410.235.7070 Join Our E-Letter
businessGPS Taking You From Where You Are to Where You Want to Go.

How Marketing Changed Our Hygiene

How Marketing Changed Our Hygiene

December 19, 2013

Have you noticed that more people now sneeze into their elbows than into their hands? It’s certainly more hygienic. But how did we ever change such an age-old behavior?  

And why did bike helmets and keeping Texas highways litter- free catch on, while putting down that cell phone while driving is still not in vogue?   

Marketers have used all sorts of carefully calculated messaging to change people’s behaviors for years. The challenge is taking on an entrenched habit and replacing it with a new one.  

Can it been done?  Yes!  Read on to find out how.


When I was growing up, we were always told, “cover your mouth when you sneeze,” which we took to mean with a hand. The problem was that too many of us didn’t get around to washing our hands after a sneeze, so we spread the germs around. And, let’s face it, even if we had tissues on us, we weren’t always fast enough to get to them in time.   

Then, the media started promoting the idea of sneezing into your sleeve, to keep your hands germ-free. It made perfect sense. Sleeves don’t come in contact with other people very often, and you’re less likely to spread the germs. So, with some Public Service Announcements (PSAs), a few videos, and even a message from the President, people saw the new behavior and it caught on.    


Changing Behavior


We’re all creatures of habit. We get into our routines and we stay there.  We tend to make changes to our behaviors when there is a clear benefit and/or it makes us fit in and be part of the latest trends. Right now people are health conscious, so not spreading germs with a sneeze is “trendy,” and, as more and more people go for their sleeves and not their hands, you too can “fit in” with the growing health conscious mentality.


 People took to wearing bicycle helmets too, in part because of the benefits (85% less likely to have a concussion/head injury with a bike helmet on), and in part because the helmets became more colorful and trendy. You can also look like the professional bicycle racers by wearing what they wear. Helmets and other sports safety equipment has gained popularity, especially with kids, largely because they see the pros wearing them.  


Down in Texas, state pride has made a serious dent in highway littering. On a recent trip to Texas for a speaking engagement, I couldn’t help but notice the slogan “Don’t Mess with Texas” all over the place. The advertising campaign embraced the rugged Texas spirit, along with helping the environment, and people want to be a part of that. As a result, it has significantly reduced the amount of litter on Texas roadways.


When Changing Behavior Doesn’t Work


Ironically, I can get my son to wear a bicycle helmet, but I can’t get him to wash his hands on a regular basis. Why not?  There’s nothing inherently trendy about washing your hands. And unlike that sneeze full of germs, there’s no apparent, obvious reason to wash them unless they’re visibly covered in dirt. At least that’s his theory.


Years ago, PSAs during Saturday morning cartoons tried to get kids not to follow peer pressure with G.I. Joe saying, “Be Yourself.” Not only was there no apparent benefit to being oneself, but most kids had no idea what that meant. The “Be Yourself” PSA was a flop when it came to clarity and effectiveness.


Even something as important as wearing seat belts did not catch on for many years.  People simply didn’t change their behavior because the belts were restraining and uncomfortable. It was only after wearing seat belts became the law in most U.S. states and started to be enforced that people (begrudgingly) started to buckle up.


Today, there’s a similar problem with cell phone use while driving. Although texting while driving has dropped, many people are still talking on their handheld cell phones. PSAs and other warnings that drivers on their handheld cell phones are more distracted have fallen on deaf ears (or those too busy using cell phones).

The problem is that many people don’t see the benefit (safer driving) in not talking on the phone, or at least the handheld ones. And it isn’t trendy to put down a cell phone these days. It might take strictly enforced laws to force such a behavioral change.

Now if only I could convince my son that washing his hands once in a while was a law.

Benefit + Cool + Inclusion = Behavioral Change

There’s nothing like an example, and this one comes from a small business in Colorado.  When New Belgium Brewing decided to emphasize the importance of having an eco-friendly culture, they also decided to offer free bicycles to all of their employees so they could bike to and from work each day. The benefit was to take more gas guzzling cars off the roads and the bikes were cool new models.  At first, a few people started riding everyday, but before long everyone wanted to be part of the group biking to work. The plan was a success and shifted the behavior from driving to biking for the entire company.  Adding public events, such as drive-in movies for bike riders, New Belgium expanded into the community and Fort Collins, Colorado is now a major bike riding town.

Therefore, if you:

  • Cite the benefit(s) or Big Zig associated with the new behavior

  • Look for what makes it “cool” or “trendy”

  • Make people feel that they are part of something

…you can change behaviors.

Taking you from where you are to where you want to be,