Social Distancing & Behavior Change

6 feet, 3 Canadian geese, 2 meters or one alligator apart.

With the sad news of a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in LA County, the continued reminder to stay 6 feet apart is ever more important. As some normalcy slowly returns (well…in fits and starts!), getting new behaviors to stick long-term is the next big global experiment. And a challenge it will be as quarantine fatigue increases and shaming people doesn’t work.
So far, it has been interesting to see how the three key factors for effective behavior change have been used:

1. Short and Sweet Reminders Stick

When a new behavior, like staying 6 feet apart, goes against our innate social nature (who doesn’t want to hug their friends or enjoy a social summer BBQ!) behavior change can only be truly effective when its reminders are simple and easy to remember.
Although we still have so much to learn about COVID-19’s transmission (with new findings coming every day), the blanket rule of staying 6 feet apart (or washing your hands for the amount of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice) helps people to change as we do so. But an aphorism is just the first step. We are visual species and, in reality, many have found it hard to know exactly how far apart 6 feet is.

2. Iconography for Impact

People remember 80% of what they see and do, and only 20% of what they read. Given how much more powerful a visual can be than words, it has been interesting to see the creativity some countries have used to try to visually reinforce the 6 feet rule. Canada especially has been on top form:


3. Storytelling: “If I look at the mass, I will never act.” (Mother Theresa)

It’s easy to feel apathetic when one hears a statistic, but when one hears a story from a nurse, it helps humanize the overwhelming pace, scale and complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stories help us build empathy. We humans take action because of emotions, not because of numbers.
The right image can tell an entire story. The images of frontline workers, at the start of the pandemic forced to wear trash bags as makeshift PPE shows so much more – their sheer grit, dedication, sacrifices, missed time with their own families and the stress and grief they face every single day.

Source: March 26, 2020

So much of our work at SGA right now is testing and applying communication techniques in what has been a worldwide experiment in getting social distancing to stick. We have focused on helping our clients adjust their messaging to fit in with our new long term reality (such as the dilemma of reusable grocery bag bans!).
In this uncertain time, my hope for us Angelenos is that we continue to figure out together how to counter quarantine fatigue and keep the crucial importance of social distancing top of mind for everyone.
From my makeshift kitchen table/office, staying socially close and one caribou apart.

-Stephen Groner-

light colored dog laying in green grass; baby with blond hair has hands on the dog and is looking at the dog
This past ad campaign we did for the Contra Costa Clean Water Program showcases the power of having the right visceral visual. Want to see more examples from our work? Read our recent blog article on the Power of Visuals Over Words.

Hero Photo Source:

The Power of Visuals Over Words

If you read a statistic that 40% of the U.S. population are at risk of disease and premature death because of air pollution, most likely you would think, “Wow, that is a high number, I can’t imagine what someone must be going through who experiences that!” But if this same statistic is paired with a photo of someone on a respirator, immediately it feels so much more personal. With an image, we are better able to grasp the individual human suffering behind an overwhelmingly large statistic like this.

Humans are wired to connect more with images than words, because 90% of the information processed by the brain is visual. Words are abstract, visuals are concrete. This means that humans process images far quicker than words; we remember visuals better; and an image is a far more accessible way for us to communicate.

These facts underlie so much of how we approach our communication work here at SGA and can be seen below in two examples from our work:

Visuals increase the speed of understanding

Humans process visuals far quicker than we do words. It only takes us 150ms for a symbol to be processed and 100ms to attach a meaning to it. This is a reason why so many road signs are image based—they quickly capture what a few words or sentences would take far longer to communicate.

Our Contra Costa Clean Water Program Example: Given this, our client, the Contra Costa Clean Water Program, needed an image based public education campaign to encourage residents to use integrated pest management. Integrated pest management is a complicated topic to communicate as, even though its long term environmental benefits are very evident, it can take longer in the short term to get rid of pests compared to traditional pesticides.

Our approach: Most of us (really!) don’t like pests in our homes and backyards. In our research, we found that people prioritized getting rid of the pests as quickly as possible and that they saw the time and effort required by integrated pest management as a major barrier. The only way to break though this perceived barrier was with an even stronger motivator—our love and concern for the health and wellbeing of our pets and children. This strategy informed our image choices for the ‘Pesticide Linger’ ad campaign.

The right image meant that we did not need to describe all of the dangers of using pesticides on a family’s beloved baby and dog for the audience to be compelled. The image told the story—and our connection to images made this message far stronger than what words could describe (image referenced is at the beginning of this piece).

Visuals that resonate with your own beliefs are often far more memorable and help increase accessibility.

Images are compelling and often far more easy for us to recall. In fact, people remember 80% of what they see and do, whereas only 20% of what they read. People also all learn and process information differently. To communicate as broadly as possible, images help increase the accessibility of your content to your audience.

Our County of Santa Clara Example: The County of Santa Clara was struggling with the problem of abandoned used motor oil becoming an environmental health hazard, especially given how much easier it is to dump used oil instead of dispose of it properly.

Our approach: We knew that in order for a campaign and its imagery to resonate, it needed to be representative. So, we first had to understand the practices, beliefs and attitudes concerning
used motor oil within the Santa Clara community. To do this, we interviewed community members outside of auto supply stores. Our key finding was how family-centric this community was. Explaining the potential impact of used motor oil on this community’s environment and the health of its children ultimately informed the campaign tagline: “Dumped Used Oil and We All Get Soaked.”

The aim behind the choice of image for this campaign was to connect the ease of dumping used oil with the visceral horror of an image of a child stepping into a pool of oil. By understanding the target audience, customizing the campaign to suit them and using a memorable image, San Jose of Santa Clara County saw a 136% increase in used oil recycling and a 70% decrease in illegal dumping at the end of the campaign.

Reinforcing our communication with the right visuals helps counter the “information overload” in our everyday lives. Visuals are powerful, compelling, accessible, and align with how people want to receive messaging nowadays.

How Can Social Media Contribute to a Sustainable Society?

In his book, Fostering Sustainable Behavior, Dr. Doug McKenzie-Mohr claims that social media is most effective when it supplies an actionable and convenient solution to a large and abstract problem. It’s easier for us to imagine that using fewer paper towels (for example) will help prevent deforestation than it is to understand how a donation is going to be used to “save the polar bears.” Polar bears are not only far away, but they’re outside of the average person’s realm of experience, whereas paper towels are not—chances are you’ve used one in the last 30 minutes.

McKenzie-Mohr’s point here is simple: addressing a problem through small, local, and convenient steps is going to be far more successful than attacking a problem head-on. News Flash: your audience is just as overwhelmed by the problem as you are; do everyone a favor and break your issue up into digestible chunks. While it may seem roundabout, sometimes you need to mask the overwhelmingly big picture for a while in order to get the ball rolling.
This alone, however, is often not enough to catalyze behavior change and/or action. What does it mean if you’ve done the work of successfully dissecting your problem into a series of actionable steps and you’re still not getting traction with your audience? First of all, pat yourself on the back—you did a lot of hard work, and rest assured it won’t be in vain. Second, take a step back and assess the way you’re interacting with your audience and the problem at hand. It’s important to tailor your message to your audience because, ultimately, it needs to grab their attention and speak to them. And if your presentation places either you or a de-personalized behavioral ideal as the hero of the story, you’re probably not going to be getting much traction with your audience. They are neither of those things.

It’s important to remember that your “audience” is an audience in name only—they are individuals and they are the heroes you are looking to write into your story. They are people that you believe have the power to address the problem that you are presenting, and it is your job to help them realize their own potential. One of the easiest ways to engage an audience is to get them to use their own networks to spread your message. How to do this? Elevate the voices of the community! Highlighting community champions creates the appearance that change is coming from within the audience, that the ball is already rolling, and social media is the perfect tool to leverage this perception and spread your message.

Think about how you might share a similar style with your friends or like the same music. People can have powerful influence over each other, and the same idea applies to environmental behaviors when you start to do things like recycle your bottle or pick up a piece of trash after seeing a friend, family member, or role model do it. In the social media world, we see more posts about potential actions and behaviors from more connections than we’d ever get from face-to-face interaction. Indeed, Facebook is the new town square—providing the means for people to share stories and have public discussions from a boundless place with no physical location. It is not only a powerful tool to organize and catalyze grassroots activism, but a fertile proving ground in which to test your ideas and watch the good ones grow.