The Power of Cultural Narratives

Tobacco. It’s one of the most addictive substances on the planet.

Back in 1987, smokers were first told that it is easier to give up heroin than cigarettes.

Today, the CDC reports that nearly 20% of American adults smoke. Nearly one in five. That’s pretty bad.

In Thailand, the numbers are worse: 27% of the entire Thai adult population smokes and 46% of adult men. That’s nearly every other guy you meet!

Thailand’s government is very interested in reducing the numbers of people who smoke.  They used a video campaign that draws on one of the most important psychological forces that influences people’s behavior: cultural narratives.

Every Cultural Narrative Holds a Tension

The video begins with images of people standing outdoors, smoking. A small child, not even yet into his teens, 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 diseases associated with smoking. Still another man talked about not being able to play and have fun if they smoked.

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 narrative, tobacco plays the ultimate bad guy.

Cultural Narratives are Alive Within Us

The adults take on the role of wise adviser or guru in this tale. It’s their job to prepare the child 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 see that they’re really invested in telling the story. They feel compelled to not only share this story, but to share it in the most effective way possible.

Think about the man who talked about the child not being able to play any more.

He doesn’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!”

These statements would be meaningless to the child.

Instead, the adult focused on the benefit that would matter most to the child. He did this intuitively and automatically, reacting to the child’s request within seconds.

Connect with Your Customers Through Cultural Stories

This is a powerful demonstration of the power cultural stories have upon us. These narratives surround us, making up the subtle cultural background of our lives.

The role of the cultural story that smoking is bad, especially for children, is so pervasive that these adults felt compelled to reinforce the narrative—even though they were smoking at the time!

As business leaders, 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 to see why, let’s go back to the commercial.

After hearing the adult’s reasons for refusing them the light, the children handed the adults a note, and then quickly left.

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. All of the adults retained the brochure. The helpline experienced a 40% increase in calls.

Empowering Your Customers as Heroes of their Adventure

In Thailand, as in much of the world, the cultural norm is that we tell instructional, moralistic stories mainly to children, not vice versa.

By placing the child in the counter-intuitive role of the wise adviser, the subconscious mind of the recipient and the viewers are shocked into a new state of awareness and receptivity.

The adult who was not aware they were being taught, 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 changed.

The adults who were, in the first version of the tale, the wise adviser, can now see themselves in the child’s role: as the hero-in-training, preparing to fight off tobacco’s addictive powers.

The call to be a hero can transform a life, especially if it comes at the right time. We don’t know how many of those helpline calls resulted in someone giving up cigarettes for good, but we feel safe in saying that it’s more than a few.

Understanding the subconscious mind 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 business?  That’s something well worth thinking about.

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