Selling what people don’t want to buy (part 1)

Type “yuck” into istockphoto.com‘s search and you’ll see many totally unmotivated people, like this cutie who has bad thoughts about that salad. Where do kids get that attitude so young? At any rate, it’s a hard sell at this point to get this kid to eat his veggies. You’re selling something to him that he doesn’t wanna buy.

(I apologize, by choosing this photo, I just realized I’m adding to this attitude. But he’s so cute. And he gets the point across. And I don’t think 4-year-olds are reading this blog.)

What company would sell things that people don’t want to buy? How long would that company stay in business? But in public health, we do this a lot. Too often,

  • We tell people not to do things they want to do.
  • We tell people to do things they don’t want to do.

We tell them they should do this for their own good, in one way or another. And we expect that to change behavior.

Well you know what, that appeal isn’t good enough.

What if people had to pay for what we’re “selling” in public health? And yes, we are selling. We’re selling people on an idea, a belief, an attitude, a behavior. How many people would buy what you’re selling? Would enough people buy to keep the lights on in your office? To pay a salary that would cover your basic bills? To pay a salary that would pay basic bills plus your kids’ college tuition, nice vacations, new roof or kitchen re-do whenever you need or want it, ample retirement nest egg, etc.? Really think about this. Would enough people buy what you’re selling so you could “stay in business”?

Many public health professionals work in government and non-profits because the behaviors that we promote for the good of individuals and the public don’t involve an exchange of money, like consumer sales and business-to-business sales do. The private sector won’t take on our issues for a financial exchange. But I challenge that although there’s no exchange of money between us and our audience, we still must deliver the most effective appeal that our audience would buy. Because in our case, the “buy” is behavior change. When our audience buys in, they change. And we’re not selling another pair of fashionable winter boots, the latest hosta hybrids for a garden, or the most beautiful travertine tile for a new bathroom floor. Although I’ve bought all of those over the past few years, I’d say we’re selling something more critical than those things. We’re selling the well-being, health and safety of people.

And although most people would say they want to be well, healthy and safe, we know they don’t always “buy” the behaviors that deliver that. Selling what people don’t want to buy is not the best road to behavior change. We need to find ways to influence behavior change by using appeals that our audience does want to buy.

I don’t mean to leave you hanging, but more on this later. … (OK maybe I do mean to leave this for now, it’s a gorgeous weekend in October and we’re going up to Door County! You can’t make me buy more time indoors this weekend, no way!)

Related post:

Selling what people don’t want to buy (part 2)

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