Last week, a Fast Company headline caught my eye – “The Surprising Genius of the ‘I Voted’ Sticker.” In the article, the author refers to a “simpler time” in the 1980s when the stickers were first introduced and explains the basic power of the sticker: social pressure. Many of us vote so that we can tell the world that we did; in turn, our peers feel pressured to vote. IMO, it’s the best use of stickers yet (save for all those scratch-and-sniffs in my elementary school sticker album!).
There’s a theory to explain this—one that we use all the time as social marketers. It’s called the Social Learning Theory. Associated with psychologist Albert Bandura’s work in the 1960s, social learning theory explains how people learn new behaviors, values, and attitudes. He posits that behavior is regulated by its consequences, but only as those consequences are interpreted and understood by the individual. The outcome may be improved health status, physical appearance, economic gain, or some other perceived benefit.
In Ogilvy’s Social Change group, we often use this theory as the foundation for campaigns that are at the heart of our mission: to improve lives and effect change.
I write about this not to bore you with fancy theories, but rather to get to the heart of how we do what we do. The word “theory” often scares people, but the social learning theory is pretty straightforward and accessible. Sometimes affecting behavior is as simple as the peer pressure that results from a sticker.
Here’s an example of another type of social learning. In 2013, Ogilvy Washington created an award-winning campaign for the National Association of Broadcasters that chipped away at the stigma surrounding mental illness by creating an online community where teens and young adults struggling with mental health problems could open up and share their personal stories of recovery, tragedy, struggle, and hope. OK2TALK.org was a safe place where teens took cues from their peers on positive and productive ways to live with and get help for mental health problems. As a result, there was a 7% increase in calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (promoted prominently on OK2TALK.org) in July/August 2013 compared to 2012—approximately 13,000 calls.
Celebrities can also play a powerful role when it comes to social learning. In 2011, popstar Demi Lovato announced that she was living with depression and bipolar disorder. Since then, Lovato has partnered with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) and other groups to encourage teens to step out of the shadows, be vocal about their struggles, and get the help they need. Like OK2TALK, this is social learning theory in action: when people can identify with a recognizable peer, they have a greater sense of self-efficacy and then imitate the actions to learn the proper preventions and actions.
This is not to say that a celebrity spokesperson is the answer for every campaign, or that social learning theory is the best theory on which to base your campaign. From Stages of Change to the Diffusion of Innovation theory, there are many other useful theories we use as social marketers to reach and engage audiences, and sustain our connection with them.
But back to voting. As we (mercifully) count down the final days of this presidential election season, it’s worth talking about the evolution of the “I Voted” sticker. While many of us will still wear our “I Voted” stickers with pride on Election Day, a new badge of honor pervades. This isn’t breaking news, but social media has become a very powerful channel for social learning: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. In fact, these may be the most important channels for influencing behavior today.
Last week, The New York Times reported on Facebook’s role in driving voter registration. With a four-day Facebook promotion in September, registrations rose drastically on the first day of the campaign compared with the day before, as reported by nine states.
From the Times: “In California, 123,279 people registered to vote or updated their registrations on Friday, Sept. 23, the first day that Facebook users were presented with the reminder. That was the fourth-highest daily total in the history of the state’s online registration site.”
So where does social learning theory come into play? Next to the voter registration reminder, Facebook included a button that allowed users to share the fact that they had registered. The same thing happens on Election Day—Facebook encourages you to share your “I Voted” message. This virtual sticker has the ability to be seen by my hundreds of Facebook friends—far more people than would physically see me and my “I Voted” sticker.
So here’s the bottom line: It’s just the same as it always was. Peer pressure works. But now our circle of influence is much, much larger. Use it for good, people. Vote, and when you do, wear and share your sticker.