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What the Yuck? Disgust Ads Work Better to Change Behavior
By: Dwayne W. Waite Jr.
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Decision-making in humans is a fascinating study. Like behavioral economist Dan Ariela says, we are predictably irrational creatures. When it comes to positive and negative reinforcement, we all clamor for the former but respond faster to the latter. Why is that? In our society, we are risk-averse, meaning that we place more emphasis on loss than gain. The risk of loss scares us. The same theory can be applied to health. A study at Arizona State University done earlier this year suggests that consumers are moved to action faster when presented with ads that disgust them.

Andrea Morales, a professor from ASU and one of the lead researchers of the study, says that consumers must be "scared into action," especially when it comes to health. For the study, Morales showed students samples of advertising that had a goal to prevent the use of methamphetamines. The ads included printed copy about the use of the drugs, a picture of the coffin, and a picture of a meth user with open sores on his face. As one would imagine, the picture of the meth user was voted by the students as the more powerful and disgusting of the ads.

The fear that our own bodies could look like that meth user motivates people not to do them faster than something less disgusting, or showing the benefits of being healthy. It is no surprise then why tobacco companies are so vehemently against the federal government's attempt to put graphic photos on cigarette cases; the companies see the writing on the wall. Thank goodness for freedom of speech. The tobacco companies are free to put almost whatever they want on their packages.

Other programs have shown that this kind of shock ad works. In NYC, the sale of high-sugar beverages fell 12% after an advertising campaign from the city's health department that pictured soda as fat globs. And Thomas Friedman of the CDC noted that in their anti-smoking campaigns, hard-hitting ads have a positive correlation to areas that had high-quitting rates. That's why the HHS and CDC were thrilled to launch its "Tips from Former Smokers" campaign. The are bound to see some results.

As there are more ways to skin a cat, to change consumer behavior, the more disgusting visual works best.


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About the Author
Dwayne W. Waite Jr. is partner and principal at JDW: The Charlotte Agency, a marketing and advertising shop in Charlotte, NC. He enjoys consumer behavior, economics, and football.
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