Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

How do charities encourage long-term commitment?

Last month, the British Heart Foundation released two advertisements on the same day. One of them is the #DECHOX ad, which encourages people to give up chocolate for a month, and the other ad shows what the charity does. But why did the British Heart Foundation choose to use both ads at the same time, and how are they effective?

Advertisement 1: #DECHOX 

It’s no surprise that the BHF are encouraging participation in a fundraising challenge; challenges have been proven to be an effective way to increase awareness of a charity. The ultimate example is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge which involved people nominating their friends to have a bucket of cold water poured over them and uploading the video online. Amazingly, over 17 million people got involved, and it is thought to have reached over 440 million people, resulting in an increase of donations (Sohn, 2017). But how do challenges achieve success?


Like with the Ice Bucket Challenge, the BHF have took on a memorable, distinctive hashtag (#DECHOX) which is clearly visible throughout their ad. Crucially, distinctive hashtags result in better recognition of an organisation and build a community of those interested in the same cause (Saxton, Niyirora, Guo, & Waters, 2015).
A representation of words most commonly used with #DECHOX

Whilst the use of hashtags is a fairly new topic within research, Sallehuddin, Hussan, Spykerman and Singh (2016) looked into the relationship between hashtag use and group identity. They found that people tend to use ‘official’ hashtags to show support to a group who share the same goals and values as them. This finding suggests that using the hashtag #DECHOX encourages similar people to show social support which may act as positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement occurs when a particular behaviour is followed by a reward, and therefore increases the frequency of that behaviour (Skinner, 1939). Here, the behaviour being reinforced is the participation in charity challenges, and the reward is becoming part of a group of like-minded individuals and getting social support. These rewards will increase the likelihood of people taking part in charity challenges again, which indicates that creating a community by including a hashtag in a charity ad may have long-term benefits.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the psychological discomfort we experience when our attitudes and behaviours contradict (Festinger, 1957). For example, if someone claims to care about the environment, but then drops litter, it will cause dissonance. Due to the discomfort, we are motivated to change our attitudes or behaviour so that they are consistent. By putting effort into the #DECHOX challenge, the individual’s behaviour suggests that they care about the British Heart Foundation. Once the fun challenge is over, people tend to forget about the charity, as shown by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (Sohn, 2017). However, #DECHOX is an annual event, and lots of adverts are produced throughout the year. When those who have taken part in the challenge in the past see adverts from the charity, it will cause cognitive dissonance if they just simply ignore it. This is because participation suggests that they care about the charity, whilst ignoring adverts suggests that they do not. So, to relieve the dissonance caused, some people may feel that they should help the charity again, which will restore consistency in their behaviour. Therefore, creating annual charity challenges and maintaining presence on social media and TV is important in making sure people continue their support.


As humour in advertisements has been around for a long time, there have been many studies showing the effects. An analysis of over 300 of these studies concluded that humour in ads increase purchase intention, and the funniness of the ad is positively related to brand attitudes (Eisend, 2009). Whilst research has focused on purchase intention which is more about consumers rather than volunteers or sponsors, it is likely that the effect would be the same: humour improves attitudes towards the charity, and may increase the intention of donating, or taking part in the challenge. But regardless, humour certainly captures our attention, and capturing our attention is definitely the crucial first step for charities! 

Advertisement 2: ‘Without you, the thank yous stop’ 

Whilst challenges on social media have a large impact by spreading awareness, this impact usually only lasts a short while after the event is over. As mentioned, cognitive dissonance may encourage long-term commitment in helping the charity, but it is possible that people may resolve the dissonance in other ways. For example, they could give alternative reasons for taking part in #DECHOX which are consistent with ignoring future ads e.g. “I just wanted to see if I could give up chocolate for a month”. However, by releasing a video which tries to emphasise the importance of the charity, the BHF can focus on forming positive attitudes within the audience which will continue beyond the #DECHOX challenge. Here are a couple of ways that they attempt to do this:

 Consequence template

In 1999, Goldenberg, Mazursky and Solomon analysed award-winning ads and identified 6 different creative templates. Judges found that the identified templates were present in the majority of the successful ads. When comparing these to non-winning advertisements, it was found that non-winning ads were much less likely to have used the templates. One of these effective templates is called the consequence template, which is where the advertisement portrays the consequences of taking an action. This template also includes the portrayal of inverted consequences, which is the outcome if people don’t take the action they are recommending. Both of these are seen in the video, as it shows a range of people who are healthy and living life due to the monetary donations of many other people, but it ends with a woman in a hospital who is awaiting help. The statement ‘without you, the thank yous stop’ is an example of inverted consequences, as it directly tells the audience that people will suffer if we do not donate. By making the public aware of the consequences related to the charity, it makes the reality hard to ignore.


Manded altercasting is when a role or identity is directly projected onto someone, which increases the likelihood of them behaving in a way that is consistent with that (Pratkanis, 2000). Strenta and Dejong (1981) conducted an experiment that shows that behaviour is influenced by altercasting. They asked participants to fill out a personality questionnaire, and regardless of their actual responses, participants were given feedback. For those who were assigned the prosocial label (which was not known to the participant), in which they were told their scores show that they are kind, they were significantly more likely to help a confederate who dropped some cards than the other participants. As shown in the BHF advertisement, it is assumed that the viewer is already donating to the charity. For example, ‘thank you for my transplant’ and ‘without you, the thank yous stop’ are both statements which assume that the person watching the advertisement is already a donor. Therefore, this advert is likely to influence people to start donating so that they behave consistently with the identity that has been projected onto them.

So, if you ever decide to set up a fundraising challenge, or if you’re taking part in one that is already established…

….make sure you consider these techniques to influence your sponsors into staying committed to the charity!


Eisend, M. (2009). A meta-analysis of humor in advertising. Journal of the Academy Of Marketing Science, 37(2), 191-203.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, Ill: Row, Peterson.

Goldenberg, J., Mazursky, D., & Solomon, S. (1999). The Fundamental Templates of Quality Ads. Marketing Science, 18(3), 333-351.

Pratkanis, A. (2000). Altercasting as an influence tactic. In D. Terry & M. Hagg, Attitudes, behaviour and social context: the role of norms and group membership (pp. 201-226).

Sallehuddin, I., Hassan, R., Spykerman, A., & Singh, A. (2016). Forming Group Identity through Shared Hashtag on Facebook: A Preliminary Study on Malaysian Universities. Scientific Journal of PPI-UKM, 3(2), 2356 – 2536.

Saxton, G., Niyirora, J., Guo, C., & Waters, R. (2015). #AdvocatingForChange: The Strategic Use of Hashtags in Social Media Advocacy. Advances In Social Work, 16(1), 154-169.

Skinner, B. (1939). The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. The American Journal of Psychology, 52(4), 659.

Sohn, E. (2017). Fundraising: The Ice Bucket Challenge delivers. Nature, 550(7676), S113-S114.

Strenta, A., & Dejong, W. (1981). The Effect of a Prosocial Label on Helping Behavior. Social Psychology Quarterly, 44(2), 142.

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