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The stinky symptoms of taxpayer-funded advertising and why the model needs to change

Image by Andrzej Rembowski from Pixabay

The idea of brand purpose is more than just a trend. It’s a reaction to the perils of the Anthropocene.

Whether it’s just talk (such as superficial advertising campaigns) or real walk (true business transformation), the reality is that it remains a choice for business.

However, the deployment of resources for the public good is at the core of what governments do. And, when it comes to communications, are taxpayers really getting bang for their buck?

Governments are some of the biggest ad spenders worldwide. For one, they have the largest audiences to serve. But also, the idea that advertising and communications by-and-large can change behaviour has been one of the drivers of campaigns and permanent messages ranging from anti-smoking through to safe sex and road safety, to name a few.

For the sake of perspective, let’s look at some local numbers. According to the Department of Finance, the Australian government total advertising spend for the 2017–18 financial year amounted to $157 million. This is more than any company in the private sector, as reported on Nielsen’s Ad Intel, Financial Year 2019, where Harvey Norman tops the list with $151.6 million, followed by Wesfarmers Limited ($132.5 million) and Woolworths Limited ($118.8 million).

Yet, where private sector advertisers can drive revenues and profitability under the accounts of their respective balance sheets, is the public sector effectively contributing to the betterment of society through advertising and overall communications efforts?

The problem of dog poo

To illustrate the above, let’s focus on a behaviour that – for the social good – has been encouraged to change but quite unsuccessfully. I’m talking about dog poo. That is, ensuring their owners don’t just leave their pets’ excrements on the curb or parks.

Many different messaging angles are used. The first encouraging altruism, then inciting fear, which is followed by a punishment warning and finally some humour. Despite all that, dog waste still remains a huge issue in many cities.

Dog poop is not exactly an environmental threat like CO2 emissions (although it does release methane when it ends up in landfill). Still, its risk can be more than just a mess on your shoes. Dogs can harbor lots of viruses, bacteria and parasites — including harmful pathogens like e coli, giardia and salmonella (A single gram contains an estimated 23 million bacteria).

Studies have traced 20 to 30 percent of the bacteria in water samples from urban watersheds to dog waste. Just two to three days of waste from 100 dogs can contribute enough bacteria, nitrogen and phosphorous to close 20 miles of a bay-watershed to swimming and shellfishing, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It also can get into the air we breathe: a recent study of air samples in Cleveland, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan, found that 10 to 50 per cent of the bacteria came from dog poop.

The problem is particularly bad in cities, where green spaces are few and lonely souls seeking puppy love plentiful. New York boasts over 600,000 hounds – one for every 14 people – generating over 100,000 tonnes of turd a year. Some of it smudges unlucky stilettoes, but 60 per cent (average of collections) is dutifully tossed into rubbish bins and hauled to landfills, at a cost of over $100 per tonne. In Melbourne, councils are still spending millions of dollars every year tackling the smelly problem of dog poo, as reported by the Herald Sun.

And so, cities, tired of the turd, are devoting precious brainstorming hours to inventing ever-more-novel ways to combat it.

Madrid, in 2016, announced a “shock plan” to force dog owners in two districts to clean up after their pets. Those caught not doing so must either spend a few days as substitute street cleaners or face a US$1700 fine. The Spanish capital’s city hall said “there is still excrement in the streets, parks and other places” despite “repeated public awareness campaigns” and the distribution of millions of free poo bags, according to The Guardian.

But if anti-dog poo campaigns are any guide, Spain has an epic battle on its hands. In 2015, the city of Tarragona announced a plan to use DNA testing to match droppings to dogs. Before that, the town of Colmenar Viejo dispatched a private detective to record videos of offending dog owners, who were then fined by police.

In 2013, Brunete, a suburb of Madrid, boxed up dog faeces and mailed it to the careless dog owners. For two weeks, volunteers spied on dog walkers, sidled up to those who didn’t scoop and asked the name of the pooch — which, because most were registered with the city, was usually enough information to determine the owner’s address. Mayor Borja Gutierrez told the New York Times that the problem was the number one constituent complaint and that the mail-bombs had improved things by 70 per cent.

Is this enough to spark long term change?

According to a 2009 study from the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes 66 days to form a habit. During this period, three things need to happen to turn a conscious action into a no-brainer, something you just do without thinking, a habit.

These elements are:

  • trigger: some sort of stimulus that compels a person to conduct some form of task or perform an act
  • routine: ensure the task or act is repeatedly performed under a consistent context (that is, same time of the day, every day, for 66 days).
  • reward: a small “celebration” from complying to your routine has the power to release dopamine across neurotransmitters, creating a positive association with the act being performed so we do more of it.

A case in point was the deployment of smart bins by Internet provider Portal Terra across ten parks in Mexico City, during the Poo Wi-Fi campaign. By rewarding dog owners when throwing their doggy bags in the bins with free Wi-Fi connectivity, this micro waste management infrastructure helped counter the 10,000 tonnes of dog poo randomly dropped every year and the city’s incurring cleaning costs.

The trigger is the dog’s waste, the context is formed by having the bins at the same place and time (24 hours in this case), and the dopamine release informing our brains that this is a good action from the free Wi-Fi reward.

The question that still stinks is why taxpayer funded advertising has a hard time to adopt more creative and useful best-practice? For starters, politicians don’t seem to care about what voters want.

A study conducted by two professors from Yale University and George Washington University revealed that an overwhelming majority of legislators were uninterested in learning about their constituents’ views.

Perhaps more worrisome, however, was that when the legislators who did view the data were surveyed afterwards, they were no better at understanding what their constituents wanted than legislators who had not looked at the data. For most politicians, voters’ views seemed almost irrelevant.

Second to that is the false belief that advertising changes behaviour. As shown above, one needs more than a message to do things differently. And when communications fail, in most cases, governments will resort to behavioural taxation tactics.

In Australia, in 2012, the federal government raised more than AUD$ 10 billion from alcohol and tobacco taxes and for over five years now has been enforcing strict lockout laws on Sydney’s hospitality venues and general alcohol consumption.

Although violence has decreased by 40 per cent there is no evidence proving people are drinking less.  .

The traditional model of taxpayer-funded government advertising is not going to change any time soon but, as visionary Buckminster Fuller said: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Sérgio Brodsky (L. LM, MBA) is the founder and principal at Surge. He’s the creator of the Urban Brand-Utility (UBU) model that reframes brand communications from the promotion of conspicuous consumption to becoming a regenerative force in the economy of cities. 

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