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Think back to the last few shampoo, toothpaste, or deodorant ads that you have seen. What is their tone?

A) If you don’t use our product you’ll be a loser
B) Use our product and you’ll be a winner

You should have selected B. Unlike political ads, ads for products from consumer companies always promote the positives of their product and how you will become more attractive, likable, and successful if you use them. Think red convertibles, fields of flowers, and attractive people gushing over someone using the advertised product.

Now think back to the last few disaster preparedness awareness campaigns you have seen (or produced). Are they positive and uplifting or do they show chaos and dead burnt bodies? Do you run preparedness campaigns continuously or only after disaster strikes?

Study after study has shown that negative ads only affect behavior for a short period of time (e.g. long enough to pull the lever in a voting booth) — they have no effect on long-term behavior. See this article, the book Emotions, Advertising and Consumer Choice By Flemming Hansen,  or The Influence of Negation on Product Evaluations in The Journal of Consumer Research, December 2004, Vol. 31, No. 3 (subscription required).

Ana-Marie Jones from Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters (CARD) believes that the disaster preparedness community is headed in the wrong direction. Not only are we sending negative messages, but we are sending them after it is too late and we are sending them to people like ourselves.

CARD promotes positive, targeted, continuous messages that sink in to promote a long-term change in behavior. In my opinion, one of the best ideas that CARD has come up with is their PTI, or Potty Training Initiative.  Starting with the premise that everyone reads when sitting on the toilet, the idea is to put positive informational posters in bathroom stalls; how to turn off the gas (no pun intended), how to shelter in place, what should be in a go kit, and so on.

The message needs to have meaning to the population absorbing it. Don’t write for middle-class white people if you are targeting Laotian immigrants. Their life experiences are different and what has meaning to you might not have meaning to them. Some religions and cultures believe that disasters are sent by a higher being to punish the wicked. If they are pure and pious they don’t need to prepare because they will be protected. High government officials issuing edits sometimes are the worst approach and Mormons will laugh at you for recommending only 72 hours of supplies. You need to work with the leaders of these communities to determine the best strategy with which to engage these populations.

CARD has some special programs for children that also will help adults. One program suggests placing a green carpet in safe areas for hurricanes and earthquakes because children of almost any age should be able to grasp that in an emergency they need to move to the green carpet. Employers can paint walls or use floor coverings to color code dangerous, moderate, and safe locations. Color coding works whether at school, the library, a shopping mall, at home, or at work.

Another program promotes carrying a flashlight and whistle at all times. LED flashlights about the size of a US quarter dollar or 2 Euro coin are inexpensive as are tiny pocket whistles. I have carried an LED flashlight on my keychain for years and added a whistle after Anna-Marie’s presentation. Teach everyone that 1 flash or tweet means “Yes”, 2 flashes or tweets means “No”, and 3 flashes or tweets means “Help.” The whistle also can be used to call for help if your child (or anyone for that matter) feels threatened. Hang a larger LED flashlight and whistle inside the door of everyone’s cubicle or office and use PTI posters to tell your employees what they are for and how to use them. Also take the time to bust disaster myths and urban legends, such as the infamous “Triangle of Life.”

Using positive messages which will affect long term behavior is a big change and people who know you might wonder what you’ve inhaled recently. You need to own up to your past, accept change, and let your constituents know that you were wrong in your approach. See how the behavior of the townspeople (and Aunt Polly) changes when the Reverend in the movie Pollyanna changes his message from fire and brimstone to positive thought – and see what happens when you do the same.


Seacliff Partners International, LLC


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