can’t persuade teens not to start smoking.

But, as ‘truth’ proved, that doesn’t mean you can’t influence them.

The ‘truth’ campaign was, in fact, explicitly neutral on a teen’s choice to smoke. It was an explicit part of our code of conduct.   We never said don’t smoke. We didn’t draw messages from the grab bag of teen focus group “reasons-we-tell-adults” negatives of smoking (i.e., breath) and good things about not smoking.   Instead, we unleashed a funny, fun and edgy youth-led “brand war” against Big Tobacco. Their brand was lies. Our brand was ‘truth.’ A teen’s choice to smoke (or not) was now occurring in an altered youth culture that had robbed tobacco use of its cool factor.  Tobacco use initiation plummeted.

It’s not that persuasion doesn’t often play an important role in behavior change.   Crafting campaigns with excellent persuasive messaging is still a big part of the work we do.   But winning for social change now requires mining the large and growing body of ideas grounded in the bigger universe of behavioral influence.

The question we must start with is, “what will it take (policies, products, messages, incentives, social pressure, etc.) to make the behavior change we want easier, more popular, more fun than what they’re doing now?”

How does this fit with dealing with the oversized partisan right influence on policy makers? First, think of politicians under the sway of the polarized right as like our teens under the sway of Big Tobacco. The ultimate threat is for both is to lose social acceptance (for politicians, “social acceptance” means getting re-elected.)   Trying to “persuade” these folks by providing Spock-ish arguments for good social change policies will be as effective as telling teens to “just say no” to tobacco.

So, if we can’t persuade them, how do we influence them?

Just as we did with teens and tobacco, we need to change the context. Social change advocates need to change the culture around politicians when it comes to their issue. This “change the culture” strategy – first and foremost – means focusing on those who shape the culture: civic, cultural, faith, community, media and business leaders.


Because these are the people who make policy and program decisions that influence the behavior of many others. I prefer the Nudge label “choice architects,” to the traditional PR term “influencers” because “choice architects” focuses not on their general status, but on their ability to shape the contexts in which many people make decisions.   Though they won’t come up on anyone’s Forbes list, when it comes to improving children’s nutrition choices, school food administrators are choice architects.

Of course we’ll be constantly leveraging the changing culture to reshape the partisan right political calculus, but the first job is to expedite the change in the culture.

To make this less abstract, here’s an example from today’s headlines: The retail pharmacy giant CVS has quit its membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, based on the New York Times (surely helped by information from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids) story exposing the Chamber’s secret fight against public health tobacco control policies around the world.) So, in the space of a few years, CVS has gone from selling tobacco products to quitting the largest business trade organization over tobacco. Now that’s culture change.

So how do we persuade choice architects?

Wrong question!

Right question: how do we influence choice architects?

‘truth,’ brothers and sisters.

Next up: Scientists: The Ultimate Non-Persuasive Influencers

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