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How Not To Motivate People

Two similar advertising campaigns are sweeping the US in an attempt to create mass behavioral change through attitude change. One is a somewhat workable attempt with some faults. One flunks in all ways, if one is to take its purported purpose at face value.

One campaign links the purchase of illegal drugs to the support of terrorism. The link is there, but it may be a stretch, so the campaign goes to great lengths to say that supporting terrorism in even a small way is still supporting terrorism. The intent appears to use persuasion and shame and guilt to create attitude change.

The thing about handing people shame and guilt is that they want to get rid of it, and will get rid of it any way they can. Using negatives to motivate is like pushing a rope. You don't know which way the rope will go - mostly it doesn't - and you don't know which way people will go. (Using positives, or positives and negatives, they go toward the positive.) I doubt that this ad has any effect on people who are taking drugs. It may have a prophylactic effect on those who either don't take drugs or those who have taken only a few. I'm not sure of the efficacy of this ad at all.

This ad on drugs has two things working against it. Firstly, any time you use persuasive arguments to try to affect attitude change, you run two risks. One, if you create an airtight argument, then the person feels trapped. The decision is no longer his - it is simply your decision forced on him, and that is not a decision but a position waiting for repeal. People don't like to be forced, and sometimes their only escape is to run in the other direction and ignore the argument. However, those who don't take drugs, and those on the edge may find the argument supportive, and adopt it.

Two, since a counter argument is not presented in the ad, those taking drugs, and those considering it, will tune in to the opposite point of view and use it to nullify the argument. It is much better to fairly present both sides and let the viewer draw his own conclusion. This way it becomes his decision, and this is much more effective. But I am inclined to like the ad because of its possible prophylactic effect on those at risk, and keeping people off of drugs is likely to be much more effective than trying to get users off of drugs.

The other ad campaign is ridiculous on face value. This ad campaign links driving SUVs (sport utility vehicles) with supporting terrorism because SUVs guzzle oil. If the purpose is to get people to think about oil by raising the focus, then they accomplished their task... marginally - but in doing so they have probably discredited their cause.

The ad appears to try to manipulate public opinion by making those who drive SUVs, or are considering purchasing one, to feel publicly humiliated. It also appears to establish a link between hostilities and oil. This is a similar posture used to shame gas guzzling vehicle owners to downsize their vehicles when the speed limit was lowered to 55 to conserve petroleum in the '70s.

I'm sure the campaign has some shame producing effect. Yet it is more likely to backfire. The argument is simply faulty. US use of oil supports many Latin American and Arab nations - this is a good thing. Some of the money may get funneled by a few sympathizers to support terrorists, but largely not. This can happen in any economic enterprise. The idea that using less oil will impact the amount of money given to terrorists is a far stretch.

As a counter argument, if the "oil to terrorism" argument was so, use of energy of any kind supports terrorism. Anyone who heats their home, even with electricity, may ultimately use petroleum based resources. Anyone who drives any car or other vehicle is using oil. Anyone who buys products that are shipped across the country is using oil. Anyone who purchases any product made of plastic is using oil. Anyone who gets medical care uses products made from oil. The list is endless, and when thoroughly considered, using this argument to shame people into curtailing oil use may be a somewhat valid argument, but an absurd and impractical one. The inescapable conclusion (to me) is that if we all don't get out of bed in the morning, we will use a minimum amount of oil - anything else supports terrorism. Any economic activity can be shown to be tied to terrorism by only a few degrees of separation. Humbug!

This ad also linked oil to Middle East hostilities. Symbols like "oil" are an easy way to focus public attention on a cause. For example, political slogans, like "I Like Ike," have often been used to rally the public. The phrase, "I like Ike," is a symbol that carries the attributes of President Eisenhower in a positive way, creating public solidity. Calls to "freedom" and "democracy" are similar rallying cries, and were used effectively by President Bush in his January 2003 State Of The Union Address. He called them God given rights for all nations. Anyway, linking hostilities with oil is a rallying cry that creates a symbol to cause people to focus on an economic aspect of war - whether true or not. At minimum it reduces the conflict to a distorted oversimplification.

Oil is just one of several considerations in Iraq. Why? Stability in Iraq is vital to the world. The impact of major changes in the supply of any raw material can be devastating. When oil prices skyrocket, manufacturing declines, and people lose their income, their homes, and the ability to pay their bills. Products like heating oil become unaffordable, so people can't heat their homes. People who live on the margins of economic viability can't survive. The elderly and sick in Moscow and Chicago freeze to death (or die of heat exhaustion), and the plight of people the world over is worsened. The world is currently forced to do business with Sadam Hussein, who is unpredictable and merciless, and openly hates the US and the Western world with whom he does business. Reigning in terrorism and people like Sadam Hussein makes the world a much better place for every person.

Framing any conflict in terms of oil creates a misperception in the public mind about what conflicts are about, and should be avoided. Linking oil to terrorism is a bad misstep.

This ad is manipulative of public opinion, and again tries to leave people with no choice through using a "persuasive" argument. Unfortunately the case falls apart and brings the wrath of the viewer back on the speaker. I don't own an SUV, and don't want one, but the misinformational and manipulative aspects of the ad nearly made me irritated enough to go purchase an SUV.

I have to wonder about opinion molding that is built on frivolous arguments. What is the real motive? Is this really an attempt by those who oppose war to link war with oil? Another example, FOX News network casts other networks, particularly NPR (National Public Radio) as "wimpy liberals," (my words) while cultivating their, I guess, "powerful conservative" image. There is bias in any newscast, of course, and certainly NPR should look at itself critically. But I usually find that NPR gives attention to both sides of an issue, and provides a thorough coverage not available in the typical half hour newscast. Is FOX News building its audience by creating a false image (straw man villain) of other networks? They really don't have to - in their youthful zeal, they do go after the meat in stories that other networks miss because of their attempts to be fair, cautious, and on the larger stories.

The main disasterous effect of trying to improperly mold public opinion is shooting your credibility in the foot by putting doubt where confidence should be.

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