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The impact of a successful behaviour change campaign

The Scottish drug death rate is now more than three times that of England and Wales and has more than doubled since 2008. It is higher than any other EU country. As part of tackling this growing issue, Kevin MacKenzie looks at how to deliver an impactful behaviour change campaign, with the aim to inspire action and embed positive change. 

To understand the impact campaigns can have, one would only need to take a step into the past where we can see their expedited evolution. Marketing campaigns have the ability to create significant influence on those they are aimed at, yet often the problem isn’t the campaign itself but the delivery and planning behind it. I remember growing up in the 1970s where public information films gained a lot of momentum. Typically, when it came health related issues, the focus at the time was largely based around raising awareness of heart disease, cancer and family planning to name a few. The 1980s brought a shift in focus from purely raising awareness to big breakthroughs with more of a focus on prevention. In came the anti-tobacco and alcohol posters and the largest noise remained around the prevention of HIV and AIDS. And slowly throughout the years we began to see a gradual shift of public campaigns move from broadcast to an interconnect of behavioural economics through to public policy.

But before this, for over 60 years one important agency in the UK took the reign on commissioning public information films, government advertising and publicity campaigns – The Central Office of Information (COI). Ultimately the reasons behind its’ closure came down to costs. Of course, public campaigns cost quite a sum of money and the general consensus was that if millions of government funds from the public purse were to be spent on advertising, then these campaigns would need to demonstrate their value. The consequent actions of this happening was that without the COI in place, the government then took to questioning every aspect of campaigns in an attempt to establish their effectiveness, value and return on investment. It’s important to understand here that whilst media campaigns have had a moderate impact on the reduction of smoking, promotion of road safety and potential heart-attack and stroke symptoms, relatively few campaigns have been formally evaluated and when they have they have been focussed on understanding whether people retained and understood the message, and even if they liked them. The weight of this is seen specifically in relation to the widespread anti-drugs campaigns we saw then and are seeing again now with the highest drug mortality rate in Scotland.

To reiterate my earlier point, the evolution of campaigns has made it such that we are better placed to determine what impact they have. The shift into the behavioural sciences and technologies has been an amazing success in itself. The government is able to see the value in that and an obvious clear example of this is the success of the Behavioural Insights Team (a business that  the Cabinet Office team dubbed ‘The Nudge Unit’) making a staggering £14m revenue per year and now independently co-owned and working across the globe.

I believe The Nudge Unit might be the exception to the rule, we still need to ask if government communication services are the best way to get the positive impact and results we all seek out of effective campaigns. They can make a huge difference, but they are also part of a larger framework which aligned to behavioural science and insight can deliver the best results but requires a critical amount of consideration – you need to involve a number of partners.

And why is this all important today? This brief overview of the past is hopefully useful to inform the aforementioned drug mortality rate in Scotland which has risen by 27% in the last year and is higher than the EU and America. An excellent example of a successful behaviour change campaign comes from the very same nation. In May 2001, the ‘Know The Score’ campaign was launched and funded by the Crime Committee of the Association of Chief Police Officers. One of the key factors to its success is that it was funded by the police. The focus was to call for the decriminalisation of drug users, reverting the attention more to the source than the victims. ‘Know The Score’ managed to create a larger awareness of drug use by encouraging seeking out healthier lifestyles.

Ultimately, we have a responsibility to act ethically and that is the only way an evaluation of the impact behind these campaigns can be achieved. This means looking at the bigger picture, encouraging collaboration, partnerships and learning from conception to delivery.

Deeper analysis of this campaign uncovers what the elements of any good behaviour change campaign are and ultimately why its impact is much greater than for instance, the public information films that run in the 70s. You have to get to the root of the problem, unlike these films which are in comparison ‘safe’. Campaigns must seek to inspire action to drive awareness and understanding on how to spot these issues. Back to the ‘Know the Score’ campaign, its reach successfully targeted the drug dealers and specifically the younger users, yet reaching the older segments was incredibly difficult and arguably still is with most campaigns.

A key component to any campaign is its run time. Taking ‘Know the Score’ as an example again, only was run between May to September 2001 and yet there was a 12% rise in drug enforcement. What Scotland can take from this, and indeed any campaign seeking to have a positive impact to those it is aimed at, is to first have roots in the community. At The Team, working on campaign work for Crimestoppers all the way to carbon monoxide awareness, we have placed high value on seeking to educate all the way from classrooms to the home. Often it is families within harder to reach communities who benefit the most from a good old-fashioned poster at a local surgery or a leaflet through the letterbox. Additionally, it is important to create an ease on how you communicate your content, ensuring that the campaign is easy for an individual to react to and has a clear call to action.

Ultimately, we have a responsibility to act ethically and that is the only way an evaluation of the impact behind these campaigns can be achieved. This means looking at the bigger picture, encouraging collaboration, partnerships and learning from conception to delivery.

With any agency like ours, the impact of our work is only as good as the success that it achieves. We are adept at taking learnings from different sectors in order to help our clients achieve more. I must stress that it is crucial to remain agile to establish the best possible value for your clients.

And in relation to the drug problem in Scotland, I would completely subscribe to what the Behavioural Insights Team would espouse – the right design and acting with integrity and being responsible with the execution of the campaign. We have a responsibility to adhere to ethical codes, protecting individual rights as well as GDPR. All of these have to be in the mix and are critical to what we do in our own agency. This is only a brief demonstration of how to deliver an impactful behaviour change campaign, at the core, the aim is to inspire action and seek to help embed positive change.

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