Use psychology if you want to influence public behaviour

From 2007 to 2009 the NSW RTA (now RMS) launched what was to become known as the Pinkie campaign, with the message of "Speeding: no one thinks big of you".

Its euphemistic nature of girls and women on the footpath, and peers in their own car, using the pinkie gesture when witnessing boys showing off with risky driving, was unmistakable. Draw attention to yourself in this reckless manner, and you must be trying to compensate for a small penis. What was most clever about it was there was simply no way that an individual could defeat it.

The campaign was seen as effective. Just one year into its run, there had been 22 fewer P-plate driver deaths across the state.

Many thought at the time that it bucked convention with a psychological attack on self-image rather than just showing the consequences of actions (like car wrecks). But I reckon using depictions of what others will think of you is exactly how to advertise (it's also a very old ad methodology, but it's more usual to see a positive tone showing benefits, rather than only insinuating shame).

The Pinkie campaign cleverly leveraged the superego's social influence. Images: Shutterstock.

The Pinkie campaign cleverly leveraged the superego's social influence. Images: Shutterstock.

Sigmond Freud is considered the father of psychoanalysis, and if we use his model of psychology there are three elements affecting our behaviour. The first is the ID. This is subconscious and it's essentially all the internal drives and desires; the things you feel compelled to do, if there were no consequences.

Of course there are consequences to every action or inaction. Skipping to the third element, that's the superego. It's essentially the mix of behavioural codes applicable in any given setting. It comes from what your childhood teaches you about right and wrong, what those around you right now generally expect of you, and other sources. The superego is partly conscious (knowing there are judging eyes on you for instance) and subconscious (the feeling that says "this is a bad idea"). It also changes across settings. Take strippers for instance; inappropriate in an office, but somehow fine at a bucks or hens.

Translated from the German word ich, which literally means "I", is the ego or sense of self. This is both conscious and subconscious, and always trying to resolve that conflict of wants versus consequence.

Now, it's more complicated than that, but Freud's model is generally accepted as a useful way to explain what's going on in our minds all the time as we each try to figure out what the suitable behaviour is right now.

At times, especially when we're young, the ID will feel compelled to show off. It's a common phase, almost a human mating ritual, and it's just a question of where and how we choose to get noticed. Girls might do it in the way they dress, but a regular opportunity for a young bloke to stand out and flout authority used to be risky driving on the street. However, that was getting some of them killed (along with passengers and bystanders).

The problem with advertising consequences like wrecked cars and lives is the "it won't happen to me" mentality means they don't just disregard the message, it has the opposite effect of making risky driving look more challenging, thereby creating a perceived benefit in taking that risk and beating it. So Pinkie cleverly leveraged the superego (what others think of you) to instead make this form of risk taking be perceived as a negative.

Another reason it worked was it could actually be done without a public backlash. The idea of getting idiots to slow down was widely viewed as a good thing, the change could be immediate, and nobody dared speak of how it contradicted the "how you use it" mantra.

Here's an alternative topic to think about. Imagine if a health campaign used obvious fat shaming instead of just pointing out the consequences of increased morbidity rates and the risks like cancer and diabetes.

For one, while the behaviour can change immediately, regaining a healthy body takes time. For another, eating junk and slobbing about can be done away from others (as can fast driving on a closed course, which is perfectly acceptable). Poor eating choices aren't likely to kill someone else just trying to cross the street. But mostly, it would risk triggering unacceptable negatives like eating disorders, low self-worth and catastrophic bullying.

Sam Hollier is an ACM journalist and a motoring fanatic who builds cars in his shed in his spare time.