Education is not the answer

Yesterday I saw a video that shocked me. It’s a Scottish current affairs show, which first regales the viewer with (sceptically voiced) insights into bicycle infrastructure in the Netherlands, then descends into a debate (from 5:00) over whether Scotland should invest in safe bicycle infrastructure.

Representing safe cycling: the chair of CTC Scotland who (not mentioned) is an experienced trauma surgeon. Representing mockery of cycling: a ‘journalist’ (not mentioned: motoring journalist) who is (also not mentioned) a member of (anti-bicycle organisation) the Institute of Advanced Motorists.

Takeaway: willful ignorance delivered in a charismatic and light-hearted fashion wins against dull facts in a monotone.

Have you seen the (frankly excellent) film Thank You for Smoking? The debate reminded me of this scene where the highly effective tobacco lobbyist demonstrates to his son how to win an argument.

Compare (academic, scolding) anti-obesity ‘education’ with slick, we-bring-joy campaigns from Coke, McDo et al.


Compare tobacco marketing – pushed by ‘cool‘ friends, based on fashionable role models – with (academic, scolding) anti-smoking campaigns. “Don’t guilt-trip me! Don’t lecture me! I can make my own decisions, thank you!” (To see a good use of persuasion, cast your eyes over this guilt-free, norm-acknowledging anti-smoking campaign from Canada here.)

Compare (academic, lecture-y) climate change warnings with the emotion-based ‘common sense’ of denier literature.

Compare Bike to Work Day campaigns – healthy, fun, statistically safe! – with your average slick car commercial – freedom, status, power, control! (The Cycle Chic movement and, here in NZ, Frocks on Bikes are largely on to the right idea.)

Takeaway: ‘Education’ is largely a pointless waste of money, unless we deliver it with charm, humour, laden with meaningful human values, delivered in an entertaining way and with a single-minded focus on the benefits that will win over the audience. Hearts (as well as minds) demand to be won.

8 thoughts on “Education is not the answer

  1. I was the chap in the film item who cycled in Amsterdam.
    I’ve taken part in ‘hostile’ interviews before. It is a lot tougher than it looks especially when you do it remote. …. mine was for 5live and I was snowed in in Boston US at the time. Whilst it wasn’t prefect Chris (CTC) so came across better than Alan (angry motorist).

    Anyway some good may come off it. Alan had agreed to meet me and look at the cycle lanes on my commute. Perhaps the is hope. ….

  2. David,

    Thank you for your comments. I agree it was a hostile interview and the host appeared to join sides with the motoring journalist. (Seen from a layman’s POV, the host could merely have been voicing the concerns of your average Joe – or Hamish – in the street.)

    However, the ‘journalist’ came across as if he’d heard it all before, brushed off the arguments casually and looked genuinely surprised at how easily the fight was being won. (I tend to disagree that Alan came across as an angry motorist, just as someone poking easy fun at cyclists.) With all respect to the CTC gent and with due understanding that the live link doesn’t allow for an instant response, he seemed a little like he’d been cloistered away from these basic anti-bike arguments and had had no practice at cutting down those arguments – and their voicers – with sharp sarcasm, humor-tinged ridicule and pointed reverse analogies. THEN he could have talked facts.

    Yes, it is a great stride to get a voice for cyclists and safer transport on a show such as this and good will come of it in many forms. Good work getting Alan to agree to meet! Work on your delivery, focus on the benefits for the drivers and the community and economy, and countering daft arguments, and let us know how it goes.


  3. Very good post, recognizing the realities of the political environment we exist in.

    The takeaway message for me is: “Voters are all that matter, and the majority of voters are shallow, unthinking fools, who are incapable of understanding a reasoned argument but are easily influenced by humbug.”

    The electoral reform referendum of 2011 demonstrated this very clearly.

    You are absolutely right, though.

    • Mr Happy,

      You’ve grasped my point well. (Although I’d suggest voters are possibly a little more nuanced! Haha.) Emotions come first. And likability (with an L not a B). And trust. Only then, when people are open to hearing your opinion, will they listen to your ‘facts’.

      People ‘think’ less than they think. :-p (Read anything by nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman.)


  4. So. Much. Truth.

    Even as a teenager I knew if smoking was ever to be made unpopular the adverts should forget focusing on the health risks – no 17 year old cares about the lung cancer they might get aged 50+ (ie a lifetime away). But show them a few shots of ugly fat people smoking, make the smoker a source of derision, and you’ve nailed it. Possibly tricky for the “establishment” to do in a non-preachy way, but I’m sure a canny marketing company could have come up with ideas given the right brief. A bit like “dumb ways to die” . Great to see that

    Again the electoral reform referendum was a great example. Even the funny comedians (Izzard et al) were left trying to explain the boring mechanics of a superior, but unintuitive voting system. While Cameron just got a few juicy soundbites in with an interview in the Daily Fail.

    And cycling? Let’s not forget that the thing that swung it for the Netherlands wasn’t arguments based on economic benefits, or statistics about congestion and carbon savings . It was one campaign with one slogan – “Stop The Child Murder!”. Who’s going to disagree with that? But even then it was close – I forget the name of the motorway through the city which was narrowly voted against.

    How the Dutch got their cycle paths:

    And while watching note how the producer of this amateur video has made great use of moving backing music, etc. Much as it galls me, winning this battle is all about marketing.

  5. All hope it’s not lost… Note the number of times bicycles appear in adverts these days. Bikes are becoming trendy/cool/in.
    – Ross (Christchurch, NZ)

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