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Attention, Interest, Desire, Action. The AIDA model. Been around forever. Since 1925 in fact. And it works. Well, half of it works. And the half that works only works for product or lifestyles that speak to our selfish desires. Nothing wrong with that other than it’s an incomplete approach when making sustainability communication.

Speaking to our selfish desires is the reason car advertising works much better than anti-speeding messages. Let’s take this example further: The first is trying to create the desire for speed, freedom, style, conspicuous consumption; The second, trying to create desire for restraint, consideration, injunction, regulation, and conspicuous conformity.

Ewwww. The second approach is wrong – like having a party clown host a funeral.


And talking of funerals, most anti-speeding messages using the AIDA model dramatise the outcome of speed in the form of dead children in some way.

Not speeding

So far so scary. And it certainly makes you think. But thinking isn’t doing, and there are more effective ways of changing speeding behaviour, which takes us to the glamourous Lanarkshire Council (UK) where they have speed signs that show drivers their speed, and then a ‘smiley face’ if they’re below the limit, or a ‘sad face’ if they’re above it.

The results?

  • – the number of people exceeding the speed limit has fallen by 53%
  • – Average speed reduction of 2.5mph at these locations
  • – Maximum reduction 14mph
  • – Cost perhaps 98% less to operate annually than a speed camera

Reducing CO2

The TV part of the current Act on CO2 campaign in the UK feels a lot like our ‘clown at a funeral’ because it’s trying to create desire for restraint/consideration/injunction/regulation/conspicuous conformity using AIDA. It’s packed full of information about the problem, and represented by images of the problem.

A basic bit of social norms thrown in would change the approach completely – like Chief Iron Eyes Cody…

The eyes have it

You have to be very careful what you show in an ad, as much as what you say. The Chief Iron Eyes Cody littering campaign in the US has a liberal use of littering imagery in the advert reinforcing the damaging message that many people do, in fact, litter.

What you need to do is create the ‘norm’ that lots of people are already walking, and cars are the ludicrous alternative: a single car trying to squeeze last a bunch of carefee people walking down a lane from a country pub; a single car edging through a crowd in a shopping area, etc.

And you’d want to focus the message (you could still use TV ads) in locations where walking or cycling is a do-able alternative. Anything else would be a waste.

Pushing at an open door

In a Scientific American article called ‘How to Get More Bicyclists on the Road’ the question is asked When’s the right time to heavily promote cycling?

“…forget about all the detailed ‘bikeability indexes’—just measure the proportion of cyclists who are female” Jan Garrard, Senior lecturer at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia.

Women are considered an ‘indicator species’ because:

  1. – They are more risk-averse than men
  2. Do most of the childcare
  3. – Do most of the household shopping

Bike routes that are organized around practical urban destinations are highly likely to be successful – and consistently so. [slideshare slideshow: As soon as incentive programs are discontinued behaviour tends to flop back]

Creating Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action works perfectly well except when trying to create desire for restraint. Appealing to people’s greater good invariably falls on deaf ears. In those instances social psychology is the way to create desire where there is none, or indeed, create desire without anyone knowing that you did.

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Oliver Payne is author of the behavioural communication book Inspiring Sustainable Behaviour: 19 Ways To Ask For Change published by Routledge, available in most countries.
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