Message framing to change plastic usage

It was Valentine’s Day. With expectations of love and balloons all around the face, I woke up to read the word “Break Up” and then saw “…with single use plastic”. Dia Mirza (United Nations ambassador) has been a vocal and enthusiastic campaigner to reduce use of plastic, The data is staggering and without the numbers, let us just say, we really have to reduce the plastics in our environment. Nobody disagrees with that, but the problem is behavioral: how do we make people reduce their use?

Multiple things have already been tried by the government. Two top attempts from a behavioral economics angle were to: (a) add fines on shops who use plastic bags and (b) add cost of plastic bags on the customer [2 or 5 Rs per bag]. Both of these attempts have seen mixed outcomes. Importantly, India is not the only country in this brigade – infact we are a late joiner. For example, the UK government had introduced both of these economic costs (which also opens other policy and regulatory questions regarding fund utilization). However, these two attempts do not give great results.

The appeal of Dia Mirza to “Break Off” is a nudge – a message framed to make people act in a specific way. The importance escalates when it is spread on Valentine’s day because the receptivity to the keywords “relationship”, “break off”, “love forever” remains heightened.

We have known by now that we all discount the future and hence whatever bad might happen 50 years later is of much lower value than what can happen 10 years later. The message framings in the bulk of environmental campaigns are about a distant future. So, who cares?

Mirza’s framing removes the dis-connection from a distant future and brings it to a current relationship. We break off now. Add to that songs and lyrics and celebrations of breaking off in current times. This is a recipe that would push people to act in the present. The intensity of the campaign is built on spreading through social connections (online). It has already picked up with Alia Bhatt and others supporting b re-tweeting. So, if people mimic the break-off in a big way then and only then it is successful. Surely, that is also economic in nature because we need to add operational costs to advertise and spread the break-off. However, I wonder whether “new love” would also work the same way. If you break off from plastic, you also have to fall in love with paper, jute, steel and more. The framing of breaking off seems  well suited compared to a fall-in-love campaign on Valentine’s day because the enemy is one – toxic plastic. While hoping Mirza’s campaign sees some actual outcomes, I would think, she could consider running a fall-in-love campaign with paper/clay etc. for longer periods of time. If love is indeed a big motivator, the positivity in adding love could move people away from plastics.

The last and crucial leg to follow and ponder upon is the cost dynamics. Most other alternate materials cost more than plastics and that is what has been the roadblock to drive change. How would we increase the hate or the love relationship with materials that offsets the monetary loss? This is a case of comparing social gain (e.g. not use plastic) with a monetary gain (e.g. save money by using plastic) – something tough or maybe impossible to do. So, the campaign needs to do not talk or discuss money at all. No comparison can be made for love and hate. Similarly, just break up because you hate plastics. Period. Further, it should not move away from the present focus. A hash tag it used was #cleanseas which is a good intended move but it takes people away to a future of clean seas and hence increases the discounting.

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(C) Sumitava Mukherjee, with some rights reserved. You are free to share and re-publish this article anywhere. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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