Advertising, Behaviour Change, Behavioural Economics, Marketing Strategy, Persuasion, Predatory Thinking, Social Decision Making

Sperm-bank promotion strategy. It’s a toss-up.

Today the news that the UK’s National Sperm Bank, set up a year ago, has only nine donors so far, and is about to unveil a promotional campaign to ramp-up the volume of in-flows.

I can’t wait.

On the surface, it seems a straightforward problem to solve. But read on…

Turns out the sperm bank needs ‘super-sperm’ not just ordinary, run-of-the-mill, 33-Acacia-Avenue sperm. This is because it needs to survive the constant freezing and unfreezing process inherent in the final customer service procedure (giving infertility sufferers the chance of a child).

Out of 100 potential donor applicants, only ten survive the screening process and only 1 of those 10 will actually become a donor.

The lucky participant must attend the clinic twice a week for four months and, in exchange for £70 a session, abstain from ejaculating for two days before each visit, which essentially ensures an entirely monogamous relationship with the clinic, for the duration of the programme.

And that’s before you get to the customer selection process. People in the market for sperm tend to be quite choosy, apparently. They want donors of 6’ or more, for instance, which rules out 90% of potential UK donors straight away. And they all want doctors or barristers – most of whom are too busy, too rich, or both, to sign up.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that most donated sperm in the UK currently comes from Denmark and USA.

The forthcoming advertising campaign will ape a successful precedent in Denmark, in which men are challenged to prove their manliness by demonstrating the ‘vigour’ of their ‘guys’. A follow-up planned for Christmas is going to ask men to consider giving “an alternative Christmas gift”.

I’ll be delighted if either of these approaches works. But I wonder if they’ve learned as fully as they might, the lessons behavioural economics might teach.

In one sense it’s a bit like the Royal Marines campaign, which broadcasts the fact that 99% need not apply. “We’re only for the hardest nuts,” they say.

But the sperm-bank version would have to be – surely – “Have you got the ballsiest, bounciest swimmers in the business? (And are you also over 6’, handsome, intelligent, well adjusted and gainfully employed in a respected professional occupation). If so come and subject yourself to our test and win yourself the prize of wanking into a test-tube for four months in exchange for not much money and the eternal admiration of all your friends – who you’ll definitely tell straight away”.

Better surely to normalise the act of one-off donation, along the lines of blood donorship (where they don’t tell you – and please don’t ask – how many already donated blood samples need to be excluded from the transfusion bank).

That way the largest possible number of men could begin to imagine it was normal, your duty even, to donate, without becoming alarmed as to the potential consequences or commitment.

Once you’ve got your contingent of suitable donors in through the door, you could then explain what they’ve got themselves, and their “guys”, into.

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Advertising, Behaviour Change, Equality, Moral Decision Making, Persuasion, Social Decision Making

Can we all agree to agree? Just sometimes?

I listened to Peter Hitchens’ piece on Stigma yesterday evening on the wireless. You’ll be able to get the full blast on iPlayer for the next few days.

He was arguing that, whilst we often pretend that our society has moved beyond stigma as a controlling force, it is actually alive and well – in a new and disturbing form.

Stimga itself, he suggested, has become stigmatised.

Postulating critical or even questioning views on the situations and lifestyle choices of others is now beyond the pale.

Try and share any kind of non-majority opinion about the way someone else lives, and prepare to be hounded by the Twitterati and Arsebookers with their digital pitchforks and burning e-torches.

It made me wonder about the film we’ve just done for Stonewall, the LGB charity (www.NoBystanders.org.uk).

It launched last Friday at the Stonewall 25th anniversary dinner – and has subsequently been shared (a lot) online.

Übertweeters Caitlin Moran, Stephen Fry, Danii Minogue, Clare Balding, Dame Penelope Keith and countless millions of others have supported, much to our – and Stonewall’s – delight. The elusive Zeitgeist seems to be with us, for a change.

The idea behind it, on the eve of the first actual gay marriages, was to make two points:

Firstly, even in our apparently permissive society, gay people are still routinely teased, bullied and discriminated against in schools, in workplaces and in public areas, up and down the country.

Secondly, the roots of homophobic bullying are similar to bullying levelled against any kind of separately identifiable group (Jews, Blacks, Honkeys, Fatsos, Gingernuts, Spakkas etc.).

We’ve been talking to  Stonewall about beginning to move beyond the core constituency of gay people they represent, and the liberal intellectuals who support their objectives through an innate sense of socially progressive conviction.

With the big legislative battles more or less won, theoretical equality is sorted.

Now they need to find a way to engage with more socially conservative audiences, who probably still represent an overwhelming majority in the UK, even if they have been cowed into the state of seething, non-PC silence that P. Hitchens outlines.

In this case, it seemed we might be able to forge a bond of togetherness by talking about humans in general, rather than humans in particular: How we tend to define ourselves and our groups not by who we are, but by who we’re not.

My enemy’s enemy is my friend – as the old maxim goes.

Our little film begins in the playground, a place where even the most confident have felt the odd-pang of vulnerability as they suddenly find themselves on the outside of the group, rather than the in. For some, it’s the start of a life-time of alienation and abuse.

It attempts to recognise that gay people are not the only individuals who are marginalised because of things about which they can do little or nothing.

So are we just bullying people ourselves?

Foisting our liberal values on the poor traditionalists who cling to their view of the world as it was bequeathed to them by their forefathers?

Certainly one man seems to think so.

A brave lone voice in the relentless digital agreement-fest stands out. Here’s one of his (many) contributions:

RussellTweet

I truly believe no one at Stonewall wants to force their “perverted” way of life onto this dude. Nor do I.

Really.

We were only trying to see if non-gay people were as against bullying as gay people are. And whether we could forge a huge “alliance of the different” to challenge some of the worst excesses of human nature, that we all share.

Surely there are some things on which we can all agree to agree?

It makes me regret we didn’t include “Bigot” as one of the insults.

And to try and get Mr. Russell to realise he’s just like the rest of us – and welcome him to join us.

On the inside of the tent, pissing outwards.

http://youtu.be/agLrVvCUkzI

 

 

 

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Skydiving, Social Decision Making

Thrillax beats chillax every time

“Why on earth would anyone want to jump out of a perfectly serviceable aeroplane?” everyone asks me.

They always use the same, rather quaint, phrase, “perfectly serviceable aeroplane”, as if they’ve just clambered out of their RAF overalls.

At least it tells me they’ve never been anywhere near a jump ‘plane, which are mostly antique, rotting hulks held together with binder-twine, bubble-gum and gaffer tape.

It’s true that most of us do offer up a silent prayer as we exit the ‘plane at 13,000 feet.

But it’s only for the safety of the poor pilot who has to land the damned thing when he gets down.

We’d all rather trust our parachutes.

So this week, I’m on holiday. Jumping in Eloy, Arizona, home of the largest fleet of jump ‘planes in the world.

And, all credit to the wonderful owners and organisers of Skydive Arizona, this huge fleet is in fact way more than just “perfectly serviceable”.

But still the question persists, so I thought I’d try and give my best shot at an answer.

Most of the studies into so-called ‘dangerous sports’ seem to focus on an imagined enhancement to status and self-esteem amongst those who attempt things that seem brave/foolhardy to others.

This is another way of saying people take risks to get noticed and to get girls.

Actually the research is very conclusive on the subject: the status of a person who puts themselves purposefully at risk is only enhanced when they do so in order to benefit others.

That makes sense, doesn’t it?

Fireman rescues damsel from burning building = hunky hero.
Middle-aged bloke jumping from aeroplane for no ‘good’ reason = feckin’ eedjit.

I’ve heard other skydivers explain away their enthusiasm by distancing themselves from the whole dangerous sports crowd entirely.

And it’s perfectly true that skydiving is way safer than you’d imagine.

You think it’s dangerous because a) it’s unfamiliar, and therefore not to be trusted by ‘normal’ people and b) you’ve almost certainly recently read about skydiving accidents.

Journalists far prefer to write about skydiving accidents than car crashes.

It’s the good old “Availability Heuristic” at work – with added “Recency Effect”!

Using US figures (where more skydiving happens than in every other country combined) there’s 0.0007% chance of dying from a skydive, compared to a 0.0167% chance of dying in a car accident (based on driving 10,000 miles).

Put another way you are about 24 times more likely to die in a car accident than in a skydiving one.

It looks even better when you compare it to other things people consider perfectly safe and normal like riding a bicycle in an urban environment (insane) or any form of equestrianism (probably the single most dangerous activity of all).

Skydiving is all about safety, not about danger.

All about mitigating risks with training and technology.

And the average number of skydiving fatalities per year is almost half of what it used to be in the 1970s.

But these statistic apologists are missing the point too.

We do do it for fun, no question about it.

So what is that fun precisely?

My perspective is that almost all participants in almost every sport benefit from a physiological thrill provided by endorphins.

People who do risky things get the additional benefit from a blast of adrenaline – the body’s drug of last resort.

It’s adrenaline that has helped mothers lift cars that are crushing their children.

It’s adrenaline that explains how indifferent runners can outrun athletes, when they’re in danger.

It helps you focus your mental and physical resources in times of need. And it’s strong stuff.

I skydive to relax.

When I lie on a beach, I worry about all things I ought to be doing at home and at work.

When I read a book, even when I’m really enjoying it, I feel a bit guilty I’m not ‘getting on with something”

When I’m jumping out of a ‘plane I’m thinking about how to get back on the ground in one piece.

And if I do that five or six times a day, I end up physically exhausted with a mind that feels like it’s been down the boot-sale and unloaded a whole attic full of neural junk.

And I’m properly relaxed.

I know I get some of the same benefits from skiing and scuba-diving.

The special appeal of skydiving, to me, is the combination of max-adrenaline (that comes from the high-stakes involved) and high levels of control (equipment, training, focus) that give me the confidence to enjoy it.

As I think of the poor Prime Minister “chillaxing” with his Angry Birds, I wonder whether he wouldn’t be better off thrillaxing with us?

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Behaviour Change, Moral Decision Making, Persuasion, Politics, Social Decision Making

Think you can force through a change as big as Obamacare? Think again.

I want to talk about the controversial healthcare reforms that are causing such a kerfuffle on the other side of the pond.

“That’s rich”, I hear you snigger, “A Brit, with an opinion about US healthcare. Let’s see now…”

Well, it’s true that I barely understand it. So I’m certainly not going to try to explain it to you.

If you want a quick, bluffers’ guide to the “Affordable Care Act”, this is the best one I’ve found:

“It’s complicated”, as they say, even explained by the You Toons.

One joker has even tried to put into infographic form:

ObamacareInfoGraphic

And although people talk about the “closing wonk gap” (i.e. members of the general public figuring out facts about Obamacare that policy wonks on both sides of the debate have known for years), I guess you’d be prepared to agree with me that probably only a fraction of the people who need to understand the ins and outs of the proposed changes, actually properly do.

To give you some extra quick context, the video clip above has been viewed just 1.1 million times, which equates to it been seen by about 0.3% of the US population (Miley’s “Wrecking Ball” is on 327,294,077 views at the time of writing).

This hasn’t stopped anyone taking a position of course. And a strong one at that. There really aren’t very many ambivalent people in the US it seems, when it comes to this particular debate.

And it’s led to the fiercest, most destructive political brinksmanship and grandstanding in most of our living memories.

Why?

The concept is straightforward: Universal access to affordable healthcare ought to be the hallmark of a civilised well-developed society. Even at either extreme of the political spectrum, one ought to be able to get a nod on that, surely?

However even here in little Blighty, our precious NHS, providing care free at the point of use to all, is creaking and cracking as the apparently opposing forces of quality and affordability clash their irreconcilable heads. Even here it’s a nettle with a politically lethal sting.

The implications of realising a goal of this kind in a country (or more accurately countries) as huge and diverse as the United States go straight to the central ideological differences between the Elephant and the Donkey. And this is where the practicality of implementation simply falls apart.

Because democratic politics is really only successful when elected politicians of different persuasions propose, debate, negotiate, vote and repeat until a deal is brokered.

“Obamacare” is the first instance for 100 years where one party has simply steamrollered a bill with huge national implications without garnering any kind of even partial agreement from the opposing party.

To see this more clearly, look at the J. P. Morgan chart below, which shows that almost all the important and controversial bills in living memory were passed with at least some level of participation and consent from both parties in both chambers.

Now look at the bottom and contrast with Obamacare.

Obamacare JPM 1

The Democrats inability to empathise with their opponents implacable opposition to their solution has led to adopt a kind of “fuck you” politics, which can only provoke a “fuck you back, with knobs on” response. The Republicans, for their part, are now in the ludicrous position of proposing spoiling measures which may end up increasing the need for state intervention in the commercial supply of health insurance policies – one of the things they fundamentally oppose. The fight will go on, and the animosity between the two sides of legislators continues to grow.

And, just to remind you, 82% of Americans were perfectly happy with their health care system, before this all started (according to Gallup).

Now just 36% of voters support the bill.

And President Obama is now enjoying the worst popularity rating of any president except R. Nixon Esq.

A sharp reminder that big change needs broad consensus not just bright answers.

And establishing that broad consensus takes time, effort and excellent persuasion and communication skills – something noticeably lacking on both sides of the political divide in this instance.

It’s also a salutary reminder of another more important principle:

A democratic mandate gives you the right to try and govern. It doesn’t give you the right to get your own way.

That’s called something different.

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Behaviour Change, Behavioural Economics, Persuasion, Social Decision Making

How to get a bed for the night

I never give money to beggars anymore. If I want to enrich the makers of Special Brew, I’ll buy some myself.

But today I did.

A slightly-younger-than-me black man stopped me in the street as I was popping out for a sandwich. He apologised for bothering me.

He was a floating resident at a seamen’s mission around the corner, he explained. I knew the place.

He said he was ex-forces, down on his luck. Lance-Corporal something-or-other. Before three o’clock, he needed to find four people to give him two quid each, so that he could continue to stay there.

That was the pitch.

Five seconds later, he only needed three more people.

It was as concise a shakedown as I’ve ever heard – and beautifully delivered:

  • He let me know he needed shelter.
  • He showed me he already had a solution – one that I knew and approved of (unlike Special Brew).
  • He advertised his army credentials: placing himself in a society I respect.
  • He instilled a sense of urgency by introducing a limited timeframe.
  • He communicated that I would be one of several helping him (classic behavioural economics)
  • He gave me a specific and easy way to help – clearly well within my means.

Textbook (perhaps written by the British Army).

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Behaviour Change, Social Decision Making

Opening Isinbayeva’s mind

Minds are like parachutes, they say. They work best when they are open.

But actually most of our minds are closed most of the time. And it is extremely hard work opening them.

To the astonishment of most of her co-competitors, Yelena Isinbayeva, the world champion pole vaulter, spoke out yesterday defending the new Russian laws, which ban people from giving information about homosexuality to under-18s.

In fact it’s their astonishment that’s astonishing.

Building on the breakthrough work done in behavioural economics by Kahneman, Tversky and many others, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has built an impressive and persuasive theory about the nature of social and moral decision making.

He paints a picture of humans as “90% chimp, 10% bee”: Motivated predominantly by self-interest and the protection/promotion of small family groups, but also able to suppress [some] self-interest and make compromises in order to co-exist with other humans in larger groups that can compete more effectively.

Haidt provides compelling evidence that rational debate between opposing points of view rarely changes opinions. It seems we are all rubbish at seeking evidence in a balanced and objective way, to challenge the things we think we believe.

If we wish to believe, we seek evidence that supports our position. If we wish to disprove something, we search for the evidence that does that. In either case, we don’t search very hard. Changing our mind takes effort and uncertainty – two things we are genetically programmed to avoid.

Using the opinions and mores of those that surround is the most prevalent example of this predilection for idle evidence gathering. Ms. Isinbayeva, bolstered by the supposed authority provided by national legislation, presents Russians as distinct and different, “Maybe we are different than European people, than other people from different lands. We consider ourselves normal, standard people, we just live with boys with women, women with boys.”

Jonathan Haidt argues two primary prerequisites for opinion and behaviour change:

  1. You must feel you hold a minority opinion.
  2. Secondly, you must feel that, as a result of holding this minority opinion, you will be harshly judged or censured by a community of people whose views have an impact on your emotional or physical well-being.

This suggests that until the world’s community of athletes – Ms. Isinbayeva’s peers and her ‘professional’ society – becomes more important to her than her sense of identity as a Russian, her views will not change (assuming of course there is no unprecedented social and cultural liberal revolution in that country any time soon).

If we challenge her and threaten to strip her of her role as an Olympic Youth ambassador, the evidence suggests her position will only harden.

We need to embrace her and convince her that athletes are a world community and have an opportunity – even a responsibility – to act as an inspiration to everyone, beyond promoting narrow national interests. We need to persuade her that she can share in, benefit from and promote the progressive values this of this young, dynamic, international community, because of the admiration in which they are  held by us non-Olympians.

We need to show her she can be a citizen of the world, not just a pole-vaulting Russian.

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