More Powerful Than Heroin: Using Cultural Stories To Connect

PhotobucketTobacco is one of the most addictive substances on the planet. It was way back in 1987—a quarter century ago—that smokers were first told that it was easier to give up heroin than cigarettes.

Today, the CDC reports that 19.3% of American adults smoke. That’s nearly one in five, which is pretty bad. In Thailand, the numbers are jaw-droppingly worse.  27% of the entire Thai adult population smokes.  46% of adult men do: that’s nearly every other guy you meet!

Thailand’s government is very interested in reducing the numbers of people who smoke.  They’ve used a video campaign that we think is fascinating, because it deals in a very complete and sophisticated way with one of the most important unconscious psychological factors that influences people’s behavior: the cultural story.

Connect With Your Customers: The Cultural Story

The video begins with images of people standing outdoors, smoking.  Some people are standing alone, while other people are standing in small groups. A small child, not even yet into their teenage years, approaches, pulls a cigarette out of their pocket, and asks for a light.

In every instance, the adults refused to light the child’s cigarette. In fact, the vast majority of the adults went on to tell the child why they shouldn’t smoke at all. One woman told the child how cigarettes contained insecticide, while another man talked about the many diseases associated with smoking. Still another man talked to the child about not being able to play and have fun if they smoked.

(You can see the video for yourself here, in this Adweek story.)

Ok. Let’s take a break for a moment and look at what is happening here.

All of these adults, the ones who are refusing to light the child’s cigarette, are sharing a contemporary cultural story with them. In this complex narrative, tobacco plays the ultimate bad guy. The adults take on the role of wise adviser or guru in this tale. It’s their job to prepare the child—a hero-in-training who doesn’t even know they’re in peril—with the warnings and wisdom they’ll need to prevail over the looming peril of addiction.

When we watch the adults telling this cultural tale, we can see that they’re really invested in the storytelling. They feel compelled to not only share this story, but to share it in the most effective way possible.  There’s a real effort to share the anti-smoking rhetoric in a way that the children will understand and find relevant to their experience.

Think about the man who talked about the child not being able to play any more. He didn’t tell this kid, “Someday you’ll experience decreased cardiac function if you keep this up!” or “In 30 years, you won’t even be able to think of taking the stairs!”  All of that would have been meaningless to the kid. The adult focused on the benefit that would matter most to the child—and he did this intuitively, automatically, reacting to the child’s request within seconds.

That’s a powerful demonstration of the power cultural stories have upon us. These narratives surround us, making up the subtle cultural background of our lives. If you asked any of the adults in that commercial, chances are none of them are professional anti-tobacco educators. But the role of the cultural story that smoking is bad, especially for children plays in the society is so pervasive and overwhelming that when presented with the actuality of smoking children, these individuals  felt compelled to reinforce the narrative.  They may not be professional anti-tobacco educators, but they did quite an impressive job as amateurs.

The Power of Cultural Narratives

As marketers, we need to understand which cultural narratives affect our customers the most. We also need to know how our customers see themselves in relation to that cultural narrative. And for that, boys and girls, let’s go back to commercial:

After hearing the adult’s reasons for refusing them the light, the children handed the adults a note, and then quickly left the area. The note read, “You worry about me, but why not worry about yourself?” along with a helpline number. Many of the adults threw their cigarettes away at that point. All of the adults approached retained the brochure; the helpline experienced a 40% increase in calls.

What happened? Ogilivy Thailand, which produced the campaign, did two very smart things here. In Thailand, as in much of the world, the cultural norm is that children are the ones stories—especially instructional, moralistic stories—are told to. They’re not the ones who tell the instructional, moralistic story. By placing the child in the counter-intuitive role of the wise adviser or guide, the unconscious is shocked into a new state of awareness and receptivity. The adult who was not aware they were being taught at all find themselves overwhelmed by the wisdom of the lesson they received.

This cognitive shift is accompanied by the realization that one’s role in relation to the cultural story has also changed. The adults who were, in the first version of the tale, the powerful wise adviser and guide, can now regard themselves as the child’s role: they themselves can be the hero-in-training, preparing to fight off tobacco’s addictive powers.

Changing your role in a cultural story is a powerful thing.  The call to be a hero—especially if it comes at the right time—can transform a life. We don’t know yet how many of those helpline calls will result in someone giving up cigarettes for good, but we feel safe in saying that it’ll be more than a few.

Understanding the unconscious, and leveraging that understanding to create effective messaging can do amazing things. If this knowledge can be used to break consumers free of one of the most addictive substances on the planet, what can it do for your brand?  That’s something well worth thinking about!

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