Monday, August 25, 2008

An attempt to encourage virtuous behavior backfires

An ad on the side of the Muni subway in San Francisco. It seeks to create a little more social harmony by giving people a reason why they should be nice, in this instance, road users being more courteous to each others.

It seems reasonable. Give as good as you get. A cosmic harmony of goodwill will be returned. But that's precisely the flaw. It creates an unsustainable expectation. If we are encouraged to behave in a specific way from a literal expectation of reciprocity, then when it doesn't happen the behavior will collapse.

The strategically smarter approach would have been to create value that's not so literally dependent on other people's cooperation.

The Liberty Mutual Campaign in a case in point. (Let's put aside the issue of how feasible it is for an insurance company to build its business on a platform of responsibility when the underlying format of a policy and the claim resolution experience are destined to violate it and therefore dash expectations it has helped create.) If this kind of approach had been leveraged for 'social issue' communication, we at OFD think it would have been more compelling.

The premise of the Liberty Mutual commercial is of people doing some small act of good for the sake of it, which happens to be seen and inspires people to copy, in a 'Pay It Forward' kind of way. Enacting the behavior does not require reciprocity. The motivation to give comes from an acknowledgment and understanding of life's interdependency, one in which we might not be aware of how the connections are made, but taps into the truth that they are, and that it benefits us. So it gracefully dodges the flat-footed rationality of literal reciprocity which the 'social issue' communication is rooted in and which trips it up.

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