Many of us are literally sat in our cars stuck in traffic congestion. A big problem is that the campaigns about traffic congestion are almost always dictatorial, blaming, negative and confusing, and let’s face it, no one likes being told what not to do.

‘Congestion busting’ marketing is frequently ignored because it has the wrong pitch and the wrong target market. You know the advertisements I’m talking about:

  • “Don’t drive.”
  • “If you don’t ride your bicycle you’ll die of heart disease.”
  • “If you catch the bus you’ll save the environment.”

These messages don’t work because people don’t want to be told what to do and they definitely don’t want to be blamed for a city-wide or a societal issue.

Telling people to sell their car and ride a bicycle because it’s good for the planet is a bit like telling your teenage kids that they should eat brussels sprouts every day.

Most people want to be inspired and enthused to change their behaviours.

We need to communicate with positive messaging. Let’s tackle difficult issues like traffic congestion, single occupancy car trips and low-density suburban sprawl in a fun, positive, encouraging and inspirational way. Let’s stop blaming people for things we don’t like and let’s stop making people feel guilty.

These are the six common mistakes I believe we make when creating travel behaviour change campaigns:

Thinking messages need to be complicated

Positive messages need to be simple. Exclude what is unnecessary and prioritise what is important. Simple, easy to understand messages create interest and interested people say “that’s interesting. I want to support that.” If you want people to carpool, avoid complicated statistics about fuel consumptions and car running costs.

Thinking messages need to be formal or contain common sense

Positive messages surprise and excite people. The message should generate interest and curiosity and lead people to go and find out more. If you’re enthusiastic and excited, it’s going to ignite curiosity within other people. A range of towel cards created by South West England tourism and COAST One Planet Tourism demonstrate the point. The towel cards, with a cheeky and amusing slogan, inspire readers to read a few environmental facts and a sustainability message.

Thinking messages need to be vague

Positive messages need to be clear, specific and easy to understand. Being vague creates confusion. It’s far better to create behaviour change messages that have a clear objective, a specific call to action and a slogan that’s easy to remember and repeat.

Thinking messages should be based on what the creator understands

Positive messages need to be credible and must be tested on a wide audience. Many campaigns fail because the message wasn’t tested. If a road safety campaign is aimed at rural teenagers but it’s only been tested on middle-aged inner-city government policy officers, it’s likely to fail. Try this experiment: spend a day connecting with people in your target audience. Your perceptions may change as the people in your audience open up and share their story.

Thinking messages should be logical

Positive messages need to make an emotional connection with people. Messages that create anger or disgust are more effective than those that simply make a logical argument. Our travel decisions are closely tied to our family responsibilities, working hours, age and hobbies. That’s why people love campaigns that make an emotional connection with their own values and beliefs.

Thinking messages shouldn’t have a story

Positive messages that have a story are a powerful tool for sharing experiences, showing the audience how to behave and teaching lessons. Everyone has a story to tell. Story telling is powerful. Messages that have a story are a very powerful tool to communicate with people we don’t know.

If we really want to inspire and enthuse people to change their travel behaviours let’s not blame car drivers for traffic congestion. Instead, let’s create simple messages that generate interest, are easy to understand, well tested, that make an emotional connection and tell a story.