Good intentions, unintended consequences by Mat Crompton, Head of Strategy

Over 20 years ago a responsible gambling campaign in Australia led with the line ‘Think about what you’re really gambling with’. It was designed to get individuals with gambling issues to seek help by highlighting the fact that by gambling to excess they ‘risk losing the love and support of family and friends and, in the end, your own sense of self-worth’. This line, and the campaign it underpinned, has always stuck with me as an example of good intentions that lead to unintended consequences.

Alex Blaszczynski’s pathways model1 of problem gambling is widely regarded as a seminal research paper for the understanding of why people gamble to excess. His model integrates the complex array of biological, developmental, and ecological determinants of problem gambling to provide three overarching pathways. The first of these pathways characterises gamblers who are behaviourally conditioned, the second focuses on impulsivity problem gamblers and the third focuses on those who have severe issues with their gambling because they are emotionally vulnerable; those who gamble, in part, due to a lack of self-worth.

By emphasising the negative effects of their problem gambling on others — not discreetly, but through broadcast media — that campaign not only stigmatised all problem gamblers, but, by reminding them of their lack of self-worth, might well have made their problem worse.

For me, that campaign is a clear case of very good intentions leading to potential unintended consequences.

Traditional ad agencies often get this wrong, being so excited about a ‘big’ idea that they fail to thoroughly anticipate potential issues. We can all be susceptible to this. In fact, a few years ago a client thankfully pulled me up on something. It’s lessons like these that led Icon Agency to develop a process to check all our work for potential unintended consequences before we present it to clients.

Here are a few things we take into consideration that are applicable for the development of any behaviour change campaign:

1. Consider the channel. Are you talking to the target audience directly and discreetly, or is it likely that bystanders will be exposed to the campaign material? In social media, for example, a traditional ‘problem-solution’ construct may not work because people often engage only with the first part of a video.

2. Avoid explicit myth-busting and counter-narratives. There is now substantial evidence to show that direct counter-narratives can often reinforce rather than change existing beliefs.

3. Consider potential triggers. This is issue dependent but many vulnerable or help-seeking audiences can be triggered if the communications positively frames or emphasises the negative behaviour or attitude. Consider audio, written and visual triggers.

4. Stereotypes and norms. Norms can be very useful in promoting behaviour change. However, they can also backfire if they reinforce negative stereotypes.

There are many more but for the moment we’ll leave it there. Often a simple but effective solution is to focus on the positive, using behaviour change communications to empower individuals and equip them with the belief and the capability to change their attitude or behaviour, at their own pace. More to come on that soon.

If you have any questions or would like help reviewing campaigns for unintended consequences, please reach out — or 0400 714 759. We’re here to help.

1 Blaszczynski A, Nower L. A pathways model of problem and pathological gambling. Addiction. 2002 May;97(5):487-99. doi: 10.1046/j.1360-0443.2002.00015.x. PMID: 12033650.

By Mat Crompton, Head of Strategy

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