The best way to get a small child to want something is to tell them they can’t have it. And since we’re nothing but grown-up children, it works on us too. “Wet Paint – Don’t Touch!” usually elicits a poke with a finger. The more disinterested in us someone appears, the more attractive they usually become. We are fickle creatures, and we easily fall prey to reverse psychology.
In recent weeks Greenpeace has been making a huge number of people feel very stupid. In June they launched a website called Arctic Ready, a spoofed Shell publicity campaign (complete with near-identical website design) built around a user-generated advert competition that went in exactly the direction you’d expect…
What’s really fascinating is that after Greenpeace owned up to the stunt (including a fake Twitter account that is still remaining “in character”) and the stories faded from the front page of new sources, the website managed to fool an entirely new batch of readers and it went viral again. For Travis Nichols of the Greenpeace media team, the message was clear:
People wringing their hands over what is an obviously satirical campaign that rubs them the wrong way for a few seconds before they realize it’s fake pales in comparison with what Shell is doing, the hoax they’re perpetuating on the American public. It’s a creative campaign and we’re giving our supporters a voice to tell Shell what they think. – (Forbes)
Of course that’s what he’d say – but it’s also a campaign designed to whip the public into a mud-slinging frenzy by lying to journalists and media outlets and then, via faked Shell social media accounts, threaten writers with (false) threats of legal action. Where’s the line over which it becomes flat-out defamation? Martin Robbins at the New Statesman thinks Greenpeace has scored such a huge own-goal that the smartest thing Shell could do is ignore it – which is exactly what it appears to be doing.
For a more elegant example of reverse psychology advertising, look to the city of Troy, Michigan. Last year its treasured public library was on the verge of running out of money, a situation a 0.7% citywide tax hike could remedy. In stepped the anti-taxation forces of the Tea Party, putting their substantial weight behind a “No” vote. With the local election less than a month away, things looked grim. What the library needed was “something attention-getting, something audacious – maybe even vile.”
If you’re not cheering by the end of that video you’re not human – but why is this story far more palatable than Greenpeace’s stunt?
And in either case, do the ends really justify the means?