The Iron Eyes Cody spot featuring an American Indian surveying a littered landscape and shedding a single, dramatic tear is one of the nation’s most famous public service announcements. But what if it actually encouraged littering? Here’s what went wrong with this TV ad — and how to keep your own social change campaigns from promoting the very behavior you are trying to prevent.
First, a refresher. The Crying Indian PSA was launched on Earth Day 1971 by Keep America Beautiful. It ran for years and was named one of the top 100 advertising campaigns of the 20th century by Ad Age Magazine, and has been widely credited with inspiring America's fledgling environmental movement.
But Robert Cialdini, a psychology professor at Arizona State University who has extensively studied social norms, points out that the ad makes a mistake that is still common among many environmental and public health efforts. “There is an understandable, but misguided, tendency to try to mobilize action against a problem by depicting it as regrettably frequent,” he notes.
Two key types of social norms
So why is emphasizing the problem such a problem? Doesn’t playing up the pervasiveness of an issue increase the urgency for action? To understand how this approach can backfire, it’s helpful to understand the difference between two key types of social norms:
- Descriptive norms that describe what most people do.
- Injunctive norms that are the shoulds and shouldn'ts of a social group. They are the broadly perceived (and sometimes unspoken) rules about which behaviors get a social stamp of approval, and which ones don’t.
Both descriptive and injunctive social norms can be powerful drivers of behavior — and they are even more powerful when paired together. But when used incorrectly, they can work against each other to unintentionally cue the behavior you are trying to stop.
If a bad behavior is so common, why should I change?
In the Crying Indian spot, for example, the injunctive norm is clear. Litter is bad, and the people who toss out the trash that lands at Iron Eyes Cody’s feet are bad, too.
But the littered landscape that he sadly surveys cues a different message: tossing aside trash is normal behavior. Multiple studies have shown that people are more likely to litter when an area already has litter in it. Visual cues that others are littering — in real life or in an ad — take away the sting of any injunctive norms and demotivate better behavior. After all, if I keep littering I am no worse than everyone else. And besides, if my small contribution won’t make a dent in the problem, why bother?
Three tips for using norms effectively
Here how to harness the power of social norms and keep your messages from backfiring.
- Make sure your descriptive norms describe behavior you favor. By now you’ve probably heard about the research that led to the signs you find in many hotel rooms stating that most guests use their towels more than once. Studies show this simple descriptive norm significantly increases how often guests reuse towels, which in turn saves water and energy. On the other hand, when I helped my son move into the dorms for his freshman year, some well-meaning person had posted a descriptive norms ad that …. confirmed the university’s party-school reputation. The poster stating that “4 in 10 students don’t drink when hanging out” was a great way to send my son in search of the kids with the keg.
- Lies, damn lies, and statistics. If most people are doing the behavior you want to discourage, you can promote descriptive norms (like not binge drinking) for early adopters or influencers your audience admires. But you can’t just make stuff up. Like the time when we were working with public school administrators who ran a descriptive norms campaign that stated that 9 out of 10 high school students didn’t drink for fun. They cooked the statistics by including data for middle schoolers, who (thankfully) don’t tend to drink as much as older kids. Asked in a survey whether the ad campaign was believable, one 12th-grader said. “No. Because everyone I know drinks.”
Lies kill your credibility. People are quick to sniff out stuff you have made up. Like the fact that Iron Eyes Cody was actually an Italian American from Louisiana.
- Be careful with wagging your finger. If you want to dive deep into why trying to guilt people into a behavior can make them do the opposite, read the blog post I wrote on the Theory of Psychological Reactance. But for now, it’s enough to simply state the obvious fact that most people don’t like to be told what to do.
That’s why at Marketing for Change, our social norms campaigns nearly always assume our target audience is doing the right thing — even when some of them clearly aren’t. For example, our long-running Fifth Guy flu prevention hand-washing campaign leveraged both a descriptive norm — 4 out of 5 people wash their hands after using the restroom — plus an injunctive norm — not washing your hands is gross. But instead of saying don’t be the Fifth Guy, we invited our target audience into the in-group by asking, could someone talk to the Fifth Guy?
Don’t forget to evaluate your results
Did the Crying Indian PSA help or hurt anti-littering causes? Since there are no studies linking campaign exposure to changes in littering behavior, we don’t know. A 2009 survey by Keep America Beautiful did find that only 15% of Americans reported littering in the previous month, down from 50% in 1968. But the same study also found that Americans lie about their littering behavior. In intercept interviews conducted right after people were observed littering, 35% said they had not littered in the past month even though they had just tossed trash on the ground. And while the report found that the count of overall litter is down by 61% since 1969, that could just as easily be due to the fact that our nation spends $11.5 billion a year on litter cleanup and prevention.
Equally important for any social change campaign is to analyze whether you are tackling the correct problem. For example, some historians and scholars believe that anti-littering efforts were started by packaged goods manufacturers as a way to shift the social narrative away from corporate responsibility for producing so much garbage to individual responsibility for cleaning it up.
Individual behavior change can be a key component of social change. But sometimes we also need policy solutions to get us out of a really big mess.
Sara is the director of strategy and planning at Marketing for Change.
Want to learn more about the behavioral determinants that drive what people do? Check out this resource.