Insight Failure

I cannot stand these awful anti-drugs campaigns. Not because I disagree with what they’re trying to do, but because they are so poorly thought out. They’re attempting to solve complex social problems without any understanding of how people actually work. I don’t know what the UK stats on drug use amount to, but I know from the youth insight project I used to run in Ireland, that the vast majority of under 30s had used at least one illegal drug, at least once in their life. Their experience of drugs is not black and white, but many shades of grey (I’m not talking about the book!). They know people who have been completely destroyed by drugs. They know people who used to be a bit messy but have calmed down. They know people who dabble moderately within a pretty normal lifestyle. And they know people who experimented a few times but decided it wasn’t really for them.

Campaigns like the Facebook timeline one are not credible because they directly contradict people’s real life experiences of what happens when you use drugs. Similarly the “natural high” campaign is setting itself up for failure, just like those abstinence campaigns, because they assume that you are either good or bad. You’re either aligned with those who do, or those who don’t. Asking people to choose a side is both unappealing and unrealistic given how varied an individual’s behaviour and opinions can be in any given situation. And particularly on these social issues, if you force the choice you can expect to continually fight a losing battle.

The reality is, that the non-drug-users/abstainers group will always disproportionately have more of the straightlaced, play by the rules, cautious people, and the drug users/non-abstainers group will always have more of the riskier, dangerous, don’t give a fuck people. The celebrity ambassadors in the “natural high” campaign only enforce this point. Cool will always be against you – don’t ask teenagers to choose sides. And if you really want to really tackle the problem don’t frame it as a black and white issue at all. Give people realistic and practical alternatives in between, and then they are likely to follow a path which isn’t perfect but good enough.

Ultimately the failure of these campaigns comes down to insight. All of these campaigns clearly come from the perspective of non users and show zero insight into the people they are trying to talk to. They don’t feel like they are coming from insiders. They feel like a top down message from moralising outsiders. So they will only appeal to people who already think the same way. And I think this illustrates something really important about insight.

Insight isn’t about a single truth that you can write down on a piece of paper and give to people and think “now they have insight too”. Insight is about understanding the people you’re talking to, to such an extent that you develop an instinct about tone of voice, about nuance, about the little details that will resonate.  There’s a reason we planners sit in on all those focus groups, explore  online forums or sometimes if we’re very lucky immerse ourselves in their real lives.  It’s not to find “insights”, it’s to develop “insight” which can then be applied to help shape the work.

That’s also why the single page brief or worse still, the single line proposition, is often so limited. It doesn’t capture the small seemingly insignificant stuff which can mark the difference between authentic and contrived. This type of insight is only ever understood and passed on to others through face to face conversation, probably multiple conversations. So the briefing session is a good start but not nearly enough. What planners really need in order to apply their insight is much closer collaboration with creative teams, throughout the strategic and creative process, right through to the end.

  1. This reminds me of a conversation I had a couple of weeks back with a chap who works with people who self-harm. There is, apparently, a therapeutic strategy a little like methadone for opioid addicts. For example, for people who cut themselves with razor blades, there are some people for whom cutting is a coping strategy. If you try to stop them doing it completely, they can’t cope, they spiral out of control, and they cut themselves even more. If you supply them with sterile razor blades, show them where and how to cut themselves safely, you can steer them into a safer, more stable way of coping. They may not ever stop cutting themselves, but at least they have stability and control over their own lives, and that feeling of control may actually enable them to stop cutting eventually. But even if it doesn’t, their lives have improved over the former state.

    As you said, it’s not a black and white issue, and trying to make it into one doesn’t help and may even do harm. Unfortunately, grey isn’t anywhere near as snappy a colour as black and white. 😦

      • Neasa Cunniffe
      • October 28th, 2012

      That’s such an interesting example. These are such a complex areas. For example, no one ever admits the positive benefits of taking drugs – not that the dangers don’t outweigh them, but there are reason people turn to drugs. Often it provides a whole new social world and new friends, allows them to feel confident and alive, allows them to de-stress if they have very anxious lives. You need to give people other ways to achieve these things.

      • Yes… and, of course, you have to remember that a well-proven way to get someone to defend something to the death is to tell them that they’re wrong, it’s bad, and they shouldn’t be doing it!

        And thank you; you have given me another thought to add to mine, like building a house out of matchsticks.

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