What cause movements can learn from 'Just Say No'

Nancy Reagan's signature campaign was groundbreaking, sincere and flawed.

In 1982, Nancy Reagan attended an event at the Longfellow Elementary School in Oakland, Calif. There, a schoolgirl asked Mrs. Reagan what she would do if offered drugs. The First Lady replied, "Well, you just say no." That simple phrase launched one of the nation’s foremost cause-movement campaigns, becoming a clarion call for the adolescent drug-prevention movement of the ‘80s and beyond.

Nancy Reagan was tireless in her commitment to her signature "Just Say No" campaign. In 1984 alone she made over 100 appearances and 14 anti-drug speeches. She co-hosted Good Morning America and starred in a two hour PBS documentary on drug abuse.

By 1988 more than 12,000 "Just Say No Clubs" were formed in schools across the country. In parallel was a comprehensive popular culture campaign to propel the message. PSA’s featuring many of Reagan Hollywood friends filled the airwaves: Clint Eastwood, the LA Lakers, Arnold, even a Michael Jackson animation singing a "Just Say No" version of "Beat It" with the Flintstones. Program and movie integrations followed, most notably with "Diff’rent Strokes" and "Punky Brewster."

There's little doubt that Reagan was a true believer in the cause. But did it work?  Most social scientists and academics say no, and that it possibly made the problem even worse. But it established the framework for decades of cause-movement campaigns to follow.

Why didn’t it work? And what can we learn?

The problem was "just saying no" to drugs was too simplistic. It did create massive awareness, yet the complexity of the issue required a more sophisticated approach to behavior change.

Even DARE didn’t work. At the time it was the most widespread educational program operating under the "Just Say No" philosophy that brought law enforcement officers into schools. Researchers found that teenagers enrolled in the program were just as likely to use drugs as those who did not receive the training, according to Scientific American.

Programs that made a difference acknowledged the difficulty of just saying no, coaching youths to handle social expectations and peer pressure through role playing, while trained instructors coached them about what to say and do.

Since "Just Say No," cause-movement campaigns have become more research-based, nuanced and multi-faceted to follow the continuum of necessary steps to create true behavior change.

Cause movements have moved beyond awareness, with initiatives such as lowering deaths from heart disease, smoking cessation and even hand washing, embracing a phased cadence toward behavior change. To gain impact, comprehensive audience research is required to set the initiative’s direction in three parts: building from awareness, to preparation for behavior change, to action. And of course with baseline and ongoing measurement along the way. And an attitude to evolve campaign elements, and discard what is not working well.

Social "marketing" campaigns confront a target’s deeply held belief and entrenched habits, and challenge the status quo. Successful campaigns adopt an audience-centered approach verses the organization’s approach to gain a broader view of the issue. At its center is "exchange theory" where a new behavior must be seen as having higher value than current behavior. As Phillip Kottler and Nancy Lee say in Social Marketing: Influencing Behaviors for Good, "Simply telling someone that a new behavior would be good for him or her is not enough."

Critical to success is understanding the target audience, making the campaign highly relevant and compelling. The next step is to make the desired behavior change as easy as possible to adopt.

A superb example is the Lifebuoy handwashing campaign. Lifebuoy was launched in 1894 by William Lever in the UK as the Royal Disinfectant Soap to stop cholera in Victorian England. Unilever, seeking to expand sales in developing countries, returned to these authentic roots, when it discovered that diarrhea and pneumonia caused the deaths of 2,000,000 babies before the age of five. They launched the Lifebuoy Help a Child Reach 5 Campaign, creating child-friendly materials — comics, songs, games and rewards – to reach new mothers. Lifebuoy also innovated the product to engage children. The user, upon washing his hands for the correct amount of time, was rewarded as the soap changed color. Very smart.

And impactful. Unilever reports reaching 257 million people in 24 countries in the developing world, with the critical outcome of saving hundreds of thousands of children.

Deep insights from research are critical to drive effective cause-movements.

Today’s highly successful cause movement campaigns build a

groundswell of support for a social issue, focused on common good above a singular organizational or personal gain, that permeates popular culture, taps into shared human interests and creates catalytic change.

"Just Say No" was Nancy Reagan’s legacy signature cause. Because of her devotion and sincerity, it will live on in our lexicon. It was early. It was heartfelt. While it didn’t move the needle regarding the prevention of drug abuse in teenagers, it did establish an initial approach from which future cause-movement campaigns have grown.

Carol Cone is CEO of The Purpose Collaborative.

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