How a ballot bin made smokers think twice about where they left their stubs

Environmental charity Hubbub used behavioural science techniques to encourage smokers to dispose of stubs carefully

Villiers Street is not one of London’s loveliest thoroughfares. Running from the Strand down to the Embankment, the 500 metre street is home to busy Underground and over ground stations, 11 fast-food joints, three pubs, a nightclub, cafes, corporate offices and private homes. Taxis crawl up part of it. Commuters rush to the stations. Drinkers and clubbers congregate on the pavement. And they all leave rubbish: tonnes of food wrappers, chewing gum and cigarette butts. It’s a nightmare for the council – and unpleasant for those who use the road.

But last year there was a change in Villiers Street and one that’s now being followed all over the UK. It’s an example of the different ways some companies and institutions communicate with their customers – and how they guide the way they make decisions. Welcome to behavioural science – and one of its applications: the so-called ‘nudge theory’.

Villiers Street is a good example of how nudge theory is being used to influence behaviour, and to produce results when conventional methods have failed to work well. Environmental charity Hubbub chose the street for its first project. Co-founder Trewin Restorick explains that the charity was founded last year to deal with environmental issues. It claims to ‘make environmental matters matter, creating fun campaigns that people latch onto and which go on to have a life of their own’.

‘We were contacted by a number of companies, including McDonald’s and Coca-Cola and trade bodies who said their brands were being damaged by littering,’ says Restorick. ‘We asked Westminster Council which street we could make the biggest impact on. It told us that Villiers Street is the second busiest pedestrian street in London and the council had to clean it seven times a day. It’s got offices, nightclubs, bars and stations: it’s a real mish-mash.’

Hubbub started monitoring how people littered Villiers Street. Its researchers noticed that cigarette littering, which represented 72 per cent of all litter on the street, occurred largely at night and the main culprits were young men. This prompted the charity to ponder how it could persuade young lads on the town to change their habits, and not drop butts on the ground.

The charity started a number of initiatives to see if they could get people to throw their litter in to bins. There was a flash mob. The charity placed an empty bottle on the street: if someone picked it up, singers appeared and serenaded them. There was also a piece of art which people could add their chewing gum to, to dispose of it. It wasn’t a great success. Chewers didn’t seem to like the sight of massed pieces of regurgitated gum.

Our challenge was to get smokers to bin their butts rather than discard them

But what did work was the Ballot Bin. The charity created a big, yellow bin on which cigarettes could be stubbed out on the top. Drawing on its understanding of gamification techniques, Hubbub then uses questions to encourage smokers to use their stubs to vote. The question has two answers, each displayed above a separate chute, and smokers are encouraged to pick sides. Transparent glass at the front allows voters to see which side is winning.

Mindful of its target audience, the first question posed to the smokers of Villiers Street was: Who is the greatest footballer in the world? Ronaldo or Messi. Ronaldo won.

‘Our challenge was to get smokers to bin their butts rather than discard them,’ says Restorick. ‘We had people watching in the street at all times of the day and night to watch how the bin was used.’ It was spotted and featured by website THELAD Bible and then by the sports pages of the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror.

But, more importantly, the bin has made a positive effect. Littering was cut 26 per cent in Villiers Street and a massive 38 per cent fewer cigarette butts were discarded on the pavements. ‘It made people think about what they were doing and change their behaviour: no-one wants to be thought of as a litter lout,’ says Restorick.

The campaign cost £80,000 but he doesn’t know how much it has saved the council in cleaning costs. Local authorities spend almost £1 billion a year cleaning up litter, with chewing gum and cigarettes the most littered items, although fast-food littering is also on the rise (up 20 per cent last year). A survey by Keep Britain Tidy found that 71 per cent of councils felt that, if they did not have to spend money on clean-up costs, they could reinvest the funds into other services or to reduce council tax bills.

Since the Villiers Street experience, Hubbub has sold 220 bins – they cost £195 each – with half of them going abroad. The buyer chooses the question (which can be changed easily). Sutton became the first council to install Ballot Bins, and asked smokers whether Batman or Superman was the best superhero. In Edinburgh, a Ballot Bin asked whether Begbie or Renton was the best character in Trainspotting. Actor Ewan McGregor, who played Renton, put it on Instagram pointing out that his character had lost.

In Spain, smokers voted on whether Atletico or Real Madrid was the better team. ‘We also had some bins asking about Europe in the run up to the referendum,’ says Restorick. ‘It’s safe to say that the UK’s smokers were firmly in favour of Brexit.’

The Ballot Bin project is an example of behavioural psychology being used to influence behaviour. And it’s not the only one. In 2010 the government formed the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). In 2014 it became a private company owned by the Cabinet Office, innovation charity Nesta and employees of BIT. Its staff  have backgrounds in economics, psychology and ‘randomised controlled trial design’ or in government policy.

Its aim is to redesign public services using behavioural science so people make ‘better choices’ for themselves and improving outcomes. It’s known as the ‘nudge unit’ after the 2008 book, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness by American academic Richard Thaler.

The idea is that just by giving people a small ‘nudge’ in the right direction can result in significant changes: just as the Ballot Bin ‘nudged’ smokers into being tidy, resulting in a cleaner environment. And nudges from BIT can come from letters as well as text message and social media.

Successes of the BIT unit include campaigns chasing unpaid tax. For most tardy taxpayers, the nudge that most of their neighbours had paid was enough. But for a small hard core who owed the most tax, this didn’t work because they didn’t see themselves as comparable to their neighbours. Instead for them, the push into payment needed was a reminder letter that, if they didn’t pay up, public services could be affected. It worked because these people could see their money actually making a difference.

Behavioural science provides us with new insights into how people can be influenced as well as providing an explanation for those we already know

Other BIT projects used text messaging to improvement attendance at adult literacy classes; asking drivers to make a decision about organ donations when they applied for licences and just getting the HMRC to handwrite some envelopes rather than use printed addresses because people are more likely to open letters that appear more personal than those with a computer-generated address. All these projects improved behaviour but BIT adds that ‘sometimes the trials we run show that something doesn’t work. That’s why we test interventions first before we roll them out’.

The BIT now has freedom to work for companies (but only on social purpose projects) as well as government organisations. And its influence has been enormous: there are now similar units worldwide including in the US. Alex Pearmain, co-founder of the One Fifty consultancy, says: ‘The UK Government was hugely progressive in setting up the BIT. It’s an unusual example of a government being enlightened, being ahead of the times.’

Pearmain’s consultancy, which uses behavioural psychology in its work helping companies’ social media communications, said that nudge theory is a useful tool. ‘You find people sharing pictures of themselves online in exercise gear. Let’s say you are a fitness company, keen to help people exercise more. So how would you engage with these people online? It’s not about putting pictures of super-fit bodybuilders online: they don’t influence normal people and would not encourage them to go to the gym more often.’

Instead, it’s important to dig deeper into the motivations of those posting pictures so companies who want to reach out to them do so effectively. Says Pearmain: ‘You need to understand why people are putting pictures of themselves after exercise online. They aren’t doing it to show off: they are doing it for validation. They want someone to say well done for going to the gym and that’s just how fitness brands use social media to connect with them. And they tailor their language too: men like being told their decision to exercise will make them strong: women like being told their choice to keep fit is inspiring.’

Matt Battersby, who used to head up H+K’s Financial & Professional Services team was so inspired by clients talking about behavioural economics he took an Executive MSc in Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics. He now runs H+K Smarter, its behavioural insights and strategies team.

‘Behavioural science provides us with new insights into how people can be influenced as well as providing an explanation for those we already know. But we’re only now starting to realise how effective using social norms in communications can be,’ he explains. ‘For example, energy bills that include comparisons of a household’s energy use compared with its neighbours can reduce energy consumption by six per cent. Similarly, telling hotel guests that the majority of people who stayed in their room reused their towels increased their own reuse rate by 33 per cent compared with standard messages appealing to the environmental benefits.’

Battersby says that he is finding clients are very interested in the application of behavioural psychology to the ways they communicate with their customers. They like that behavioural science can produce ‘tangible outcomes’. As he explains, organisations cannot predict the way their customers will act and react – and their actions can thus sometimes seem irrational and surprising.

He adds: ‘There is a growing recognition that conventional approaches have not yet solved these [issues] and perhaps a more scientific approach is required. There has been a considerable interest from internal communications clients as there is often a very clear behaviour or decision-making process trying to be influenced here.’

Telling hotel guests that the majority of people who stayed in their room reused their towels increased their own reuse rate by 33 per cent compared with standard messages appealing to the environmental benefits

Battersby says that from an external communications perspective, there is a lot of interest from organisations where the audience has to make decisions with long-term impacts, such as reducing energy consumption, getting health checks or keeping fit.

If behavioural science and in particular nudge theory catches on even more, it does call into question whether there is any need for the conventional media – and thus the traditional public relations role. Nudge theory is a direct communication between a company or organisation and its clients, so does it negate the need for the PR and reporter middlemen?

Pearmain says that the old-fashioned press release turned into a story in the print media is largely redundant, but adds: ‘Those with high quality content such as the Financial Times and Economist will thrive. Those which regurgitate press releases are obsolete.’ Battersby however says that media relations ‘is still a huge influence on people’s behaviour and will always be an important part of what the PR industry does’.

But he points out: ‘What behavioural science does is provide us with a greater understanding that what makes a good message for the media doesn’t always match what makes a good message for the end audience. For example, traditionally we may have thought that the best way to influence a behaviour such as obesity or low pension savings was to highlight the size of the problem and the dangers it entails.

‘This approach definitely appeals to the news sense of a journalist. However, our growing understanding of the influence of social norms suggest that by doing this we are at risk of suggesting to people that it is okay to act in this way because everybody else is doing so. By trying to warn about the size of the problem we may just end up normalising it.’