Shocking polar bears

In 1961 Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram began a series of “obedience to authority” experiments to see if people would set aside personal ethics if an authority figure told them to do something. As in, if I tell you to shock someone, would you do it? Milgram rigged a “shock box” and told volunteers that they had to gradually crank up a dial to shock another participant, hidden from view, if the second participant made a mistake on a test. The second participant was really an actor … and was never shocked at all — but as he screamed in mock pain, 65% of the test subjects continued to administer shocks, all the way to a maximum 450 volts.

The study had several goals: to explain the behavior of Nazis in WWII, for instance, and to see if most humans will override personal ethics if compelled to take immoral action by a leader. Religious wars, nationalism, urban gangs, corporate malfeasance and family feuds are all explained by our willingness to obey others more than ourselves.

But we also think Milgram gave a second lesson: how people feel they must try harder and harder to get your attention if moderate shocks fail. This explains children stamping their feet, or Hollywood movies with explicit sex and violence, or advertising campaigns that attempt to startle.

All of which reminds us of this ad campaign to convince you that flying via commercial airlines is bad for polar bears. It’s shocking, perhaps too much.

4 thoughts on “Shocking polar bears

  1. What’s flawed about this work is that it’s self indulgent, non informative, shocking (or trying to be) for no real purpose. It merely states what people know. An attempt to do what Truth did with smoking, but nowhere near as well done or as honest. It offers no alternatives, doesn’t start an intelligent dialog and doesn’t ask for anyone to do anything. And it’s classic, relatively obsolete outbound messaging. Work like this is too easy to do. Affecting change will take more than derivative advertising that condemns the undedesirable behavior rather than celebrating the desirable.

  2. Edward, perhaps we’ve been had. This seems like a ‘secondary buzz’ campaign. No one behind this must really believe it will stop consumers from booking airplane flights. (Most airline passengers fly when they have to, say, for a once-a-year vacation, and business people who fly more frequently frankly will not change behavior over an environmental cause.) However, the shock value will create buzz drawing attention to the nonprofit. It’s no longer about direct response; it’s about indirect cascades of meme propagation.

    Since I took the bait and posted about this, I guess PlaneStupid wins a prize.

  3. I was under the impression that a positive correlation existed between shock messages and the probability of viewers discarding the message as unrealistic (just like those gory UK ads on car accidents where most people block the message with a “only happens to others” reaction.
    There have been many studies conducted on this, anyone know where one can find them?
    So sure this creates a buzz for the organization; but a buzz does not necessarily lead to action and when talking about such paramount isn’t action what they should be going for?

  4. DailyC:
    Not sure where you can find them, but it’s true. Has been since the crying Indian implored us to stop littering. Messages that admonish us don’t work. Why not tap the power of positive deviance. There are many studies that show it works, from changing diet, exercise, nutrition of infants in third world countries, etc. Rather then criticize or lecture, celebrate the behavior that works. It spreads that way.

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