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Anthropologist helps sell hand-washing habit

15 July, 2008

The New York Times has run a story about Val Curtis, an anthropologist who directs the Hygiene Center at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine: Warning: Habits May Be Good for You by Charles Duhigg. The story discusses how Curtis turned to consumer goods manufacturers like Procter and Gamble and Unilever in her attempts to persuade people in the developing world to wash their hands habitually with soap. Although seemingly innocuous, illnesses carried on the hands that might be prevented by simply washing them often lead to diarrhea, one of the leading killers of children in the developing world.

The marketing divisions of these corporate behemoths had abundant experience insinuating themselves into the everyday habits of consumers, helping us to feel ‘dirty’ if we don’t brush our teeth multiple times each day or that we are inadequate if sweat shows in the armpits of our t-shirts. As Curtis explained:

There are fundamental public health problems, like hand washing with soap, that remain killers only because we can’t figure out how to change people’s habits…. We wanted to learn from private industry how to create new behaviors that happen automatically.

Curtis looked at the ways in which advertisers try to establish cuing behaviour for habits, such as associating being with friends with having a beer or having a Snickers bar when one is a bit spacey in the middle of the afternoon. If the advertising works, the relatively common cue starts to provoke people to think about the product (even if the product is a dubious ‘cure’ for a manufactured ‘problem’).

Dr. Curtis’ problem was that people were not cued to wash their hands with soap after going to the bathroom. As the article explains:

To teach hand washing, about seven years ago Dr. Curtis persuaded Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever to join an initiative called the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing With Soap. The group’s goal was to double the hand-washing rate in Ghana, a West African nation where almost every home contains a soap bar but only 4 percent of adults regularly lather up after using the toilet.

Studies showed that Ghanaians used soap when they felt there hands were dirty, such as after traveling about in the city or cooking with oil, but they didn’t have those associations with going to the bathroom (oh, don’t get all shocked and incredulous — studies of Westerners show that less than half wash their hands before leaving public restrooms). Because modern commodes were such an improvement upon previous facilities, many Ghanaians actually considered them to be quite clean and sanitary, which they are relative to other sorts of solutions to human waste problems.

The campaign resulted in commercials aimed at creating a sense of ‘disgust’ or ‘unseemliness’ about leaving a bathroom without washing one’s hands with soap; they used ‘ads showing mothers and children walking out of bathrooms with a glowing purple pigment on their hands that contaminated everything they touched.’ The article discusses how other public health campaigns, such as HIV infection prevention and anti-smoking campaigns, are adopting a focus on habit formation and using methods that focus less on health concerns than on creating habitual associations.

I get a bit of ethical vertigo in the article as we jump back and forth from discussions of public health campaigns and the marketing of ever-increasing amounts of self consciousness in order to flog new ‘necessities’ like mouth wash and hand sanitizer. A ‘consumer psychologist’ for Procter & Gamble rather glibly announces that her firms’ attempts to create ‘positive habits’ are ‘a huge part of improving our consumers’ lives,’ nevermind that the Cincinnati-based Fortune 500 company markets a few products that likely only improve consumers’ lives after they have developed phobias about the way they smell, the colour of their teeth, or the presence of hair on their bodies in particular places. Christina Aguielera fragrance and ‘Born Blonde’ hair colour, anti-wrinkle creams and teeth-whitening strips seem to be a bit of a stretch in the ‘life improvement’ department.

The companies’ representatives are pretty clear about the need to produce new ‘needs’: one of the P&G psychologists says, ‘For most of our history, we’ve sold newer and better products for habits that already existed…. But about a decade ago, we realized we needed to create new products. So we began thinking about how to create habits for products that had never existed before.’ They turned to emerging research on habit formation in order to learn how to manufacture new ‘needs’ in people’s lives.

One of the better examples that the New York Times article uses as illustration is Febreze, a P&G product first advertised as being useful for getting the smell of smoke out of your clothes after a late night at the local watering hole or for making a stinky room smell passable. Febreze was a big hit in my college dorm immediately prior to parents’ weekend as it was also useful for removing the smells of certain burning substances from the curtains and linens.

Because consumers didn’t need to remove terrible smells often enough (how much of the stuff can you flog to college students in need of hiding incriminating odors?), P&G couldn’t sell enough Febreze. So they repositioned the product, convincing homemakers that a spritz with artificial aromas was the perfect end to a housecleaning activity. As the company psychologist says, ‘It’s the icing that shows you did a good job’ — as meaningless an empty signifier of ‘job done’ as folding the end of toilet paper into a triangle.

North American consumers alone engaged in this habit to the tune of $650 million last year alone. No, I’m not kidding — $650 million on Febreze. I’m just reminded of a girl in my freshman dorm using it on her long hair to try to remove the malodorous aftermath of a serious bender.

The article is fascinating; first, there’s the reincorporation of ideas originally taken from social science research (or psychology) and developed in marketing back into the applied social sciences. Second, there’s the marketers pretty much laying out how they seek to manipulate and produce human needs through a kind of symbolic association, linking their products to sometimes only loosely related recurring events. Third, there’s a fascinating discussion of the habitual basis of much of human behaviour, especially consumption. Worth checking out on many levels.

Credit: Graphic from

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 July, 2008 6:45 pm

    Thanks, Greg, very interesting discussion around that article. You helped me read it in an new light.

  2. 17 July, 2008 6:40 am

    It’s the mantra of marketing that it is effective. But is marketing really effective? John McCreery, an applied anthropologist who lives and works in Japan, claims that marketing is magic and that there’s little proof that it’s effective.

    Reports of hand-washing increased. Does that mean that hand-washing actually increased in Ghana and that some good was done? All that’s been proven is that people now think that hand-washing is appropriate behavior and therefore report doing so. But observational studies in the U.S. show that a much lower percentage of people actually do wash their hands than report doing so. One of the great strengths of anthropology is recognizing that disconnect between ideas and practice, and theorizing it. In a sense, then, I’m disappointed in Val Curtis as reported here for doing weak anthropology, no matter how good her intentions. Of course, it could just be the way the NYT reported the story!!!

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