"Conserve water" placards are OK; social-responsibility pledges are better. (Image: WakeAndWander.com)

To influence social change, try offering “pre-wards”

September 18, 2012

By TRAY creative

Interesting article in GOOD recently about a social-behavior study conducted by the Journal of Consumer Research. Guests checking into a California hotel were studied in order to determine whether an upfront pledge (albeit an informal, non-binding one) would influence their behavior around a socially progressive issue:

At check-in, guests were asked to either make a general commitment to be environmentally friendly or to make a specific commitment to reuse towels during their stay. Notably, the commitment was entirely symbolic—once guests checked in, they were able to exist in anonymity and behave as they wished. To reinforce the commitment, some guests who chose to commit further received a “Friend of the Earth” lapel pin.

In other words, their follow-through on the pledge was purely based on the honor system. Still, it worked:

The result? Guests were “significantly” more likely to reuse towels and turn off the lights before they left the room.

Because it’s still rare for a consumer to encounter this type of social-responsibility pledge, especially while checking into a hotel, we’d wager that the very surprise of it is what kept it top-of-mind throughout the guests’ stays. That alone makes it far more effective than, say, the passive in-room placards (“Help save water… Please reuse your towels”) one typically finds in a hotel room—they’ve become so ubiquitous that they’re almost part of the wallpaper.

As for the “Friend of the Earth” lapel pin, call it a “pre-ward” for responsible behavior. While it’s a small gesture, it has strong symbolic value beyond the initial pledge. Here’s a thought for retailers: During checkout, how about asking customers to pledge to reduce, reuse and recycle your products, and then pre-warding them with a coupon or other small gift?