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Richard Shotton 

Harman's female vote campaign could have the opposite effect

Harman's female vote campaign could have the opposite effect

In her attempt to scare the audience into action, Labour's Harriet Harman will probably make matters worse, argues ZenithOptimedia's Richard Shotton. Can brand managers learn from this 'negative social proof'?

Harriet Harman's decision to encourage women to vote by touring a pink bus round the country could have come from an episode of The Thick of It. However, laughable as the colour is, it's not the biggest problem with the campaign. More problematic is the message about the 'missing millions' of female voters. By talking up the numbers of women not voting Harman's campaign falls victim to negative social proof.

Social proof is the psychological bias which means that we're influenced by the behaviour of others. Negative social proof is a specific case whereby communicating the scale of anti-social behaviour makes it more commonplace. It's a bias that should concern any advertiser seeking to reduce anti-social behaviour.

The most authoritative academic in this area is Professor Cialdini, of Arizona State University. He has published a large body of work showing that we're social animals who tend to mimic others. Cialdini designed an ingenious experiment to quantify the impact of negative social proof.

The Petrified Forest in California was being damaged by the 3% of visitors who pilfered loose pieces of petrified wood. Cialdini created signs which demonstrated the scale of the problem: please don't take wood because the park is being changed by the many visitors who steal.

Unfortunately, this message led to a near tripling of theft. A full 8% of visitors pocketed a piece of wood. By advertising the scale of the problem it lessened the sense of crime: surely it couldn't be that bad if everyone was at it?

So what does this mean for the 'missing millions' message? Firstly, that politicians should be wary of publicising the scale of the problem they wish to resolve. Far better to think about framing it in an alternative manner. Communicating that most people vote will be more effective at boosting turn-out.

A second issue is around the dangers of exaggeration. Harman's campaign has focussed on two facts: that 9.1m women didn't vote in 2010 and the widening gap in voting between men and women. These numbers hide the fact that female participation has increased over the last ten years.

According to IPSOS 58% of women voted in 2001. This rose to 61% in 2005 and 64% in 2010. According to their recent polling voting will increase further in 2015. It seems that Harman has hidden this for dramatic effect. Ironically, in her attempt to scare the audience into action she'll probably make matters worse.

The impact of negative social proof is broader than Harman's pink bus. Many social marketing campaigns shock people with daunting figures about the scale of the problem they're trying to solve. The NHS's Give Blood campaign, for example, publicises that only 4% of people donate blood.

The unintended consequence is that people think it's socially acceptable not to bother giving. Negative social proof also impacts commercial messages. A brand Facebook page with a handful of likes trains consumers to think the brand is unappealing.

Brand managers need to look out for unintentional negative social proof in their messaging. Not all examples are as easy to spot as a pink bus, but the results can be just as damaging.

Twitter: @rshotton

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