Matt Waksman 1

Strategy & The City

Gonorrhoea, low alcohol beer and the Autobahn

In the first in his series of columns Ogilvy UK's head of strategy argues that accommodating behaviour - rather than adapting it - might be key to its change

By Matt Waksman

Gonorrhoea. Hard to spell, easy to catch, and not the most appetising lunch topic but, hey, that’s what friends are for.

A friend of mine (part of Generation Responsible/Generation Abstinence, if you believe everything you read in a trend report…) was telling me about his recent experience catching an STI for the first time. He was surprised, but he wasn’t a rare case. In 2022 Gonorrhoea hit the highest number of diagnoses since records began and 15-24s were most likely to be diagnosed with an STI.

I wasn’t chill in my reaction. I went from zero to anxious, quicker than a swab and a jab.

Why wasn’t he having safe sex? Did he know how lightly he’d got away with Gonorrhoea? How was he so calm? The notion of catching an STI triggered a totally different emotional response in each of us. Irritation for him, catastrophic panic cycle by proxy for me.

I reacted like this because, like many gay men, sex was something that I grew up desiring and fearing. My gay education was read Allan Hollinghurst late into the night. (I know, such good taste, at such a young age). But those sexually intoxicating stories were interwoven with HIV, AIDS and death. Coming out young I also received a wave of well-intentioned gay sex talks which often went full steam ahead to HIV and AIDS. The result of the culture I consumed and the messaging I received was two-fold: I was scared every time I had sex. And I used protection.

And that got me to thinking…when it comes to behaviour change, fear and shame are useful little devils.

Take road safety campaigns, which really got into gear when they stopped telling people to slow down and focussed on how people would feel and be judged if they became a killer on the road. Likewise, one of the most successful drink-driving campaigns simply named those who do it “a bloody idiot.” And it worked.

But it wasn’t fear or shame that caused new HIV diagnoses amongst gay and bisexual men to plummet by 71 per cent in just four years. Much of the credit has gone to a ground-breaking little pill called PREP. PREP is a tablet that, taken regularly, reduces the risk of HIV by 99 per cent when having unprotected sex. After so many attempts to try and alter sexual behaviour, a pill that works with existing behaviour has changed the game.

The turn-around of binge drinking tells a similar story. For decades public health campaigns warned about dangers of hitting the bottle too hard. Yet the big cutbacks in boozing have come about at a time when great tasting low and no-alcohol beers/sprits have popped up in every bar and supermarket. Now punters can have something that looks like a drink, tastes like a drink and leaves British social drinking codes intact. Something that mimics drinking behaviour, rather than changes drinking behaviour, has helped Brits drink less.

Back on the roads, despite attempts to get Brits to stick to 70mph limits, we still have 5 deaths per 100 miles. In Germany, there are 3 deaths per 100 miles with a much lower rate of accidents. Yet they don’t have less speeding over there, they have more. For large stretches of the Autobahn network there are no enforced speed limits at all. Instead of trying to stop some people’s natural need for speed, German authorities have focussed efforts on helping drivers to go faster more safely. Tests are much harder, take longer to pass, and include motorway driving. In addition, the surface of the Autobahn is kept in ultra-smooth condition.

Whether you’re a marketer, a creative, a founder, an investor or at the decision-making end of any business you’re probably looking for ways to have more impact. I imagine you want the people you’re trying to reach to do something. Emotional communication will always be a powerful way to achieve that, (if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have a job). But, particularly at this time of year when we do our blue-sky thinking, it’s worth considering whether the most powerful way to change behaviour might actually be to find a way to go with it…

Matt Waksman is head of strategy, advertising, at Ogilvy UK


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