During my recent trip to New York City, I spent quite a bit of time sitting in taxis—taxis with ads that endlessly drill messages into your thoughts. I’ve never watched much TV, so my brain hasn’t evolved that uniquely American ability to tune out the mind-numbing commercials. As hard as I try, I just can’t look away when there’s a TV in sight.
As the commercials looped, one ad stood out to me and had me grinding my teeth each time it popped onto the screen. It wasn’t that it looked like an old-fashioned PSA, or because its protagonist donned a charmingly insincere Mr. Rogers smile. No—this ad grabbed me because of its heartbreaking ignorance of basic psychology. The goal of this ad was to get passengers to buckle up for safety, but its method was painfully misguided.
A number of strategies have been used over the years to get people to buckle their belts. For example, we have:
• Laws. This map shows the seatbelt laws in all US states, and according to the National Safety Council, seatbelt use is 13% higher in states with primary enforcement (meaning you can get stopped and ticketed just for not wearing a seatbelt) than those with secondary enforcement (88% versus 75%).
• Penalties. Although people are probably not thinking about the $69 fine they might have to pay or even the drivers license points they could rack up if they get caught, it is possible that some people may buckle up to avoid these consequences.
• Enforcement. Here, we’re talking about high-visibility enforcement such as checkpoints where all cars are stopped to check for seatbelt usage.
• Incentive awards for police officers to give tickets (ranging from small model cars awarded to individual police officers to much larger grants for police agencies).
• “Click it or Ticket.” This campaign has been particularly effective because it serves as a reminder of the immediate stakes (getting a ticket), even though they are smaller than the larger consequences (such as sustaining an injury in an accident). Reward substitution works. Fun fact: the campaign began in North Carolina, home of the Center for Advanced Hindsight, and was adopted by other states because of its success (most likely due to its catchy name).
• Safety belt reminder systems. These excruciatingly loud alarms get my passengers to buckle up in record time.
• Safety belt ignition interlocks. Some cars will refuse to start until all belts are in, although you can imagine why the idea hasn’t gained much traction.
• Education. Teaching children about seatbelt safety in school, while not an official persuasion method that I can find in any academic paper, has turned diligent recycling enthusiasts who just say no to drugs into relentless seatbelt reminder machines. I imagine that if our kids were the enforcers of just about anything, we would all be better off.
Some of these strategies work better than others, but none of them are actually detrimental to seatbelt compliance. And yet this taxicab ad, which I was forced to watch over and over in agony, conspicuously ignored what we know to be a primary motivator of behavior: social validation.
The ad gave one pivotal piece of information, which you can see in the accompanying photo: “60% of taxi passengers do not buckle up.” This kind of scare tactic is ineffective because it simply sends the wrong message.
Robert Cialdini has shown over and over again that social proof is an intoxicating principle of persuasion. We look to others to decide what to do, and when we are told about how most people behave in a given situation, we are likely to follow their lead. (This is why “word of mouth” can be so powerful, and companies pay top dollar to try and influence what their customers tell their friends.)
So, what message does this ad convey to cab riders?
This statement gives an implicit recommendation, noting that most people do not wear seatbelts. As social creatures, we look to others to determine how to behave in all kinds of situations, and riding in a taxi is no different. Rather than encouraging seatbelt use, this statement lets seatbelt-wearers know that they are in the minority while giving non-seatbelt wearers the comfort of knowing that their behavior is normal. It doesn’t matter why the majority doesn’t wear seat belts—whether it is uncool, unsanitary, too much of a hassle, or even unsafe—now they know that most people don’t do it, and that’s a good enough reason to go along with the flow.
If you want to persuade people to wear seatbelts, you should tell them that 84% of people in the US do wear seatbelts. Or you can further tap into group identity by noting that 90% of New Yorkers wear seatbelts.
It’s a shame that a message as important as “wear a seatbelt” could be so badly butchered. If companies have figured out how to use the concept of social proof to get people to spend more money, why can’t our safety promoters figure out how to use it to get us to make better decisions?
For a quick review of all six of Cialdini’s principles of persuasion (reciprocation, consistency, social validation, liking, authority and scarcity), see this article.
P.S. Some friends have informed me that you can simply turn off the taxicab TV. Noted for next time.