The New York City government’s move recently to halt purchases of single-use plasticware as part of an effort to reduce pollution and shrink the carbon footprint may have seemed like a noteworthy stand.
But with scientists predicting a mass extinction that could wipe out as many as one million species as a result of deforestation, mining, and carbon dioxide-emissions, the executive order from the mayor might feel more like an ant trying to attack a boulder.
Does it matter that no one at a city agency—beginning at the end of 2020—will be allowed to dine with an “unnecessary” government-funded plastic fork if most endangered species could be wiped out within 100 years and our grandchildren could be living in a world without insects?
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The answer, in short, is yes. And therein lies the humbling reality of achieving true disruption or reversing long-standing public opinion: Dissolving entrenched attitudes can be an interminably slow process, even in the face of grave danger. It is often, in fact, a result of long-term, incremental change.
We imagine upon introducing our game-changing concept that the threat is so great or the reward so enticing—and our illustrations so compelling—that imminent social upheaval or radical action will follow. But such transformations don’t happen overnight. They can limp along for years before a development, such as the formation of a new partnership, triggers an acceleration. Sometimes, behavioral change lingers indefinitely at a modest pace, never gaining a bold momentum.
Successful campaigns, of course, need an acute sense of competitive timing and a powerful storytelling apparatus to reach widespread adoption. But strategists should brace for a slowing-moving odyssey rather than a clear trajectory, and know that victory also hinges on an embracing a steady conviction over a faltering confidence.
Public Awareness Campaigns Have Long Been Slow Burners
The truth is, we haven’t always recycled. While forms of recycling date back to the colonial era, our contemporary version of the practice emerged over decades. Oregon became the first state to pass a beverage container deposit law. That happened in 1971. In 1980, Woodbury, N.J. became the first city to implement a curbside recycling program. It took years to mobilize curbside recycling on a national scale.
It also took years—and an orchestrated global effort—for health advocates to begin elevating condom use as a habitual practice for HIV/AIDS prevention and start to contain the social stigma associated with the disease. Law enforcement and safety advocates faced a protracted battle to institute regular seatbelt use, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wielding its Click It or Ticket campaign.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving has worked since its inception in 1980 to build an anti-drunk driving movement, using photographs of victims to tell the stories of family tragedy. It took decades of public awareness campaigns, litigation, tax hikes and other legislation to significantly curb sales of cigarette manufacturers, despite the early warnings of health risks.
From Technology to Cannabis, No Industry is Immune to “The Wait”
The concepts behind these public awareness campaigns apply more broadly to marketing campaigns, and to today’s disruptive culture in particular. It took decades—and many product iterations—for the PC to gain widespread acceptance, first available as a “do-it-yourself kit” and with limited applications in the mid-1970s.
The IBM Personal Computer was introduced in 1981 with a price tag of $1,565. And by the end of the following year, retail outfits were signing on to sell the PC at the rate of one per day. An analyst had been quoted as saying at the time that “IBM bringing out a personal computer would be like teaching an elephant to tap dance.”
Innovators and entrepreneurs have seen blockchain technology slowly gain acceptance as the key to a new culture of financial transactions, with growing interest in its potential to serve as the foundation for the radical concept of a decentralized reserve. Cannabis firms still face opposition, but have undergone a dramatic transformation in the public opinion arena that has fueled exponential growth. Financial services firms seeking to upset monopolies or dominant industry players may see years go by before their entry into the market translates into asset or volume growth.
From Marketing to Daily Life, Big Change Comes From “Tiny Habits”
History proves that even monumentally significant issues have met the fate of extraordinarily sluggish message infiltration. It has also taught us that adopting small changes over the long haul—and accepting the deceptively slow pace of progress—is often what yields results.
It is the same concept behind what Dr. BJ Fogg, a psychologist and innovator who directs the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University, refers to as “tiny habits.” The idea is to adopt small habits—such as learning a new word every day—that can be done without making a conscious decision, instead of chasing monumental goals. Those baby steps are what actually produces long-term change and positively impacts the lives of others.
Slow, incremental change can be frustrating. But when it happens, it can be profound. While it’s true we may be unimpressed by New York City’s plastic fork removal as a potential mass extinction grows near, it’s also true that when we get in our cars, most of us reach for our seatbelts now.