Five Levers of Social Change

Practical Advice Series: Five basic “levers,” or strategies, to help businesses or nonprofits achieve social change.

This is the third in a series on the five drivers of social change. Here, we look at examples of successful ways to catalyze change through public perception.

Stirring people to action and changing stubbornly held views is one of the most difficult challenges facing social change activists. It’s hard to change attitudes among the general population, but what about trying to change perceptions among at-risk populations who may have reasons to distrust media and incentives to ignore messaging? This can present it’s own particular challenges. Yet, on the public health front, there is reason for optimism.

One of the best examples of successfully changing public perception is Montana’s fight against an epidemic of methamphetamine use, profiled in SSIR’s “Catalytic Philanthropy” article. In 2005, the state had the fifth worst rate of meth use in the country, and half of the people locked up in the state’s prisons were guilty of meth-related crimes. The epidemic was costing Montana $300 million.

Public health and criminal justice officials, like those in New York City who were dealing with persistently high smoking rates, did some research. What they discovered was surprising: There was little public understanding about the actual dangers of meth use. What’s more, the state lacked resources and tools to educate the public. Enter Thomas Seibel, founder of Siebel Systems, who owned a ranch in Montana and helped found the Meth Project, a quality advertising campaign aimed at helping teenagers understand the risks of meth use. He reached out to prominent advertising firms and high-profile Hollywood directors to produce the spots.

The result was a series of public service ads that were focused and hard-hitting. The campaign refused to mask the ravages that meth use has on families and communities. The spots showed kids attacking their own family members, prostituting themselves for drug money, and even overdosing.

In all, the Meth Project funded a $2 million ad campaign featuring 45,000 TV ads, 30,000 radio ads, and 1,000 billboards—all targeting both current and potential users. The impact was overwhelming. The number of teenagers who became aware of the danger of meth jumped from 25 percent to 93 percent. After the campaign ran, there was a 45 percent drop in meth use among teens and a 72 percent decrease among adults. As of 2011, Montana still ranks 39th out of 50 states in meth use, and six other states have initiated similar public awareness initiatives—a true example of how public health initiative can spark national change.

Campaigns to modify public perception are by now not new. Two notable AdCouncil campaigns include the 1958-1961 ad campaign to fight polio, created by the firm Harrison Maldonado and Associates. It was credited with increasing inoculations by more than 11 million in 1960. Another, more famous ad campaign is the US Forest Service classic “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires,” which began in 1944 and lives on today. Smokey Bear is credited for decreasing the number of acres lost to fire each year from 22 million to 8.4 million.

Two very different, well-orchestrated campaigns that have changed public perception are AdCouncil Domestic Violence campaign, which encourages intervention and resulted in 34,000 calls to the Family Violence prevention hotline in its first year, and the grassroots SlutWalk movement, which has pushed society to confront cultural norms that degrade women. Through public marches, demonstrations, and individual storytelling, and with thousands of participants, millions of tweets, and hundreds of viral images, it, too, is building a movement to change our public perception.

When you’re looking to create lasting social change, figuring out how to alter public perception can be important, and in most cases, necessary. Consider how you can leverage social media, data, and other tools at your disposal. Can you surprise? Make an emotional connection? Take a controversial angle? What will make the biggest difference for your cause?

Read more stories by Aaron Hurst.