Monday, September 10, 2007

"When did you stop beating your wife?"

The question is an example of how it is possible to label someone (as a 'wife-beater' in this case) without any evidence that the person actually behaves in the manner implied. It shows how powerful words are at shaping our view of people and situations - often without us being aware of it. Indeed, sometimes people form views or 'myths' about situations that are extremely difficult to change.

This poses a real problem for marketers and for policy makers. Sometimes the (negative) myths attached to a product, for example, cannot be budged no matter much data is available to illustrate how wrong the myths are. A recent article in the Washington Post reported on a study for the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC issued a handy 'true or false' guide about the flu vaccine. The problem was that research among elderly people targeted by the guide showed afterwards that they recalled 40% of the 'false' statements as actually being 'true'!

There is a lesson here for those involved in public campaigns to change people's behaviour (for example to wash your hands before preparing food; stop smoking to save your life; avoid alcohol when you are pregnant etc). It seems it is really difficult to change people's minds once they have formed a view about something. But one thing the research does tell us - you can't afford to 'do nothing' and simply let the myths go unchallenged. All that does is convince the 'believer' that they were right after all as no one has told them they are wrong ...

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