When escalators were introduced on the London Underground, they were not an instant success. If you think about it this is not a surprise. Up to that point, everyone had been used to a fixed staircase; a series of gentle steps to descend or ascend on. No real risk, all quite safe.
Then suddenly the bloody things are moving. Pushing you into the bowels of London town, nearer the screeching and hissing of the tube; disappearing from under you as they reach the bottom (or top); sprinting away with you at about 145 feet per second.
You can understand why people were nervous.
This created a problem for London Underground. They had spent significant sums on these new-fangled things in an attempt to speed up transport to the platforms and so create more capacity, and so revenue. But not enough people were using them, preferring instead to head for the old fashioned, dull but safe fixed stairways.
So a bright spark at the firm came up with a great idea.
They employed a one legged man to show the escalators were safe. His job was to spend his days going up and down the escalators at different stations. This would show everyone that they were safe. After all, the thinking would surely go, if a one legged man can use these things, then I can too.
Except people don’t always think what we expect them to think. The behaviour we hope for is not guaranteed. And in this case rather than be reassured by the one legged man, quite a few people started wondering how he lost his leg in the first place. Was it the 145 feet a second descending monster? The juxtaposition of one legged man and escalator introduced an unpleasant thought in the minds of many commuters and focussed attention on having the requisite number of limbs. And the escalators stayed – for a while at least – under used.
The trouble with communications is that they are not always heard in the way they are intended to be heard. We try to influence one behaviour and in fact we create unintended consequences.
Let me give you an example: many people now are avoiding A&E departments. They do this with the best of intentions; leaving space for Covid-19 patients, or strictly self-enforcing the lockdown.
But of course people die of all sorts of things, not just corona virus. People die of heart attacks, strokes, falls and all sorts of other afflictions. We don’t have the data yet to say whether this has happened, but I wonder whether deaths from non-corona conditions will have gone up when we look back on this in a few months’ time.
Or we send a message saying that waiting lists at hospitals must be reduced. And to do this we pay busy surgeons extra cash to do additional sessions and get the lists down. I have heard it said that the result could well be to give mortgage and private school laden surgeons a perverse incentive to make sure they have long lists that require overtime to fix. We put a communication in place to achieve a good end; we sometimes actually bring about the very opposite.
The answer? Well to misquote the WHO; test, test, and test. We have to test our communications, our marketing ideas, to see if the target audience will hear them as we intend and to see if they will act as we want. Asking people what they hear or read when we talk or write. It is very often a completely different result to the one we expected.
We don’t always have the luxury of an extensive test phase, but something is better than nothing. Just ask your partner, or kids.
It adds a bit of delay, sure, but it could be the difference of our messages surfacing well or simply going underground.