The Court of Public Opinion

Witch-hunts, tar, feathers and public pillorying are not usually found in the modern marketing plan. But sometimes, you have to go back in time to move forward. Let’s talk about the subject that has displaced discussions by Californians of where you can find the best yoga studio, quinoa salad or stretch of beach: the water crisis. 

There is actually some good news here: just last week, the state reported that in their efforts to meet water conservation targets, the citizens of the Golden State had actually exceeded those targets. Gov. Jerry Brown called for statewide cuts of 25% and guess what? We upped it to 30%. A lot of that is coming from farmers being more thrifty with their crop irrigation, but here in Southern California, where residential use is a major drain on resources, it was the actions of people like you and me. We ripped out our lawns and replaced them with turf or more appropriate desert foliage.

We took shorter showers and turned off the water while soaping. We adjusted the sprinklers manually. In a region renowned for its superficiality and veneration of appearances, we proudly drove about in our woefully unwashed cars, brandishing them as a badge of righteousness. In fact, the “Great Unwashing” of our cars demonstrates the dramatic results you get when you combine an urgent appeal to our conscience with an implicit benefit to our innermost selfish selves. In this case, the campaign to save water dovetailed nicely with our inherent laziness about schlepping down to the car wash. I myself held out for three months until my wife could not bear it anymore, then went and got it washed at a local place that recycles its water. 

As much as I would like to believe that it was the inherent decency of us progressive Californians driving this effort, there was also another motivation at work here: Peer pressure (yes, sometimes it can be positive). We are all inherently social animals and whether we acknowledge it or not, we are deeply influenced by the choices of others. Hence the efficacy of “Billions of Burgers Sold” and all its variants, used by virtually every marketing category.

We are also remarkably sensitive to public perceptions of ourselves, and you only have to look at Instagram or the myriad apps that help you take better selfies to see just how sensitive. In fact, in a recent study conducted by my team among older Millennials, we found that they were not the stream-of-consciousness online posters we imagined them to be: instead, they were hyper-careful curators of their image and persona, consciously choosing the right strokes to paint their self-portrait and deliberating the effect of each individual brush-stroke/ post/tweet. 

How can we use this peer pressure to change the behaviors that lead to climate change? The answer is simple: make our actions public. If everyone could see what everyone else was consuming, we know that the social effect will lead to us self-limiting our consumption. There are obviously privacy issues with releasing personal data, but, hey, most of us reveal much more every day in our preferred social channel.

We could always present it as aggregated data: Imagine online heat-maps that show how much water or energy is being consumed and where. Imagine the power of a system like this on Facebook or Twitter or Snapchat. As anyone who has ever used a fitness app knows, the very act of measuring behavior changes behavior. And if you’ve participated in any kind of race, you have felt the energizing power of the crowd urging you on. 

Let’s harness that boundless source of energy to change the way we use our vital resources. Without having to go back to the practices of Salem.

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