Art and Persuasion
May 13, 2012, 10:43 pm
Filed under: Editorializing, Ideas, Research

In 1995, the new mayor of Bogota, Colombia, set out to address the gridlock and jaywalking that were bringing his city’s streets to a standstill. His solution didn’t involve police or fines, yet it worked so well it was emulated in five other Latin American countries. What did this mayor know about changing behavior that we don’t?

Our usual approaches to changing people’s minds – quoting facts, yelling louder, calling in mom/the police/the military,  and ganging up/getting out the vote – are of limited effectiveness. Even if you get your way today, the cost and effort of keeping the unconvinced on your side can be substantial. So if not by force or facts, how do you win over hearts and minds?

Not to get homeopathic about it, but think about what else gets you as intensely worked up as politics and religion. If I may suggest an answer: good stories. But as opposed to debates, good stories immerse you in suspense rather than in what your next rebuttal will be.

What do (better) advertising agencies do when they’re trying to convince you to buy something? They don’t inundate you with facts; they do weave a story around the product. These can be completely absurd – polar bears opening soda cans, spray-on deodorant transforming geeks into studs, and nine out of ten dentists throwing their support behind a different product every 30 minutes or so.  But they must be at least somewhat effective to warrant $237 billion in one year in one country (total US ad spend in 2002).

Stories get your imagination working. Stories suppress your urge to argue. But above all else, stories define the perception of normal. And normal is a big deal. Normal is powerful. Normal is what you want to change when you aim to sway behavior.

Starbucks’ triumph was in convincing you it’s normal for a coffee (of their quality) to cost $4. Gay activists’ triumph is in convincing you that it’s normal for people who love each other to be able to marry, even if they are of the same gender. Normal is fundamental to both mundane and sacred.

In Bogota, horrendous traffic was normal. In Tanzania, intergenerational sex (read: old men seducing young girls, exposing them to outsized risk of HIV infection) was normal. To combat this problem, a coalition of local and international groups partnered to tell a story.

The Fataki campaign in Tanzania created a character (named Fataki) that routinely tried to seduce young girls. The girls, their families, and their communities routinely said no and generally made a mockery out of Fataki and his type. The radio ads gave people not just the courage to speak out, but the words with which to do so: “don’t be a Fataki.”

Educational entertainment has also been used elsewhere. Sesame Workshop’s programs around the world (and their partners) demonstrate how even humans and monsters can live peacefully and happily together. In Rwanda, the Musekeweya radio soap operas sought to establish norms of peaceful coexistence and cooperation within a country recently torn apart by genocide. In India, where past efforts at forced sterilization are still vividly remembered, Tinka Tinka Sukh introduced smaller family size as a characteristic of its ideal family. Without intending to do so, the small families portrayed in Brazil’s popular  telenovelas seem to have had a hand in reducing birth rates in that country.

One key element of these interventions is that they also provide a behavioral channel – that is, a relatively clear means of moving toward the desired goal, be it avoiding the advances of older men, engaging peacefully with neighbors, or planning family size. Contrast this to activism surrounding climate change or poverty reduction. If you drive to work, how are you going to stop using oil? If you have trouble affording your kids’ college tuition, how are you supposed to help cure malaria in Africa?

This essential ingredient is imbedded in the more inspired campaigns of the Yes Men, who impersonate corporations and government agencies to propose an alternate reality. So, for instance, as Dow Chemical, the Yes Men outlined steps they would take to address the lingering effects of the Bhopal disaster in India; as HUD, they proposed a way forward to get people back into their homes in New Orleans after the hurricanes of 2005; as the New York Times, they wrote article after article of good events they’d like to see come to fruition in the near future. Where fear and attachment to the current normal may limit organizational imagination, the Yes Men lay out a plan and give a glimpse at how society would receive the news.

Storytelling invites a comparison between the world we know and the worlds we experience through imagination. And the stories need not be written with activism in mind. It’s not a coincidence that The Wizard of Oz is so handy a metaphor for the financial system: it was written as an allegory for the financial system at the time (gold and silver and greenbacks, oh my). But James Cameron’s film Avatar was adopted after its release by an NGO claiming to represent “the real Dongria tribe” in their fight against Vedanta Resources in India; the comparison helped fuel the campaign, which succeeded in halting the mining project. Once we have identified how we feel in a fictional scenario, cognitive dissonance motivates us to be consistent when we confront a similar situation outside the movie theater.

But more than that, stories give us a shared vocabulary. How many times have you found in a situation that reminded you of an episode of Friends or Sex and the City? In fact, I’m reminded of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Darmok,” season 5, episode 2, if you must know) in which the captain meets an alien race that communicates only through references to an epic tale. The alien expresses failure by referencing “Shaka, when the walls fell” and comprehension as “Sokath, his eyes uncovered.” Your uncle may be a little crazy, but is he Jack Nicholson crazy or Adam Sandler crazy? I’m willing to bet you know the difference.

The use of stories to define norms in search of a more moral world is not uniquely liberal nor by any means new. Medieval Europe had its morality plays; Christianity has its parables; and every culture has its common law of stories to whip out as examples whenever it’s unclear what line of action a situation calls for. [Though we should remember that these stories can as easily oppress and deceive as bring peace and enlightenment.]

Sometimes the stories are about the villains rather than the heroes. They’re not about what we should do but about what we shouldn’t do. But, as engaging narratives, they may draw us in so close that we miss the point. The Yes Men highlighted the absurdity of petroleum consumption by offering candles ostensibly made of human flesh to a conference audience, and offshoring jobs to sweatshops in developing countries by creating a phallic manager’s suit for round-the-clock surveillance without the need for long flights and insect repellent. Not unlike Stephen Colbert’s schtick on television, this is prime satire … but yet it often misses its mark. Some who have been taken in by the charade have been caught on camera talking excitedly with the confused Yes Men, apparently oblivious to the ruse. But even those who “get it” are left without a clear direction for what action to take. They share the same weakness at other attempts at awareness raising. They have no behavioral channel, in the words of psychologists. The story lacks an ending.

Yet sometimes the villain’s tale hits its mark exactly. People in Bogota knew how not to cause gridlock, how not to jaywalk, and simply needed the motivation to do so (and some assurance that they would not be the lone schmucks following the law). What convinced them was a brigade of mimes, making them the unwilling stars of street theater. With mimes following them across the street or mocking them while stuck in unmoving traffic, citizens became uncomfortable with the story they were telling … so they rewrote it and became the heroes the mayor hoped they would be.

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