Talk to the 5th guy

The 5th guy is a public health awareness campaign from the Florida Department of Health. It

illustrates a simple point – most people respect certain hygienic norms. They stay home when they are sick. They cover their cough with their arm or a tissue. And they wash their hands, especially after using the restroom. There is observational data on that: The American Society for Microbiology sent researchers into public rest rooms to watch what people do. They found that four out of five people wash their hands after using the restroom. Thus was born the campaign’s central character: the “Fifth Guy.” In the ads, this fifth guy – played by a wonderful comic actor named Ben Spring – keeps making the wrong choices and suffering the social consequences as a result. The take-away message is: Unless you are staying home when sick, covering your cough with an arm or a tissue, and washing your hands often, you’re a fifth guy, an outlier. That’s the motivation. No one wants to be a fifth guy – to be that one person everyone whispers about.

It’s interesting to think about the line between playing on social norms and shame-based advertising. Advertising is often about encouraging you to take some action, telling you that you should take action, telling you that everyone else is doing it are basic forms of persuasion.

Florida is trying to encourage what they claim is a dominant behavior, as opposed to trying to create a new behavior, so pointing to the majority makes sense.

Many years ago I worked on a project for Unilever. They were considering the challenge of “on-the-go cleansing” — people away from the place (the bathroom at home) where they normally use Unilever products. I think the timing was just before “germophobia” went mainstream. The people we observed and interviewed were experiencing a serious tension between the need to protect themselves from germs and the need to behave normally.

You were expected to shake hands with someone in a social setting, but you were also made aware of the fact that that person’s hands were covered in germs. You were expected to share food with colleagues and friends, but you may not know if someone else put their hands in the candy bowl without washing them. And you weren’t allowed to pay too much attention to your own cleanliness, lest you be seen as having a mental illness (i.e., OCD).

We identified several strategies for Unilever to use. One of them, like the 5th guy campaign, involved making things normal by making them common. The box of office tissue that everyone takes from, or the skin lotion pump that is used by colleagues at work are both examples. Everyone uses them, therefore it’s normal, therefore it’s okay.

Another strategy involved creating hidden usage opportunities, where new cleaning behaviors could take surreptitiously, in a pocket, or in the pages of a book.

And a strategy that lived between those two was to mask new behaviors as existing normal activities. For example, makers of insulin pens have begun to make their devices to look more like pens than syringes.

I hope there’s good data with this Florida initiative, but I suspect some of the biggest change has already taken place, within the organization itself. I remember that our clients at Unilever worked hard to grasp the depth of the struggles we shared with them; indeed, they kept referring to the “people with OCD” as we reiterated that most people had these very concerns over germs but did not want to be assumed to have OCD. Our clients were participants in the culture they were seeking to understand and getting to that new perspective took a lot of work on both sides. The (what I presume to be) new thinking exhibited by the Floridians is encouraging.


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