The elephant and the rider: Paul Catmur on the behavioural science behind the life-saving Heart Foundation campaign

  • Advertising
  • August 5, 2016
  • Damien Venuto
The elephant and the rider: Paul Catmur on the behavioural science behind the life-saving Heart Foundation campaign

Advertising usually only makes the mainstream media when an All Black features in a spot or when consumers lash out at something they deem to be offensive.

However, today’s edition of the NZ Herald reserved a slot on its front page for a different kind of advertising story.


Neil Rendle, aged 75, told the publication that the Heart Foundation ad, released last year, played a role in saving his life, in that it familiarised him and close friend with the symptoms of a heart attack.

The ad, released in July 2015, uses cinematic sleight of hand to draw attention to what a heart attack actually looks like. While a collection of Kiwis give very animated impressions of what a heart attack looks like, a man sitting on a bench is shown struggling with the actual, far subtler, symptoms in the background.

Produced by Barnes Catmur & Friends (now Barnes Catmur & Friends Dentsu), the spot has, in fact, been credited with saving more than just Rendle’s life since it first aired on television.

“Having at least four documented cases of lives specifically saved by this ad, and presumably many others we don’t know of, is immensely rewarding,” says the agency’s managing partner and executive creative director Paul Catmur.

Catmur says that while the television ad was effective in its own right, the online execution was also important in relaying the symptoms of a heart attack to Kiwis.

The creative team at Barnes Catmur conceptualised an online game that required users to select the four key symptoms of a heart attack from a collection of words. Every time a mistake is made, the words are reshuffled and the user must start again.

“Interestingly, a couple of people have commented on the app asking ‘why don’t you just tell me what the symptoms are,’” says Catmur.  “The reason, of course, is that if we did that, nobody would pay any attention to them. It’s only when it becomes a challenge that people become involved.”

Catmur explains the dual roles of the app and the TVC by referencing Jonathan Haidt’s ‘Rider on an elephant’ analogy of the human brain.  

“We can tell the rational rider what to do, but unless we also engage the more automatic systems of the elephant, the rider won’t be able to move it in the right direction,” he says.  

“The rider logically knows he should remember the symptoms, but unless we also engage the automatic response system of the brain by setting an irresistible little challenge, nothing is going to happen. With both systems working together, the symptoms are remembered and lives are saved.”

While Catmur’s reference here is made in regard to a not-for-profit campaign, there are also commercial examples of behavioural changes encouraged by advertising saving lives.

One of the most commonly referenced would be Lifebuoy, which has through its hand-washing programmes played a significant role in reducing the number of deaths caused by diarrhoea (and sold quite a few bars of soap along the way).

According to Lifebuoy parent company Hindustan Unilever, this hand-washing programme has already reached over 257 million people across 24 countries and aims to reach over a billion people globally by 2020.

Of course, the ability of advertisers to push behaviour in a certain direction can also have less-than-philanthropic consequences.

As pointed out in a recent Gizmodo article, many of our perceptions associated with cleanliness have actually been fabricated by advertising agencies.

Listerine turned bad breath into something that we should be ashamed of, while anti-perspirant (at first regarded as unhealthy for blocking the pores) was presented as a remedy to body odour.

(Image credit:

Advertisers have even played a role in shaping the perception that we should shower once or, in some cases, even twice a day. In the early 20th Century, soap manufacturers formed the Cleanliness Institute, dedicated to shifting perceptions on hygiene so that people would not only want to be clean, but love to be clean.

The rest is history. Sales in hygiene products climbed steadily over the years, eventually leading to the mammoth international grooming industry that now even has commercial partnerships with the All Blacks.

Changing the behaviour of consumers is, of course, nothing new. This is, after all, what entire advertising industry is based on. The difference these days, however, is that advertisers are taking a more scientific approach to changing behaviour.

With advances in behavioural science, we are learning that the subconscious part of the mind plays as a big a role in determining the decisions we eventually make.

As TRA founder Andrew Lewis pointed out in a column written last year, this often leads to a disconnect between what consumers say and what they actually do, which in turn means that researchers—and the advertisers they work with—need to do more observing, rather than just asking questions.

“We need to shrug off the false comfort of direct answers to questions and start to get a bit more comfortable with truer, but potentially less direct insights into people that arise through experiments and observation,” Lewis said.

“We naturally want concrete paths from which to build our plans, but the truth is that these are often the very thing that lead us astray. People act unconsciously and it is important that our insight and marketing strategies play to this.”

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Save the date: Stoppies is returning for another year

  • The Stoppies
  • January 22, 2019
  • StopPress Team
Save the date: Stoppies is returning for another year

On 14 February 2019, the StopPress team will be showering the industry in love as we take a look back at the best of 2018 at The Stoppies brought to you by oOh!.

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