Challenging Dogma

...Using social sciences to improve the practice of public health

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Slogan That Yells Gun Control- Michael Pottash

I-83, or as the locals call it, Jones Falls Expressway, is a fast paced, scenic highway that is mostly used by suburbanites to commute into downtown Baltimore. In addition to the wonderful Baltimore skyline, a driver can also catch a glimpse of the Baltimore City jail. The jail is ominous, with tiny windows, evenly spaced over the entire front side of the facility facing the highway.

Impressively, the Baltimore City Jail is one of the largest municipal jails in the country. Over 20,000 inmates are committed to the Center annually and the daily number of inmates averages over 3,000. The jail is a pretrial detention facility for any person committed or transferred to the custody of the Commissioner of Pretrial Detention and Services.([i]) Recently, however, off the top of the jail there hangs a large banner like a modest head covering-impossible to miss-that reads, “Put Down the Gun or Pick a Room.”

The slogan, a simple and yet powerful message, is given ample attention by every driver and passenger traveling into or out of the city. At first thought, this slogan seems wasted on the suburban commuters instead of reaching out to those in dire circumstances to offer hope and alternatives to violence. Even if the message did reach it’s target audience it would hardly seem effective, while we present them with an ultimatum and threaten them with punishment. It seems prudent to analyze the effectiveness of the slogan itself.

Despite doubts about the intervention’s ability to inspire, the slogan can in fact reach a receptive audience, captivated by the signs dramatic presence adorning the looming jail. Social Control Theory brings into question the effectiveness of this approach to gun control as one in which its lowest form is applied, trying to deter gun use by punishment. However, our confidence is renewed when this public health effort is viewed in the light of Theory of Reasoned Action and the Theory of Planned Behavior. These enlightening theories vindicate the intervention with its ability to convince those who behold the slogan that jail time is a real consequence of gun use.
Interstate 95 runs mostly east to west through much of the city, and although it is downtown Baltimore’s connection to the suburbs, it is also the area's true north-south artery. The consequence of being the main road into or out of the city is that anyone who wishes to leave or enter, for any reason, will see the jail and its banner.

Social Control Theory
Social Control Theory borrows from the sentiments expressed in the Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes that there exists a social contract among all people. He posits that all individual choices are somewhat constrained while living in a greater community where others will be effected by those choices. The theory states that if a person can be made to feel as though he is part of a greater community, he will care about that community and then begin to curb his antisocial behavior. The theory lays out various steps by which to create this feeling of belonging in the individual, ending with the direct method of punishment. Once a community mentality has been established a direct method of control is applied to keep the population in check; punishment is used to deter any deviant behavior and rewards are issued for compliance.

According to this model, the message to the banner “Put Down the Gun or Pick a Room.” is destined to fail. The slogan is an obvious threat of punishment, aimed at a population that, more than not, feels separate or neglected from the greater productive community. If a person is only threatened without placing them in the community, the efforts are fruitless. The criminal will simply view this threat as another in a long list by a governing body that he does not identify with. From this perspective, public health intervention fails and the targeted behavior remains the same. A simple ultimatum has no effect.

Theory of Reasoned Action
The Theory of Reasoned Action is important to the practice of public health because it amends the faulty Health Model of intention effects behavior. The Theory of Reasoned Action suggests that intentions are affected by attitudes and subjective norms. While attitudes are the sum of the beliefs about a behavior, subjective norms are how the environment and social atmosphere influences the view of the behavior.

In this example, the slogan on the banner has no power to change behavior related to gun use with relation to environment or social atmosphere. Instead, the slogan may affect the attitudes of gun users. Public health practitioners should then ask themselves, what exactly are gun owners attitudes and how can we use those attitudes to affect their gun use behavior?
Theory of Planned Behavior
The Theory of Planned behavior specifies attitudes, into three sub-categories: Beliefs about normative expectations of others, beliefs about factors that facilitate or impede performance of the behavior, and the beliefs about likely outcomes. If we apply the Theory of Planned Behavior to the slogan on the banner, it can be inferred that the attitudes leading to gun use (intention) will be drastically affected by how likely the outcome of spending time in the Baltimore jail.

There is a huge disconnect between picking up a gun and being actually incarcerated in a detention facility. However, this banner reminds the public of that grim outcome, and can make it more realistic to them. For example, if we can force the potential gun user to consider the possibility of being behind one of those tiny windows in the Baltimore jail cell, this public health measure may actually change behavior.

In addition, if we combine this awareness of jail time outcome with attitudes toward gun use behavior, subjective norms, and perception of behavioral control, it will be easier to influence the formation of a behavioral intention. If we have truly changed a person’s perception then this combination could lead to a more favorable attitude and affect the person’s intention to perform the behavior in question. Finally, given a sufficient degree of actual control over the behavior, the individual may carry out the favorable behavior when the opportunity arises.
In order to understand gun use attitudes, public health must also take into account normative expectations of others. The Social Control Theory suggests that the community expectations are a direct influence over individual behavior. For example, individuals usually take into account the communities response to their actions. In addition, if individuals do not feel a connection to their community his actions will not deter him from picking up a gun.

Secondly, we must take into account a person’s beliefs about factors that facilitate or impede the performance of an action. In this case, the action must be putting down the gun because in our target community, a number of forces (peer pressure, protection) make it “easier” to carry one then to not. To alter behavior, we must somehow give the individual the tools so that the action does not seem so impossible. Our slogan is far from providing the tools to alter the individual’s perception of the activity. The banner advises to put the gun down, but how? I understand the implications of being arrested for gun use, but in the context of my social circle, my environment and my needs, how can I put down the gun?

Slogan Analysis
Although theory models are useful tools to help guide interventions to change behavior, such as this banner it must also be remembered that this particular intervention is a slogan on a banner. There is only one step in this tactic and very little information is conveyed through the banner. It is also particularly hard in this instance to measure outcome effectiveness . So how can we evaluate the job our slogan is doing?

Companies pay millions to advertising agencies to invent effective slogans that will sell their products. This has led many to develop a plethora of guidelines and strategies to creating an effective slogan. Maureen O’Rorke is one of those interested in the effectiveness of simple slogans. O’Rorke owns Maureen O’Rorke Public Relations in San Francisco, which specializes in advertising and public relations on recycling and other environmental and civic issues. In her article, “Creative Brainstorming: Writing a Slogan That Works” she lays out a simple analysis of the usefulness of a slogan. Her three standards are clarity, substance and persuasion. O’Rorke advises that a slogan be clear and unambiguous to convey what you mean to say. The banner that hangs on the Baltimore jail is clear and to the point, with a simple stating of the cause and effect.([ii])

Next O’Rorke states “Make sure the essence of your slogan is linked with your goals, and the specific action you want to inspire.”([iii]) Again the banners slogan does indeed relate to the goal of limiting gun violence and keeping Baltimore citizens out of jail, two additional effects of not picking up a gun and therefore, not picking a room.

Finally, O’Rorke recommends including a reason to do what you want the target audience to do. This banner fulfills that requirement too, and tells people why they should not pick up a gun.The consequences of going to jail are clear.

O’Rorke is also very clear about the pitfalls to avoid for effective slogans. She warns, “Negative messages depress action instead of motivating change.”([iv]) If we analyze the jail banner we can see that the slogan does indeed have a negative message. In this instance, however, we are trying to encourage a non-action. We don’t want people to carry their guns, which will hopefully decrease their risk of using them. We then provide a very good reason to perform the non-action. I believe this justifies the use of a negative message.The Proper Audience

How can you change the likelihood of an outcome for someone that already views such an outcome as likely? If the majority of gun users have already been in jail then they obviously view jail time as a very real consequence of gun use. In this case, this intervention is seems less effective to reach this population. Instead the slogan on the banner seems to be aimed at people who have never been incarcerated. The question now becomes: is this a population that is worth educating?

The answer in the case of gun violence in Baltimore City is yes. In 2001, the firearm homicide rate among 15-19 year olds in Baltimore was 75.4 per 100,000 population, which was ten times the national rate.([v]) The perpetrators of homicides are consistently growing younger and certainly have never been in a prison before. The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research outline a real need for gun control interventions targeting a young and naïve community who have not yet seen the inside of the Baltimore City Jail and hopefully never will.

Another question regarding audience is how will suburban commuters pass the message on to the target audience in the inner city? The answer is that officials are relying on word of mouth to convey their intervention. They are hoping that even if someone does not see it, the banner will make such a dramatic claim (both in location and message) that they are certain to hear of it. Although, certainly it will be the talk of the town at first, its shock-value will die out just as easily. The power of a slogan is in its ability to be seen over and over by the target audience. After the initial buzz, the intervention will be unable to reach its target audience and will be lost on its actual audience. More importantly, the power of this slogan is in its viewing. Only with the tremendous letters flowing off the side of the looming jail is the message truly worthwhile. Word of mouth is useless for a slogan that relies on its shock and awe.

According to behavior change models, the slogan is less than helpful. Its lone advantage is that it can alter how likely the target audience views an outcome of jail time. It does nothing to change the environment that propagates such anti-social behavior or provide individuals with the tools or skills related to non-gun use . As far as slogans go, “Put Down the Gun or Pick a Room,” is an unambiguous statement that is memorable and gets straight to the point. This is a mute point if the important audience is never reached. If those at risk never see the banner, all the marketing experts in the country couldn’t think up a useful slogan.

Despite its apparent failings, this public health intervention seems to be the most cost effective intervention with a potential to reach a large crowds of people. Consequently, there is no risk of using public health money unwisely. Despite that the banner may not reach the most at risk audience directly, and that it does not really provide any sufficient reasoning to believe it will change anyone’s behavior, it may make someone think twice, and that may just be enough to justify its existence. It seems to be a worthwhile public health intervention that would probably be more trouble to remove than to keep, now that it is blowing ominously in the wind.

[i] March 19, 2007 Maryland State Archives—
[ii] O’Rorke, Maureen. Creative Brainstorming: Wrting a Slogan that Works. Resource Recycling. December 1990
[iii] Ibid
[iv] Ibid
[v] USDHHS, CDC, NCHS, OAEHP, CMF compiled from the CMF 1968-1988, series 20, No. 2E 2003 and CMF 1991-2001 series 20, No. 2G 2004 on CDC, Wonder On-Line Database, Accessed May, 2004.

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