What does a mobile phone advert have to do with women’s sport?

Some of you may have heard the latest government radio advert, aimed at stopping us all using our mobile phones in the car. It is a great example of behaviour change theory.


Theory alert……A quick recap on the behaviour change model that we apply. Based on the work by Dan and Chip Heath, in order to successfully bring about change, three different elements need to be in place.  You need to:

direct the rider;

motivate the elephant; and

shape the path.

In simple terms, the rider equates to the rational side of human beings and the elephant equates to our emotional side. No matter how much the rider might be aware of what the outcome needs to be, and what their behaviour should be, if their elephant is not motivated to get there, it’s not going to happen. Similarly, no matter how motivated the elephant is to get to the destination, and ‘behave well’, if the rider doesn’t know how to get there, it will simply be churning up the ground in the same spot.  Even where both rider and elephant are ready to get going, if the terrain is obstructive, getting to the destination will be extremely hard, meaning the rider and elephant are more likely to give up.

The advert…..So how does this apply to the radio advert.  This is where it gets clever. The advert starts by appealing to our elephant. The first thing mentioned is that the penalty for mobile phone use has gone up to 6 points. And a maximum fine of £2000.  Almost as an afterthought, the real danger, the fact that we might kill someone, is mentioned.  Why this approach? Because the advert is focusing on the emotional ‘hook’ that is immediately relevant to us, the one that we can relate to.  Losing £2000 and getting 6 points is tangible, and immediately disadvantageous. The prospect of killing someone is more remote, harder to relate to, and less tangible, despite the fact that that is the exact and tragic outcome the advert is seeking to avoid. 

The next step of the advert is genius.  It is a clear example of directing the rider. We all know we shouldn’t be using our phones in the car, but are we clear on methods to avoid doing so? What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.  So the advert gives us a clear direction – put your phone in your glove compartment.  It even goes as far as to rename the glove compartment your phone compartment.  Simples. 

The final area, shaping the path, is provided by the constant repeating of this advert.  This strand of the model is aimed at making the good behaviour easier to carry out, and the ‘bad’ behaviour harder to carry out. Think back to the days of early cashpoints – did you ever take your money and leave your card in the cashpoint? Well done if you didn’t, but enough people did to make the banks frustrated. So they took a simple step to shape the path – you can no longer take your cash out, until you have removed your card! Part of shaping the path is helping people to build habits, and constantly repeating this advert, on a radio channel, that many drivers listen to, will help shape that path.

And the link to women’s sport…..There are so many wonderful initiatives going on in women’s sport at the moment.  A few of them are highlighted below, with an explanation as to how behaviour change theory is relevant:

  • England Netball’s Back to Netball campaign – Shaping the Path for women wanting to return to netball. This also works to Motivate the Elephant, as it creates a ‘herd’ of women taking part, encouraging others to want to join – behaviour is contagious, and an elephant likes to follow a herd.


  • #SheRallies – the new LTA female coaching campaign, backed by Judy Murray, to help ‘activate’ many more women into tennis. The campaign’s focus is to train up a series of ‘activators’ across the country, who can work to activate more women and girls into tennis. Part of this will be looking at what works already (we call this ‘finding the bright spots, and it is a key element of Directing the Rider) and part of it will be giving the activators clear instructions and guidance on what they need to be doing (scripting some critical moves for the Rider).


  • SportsCoachUK’s Reach campaign – again, a campaign that has been created to raise awareness and inspire more women to get into coaching as well as encourage current women coaches to develop their skills. These campaigns serve to Motivate the Elephant, both of the coaches and activators (they want to join this herd) but also of the end recipients – women and girls. Their elephant is more likely to be motivated if they are being encouraged into sport and physical activity by someone in their community, who is like them, and understands their lives and needs.


  • Women’s Sport Trust #BeAGameChangerAwards – a great example of finding and rewarding the Bright Spots (Directing the Rider) and Motivating the Elephant (an annual get together and celebration of all those working hard in this space – who wouldn’t want to join this herd?)


  • Viewing figures – do you know one of the main reasons why the GB Women’s hockey final at Rio was watched by so many people? Because it came on the tv directly after a big football match, which many people were watching in the pub. Lots of pubs flicked their coverage over to the hockey, and bingo – a captive audience. A great example of Shaping the Path – tweaking the environment to encourage the behaviour that you want. This concept is being repeated in so many sports, from cricket through to rugby, with initiatives aimed at two key areas: (i) making it more appealing for women and families to attend sporting events; and (ii) encouraging more attendance in general at women’s sport events.

There is much that still needs to be done to continue the momentum behind the upswing in all areas of women’s sport in general, but these examples show how careful planning, and a strategic approach, can reap rewards.  If anyone would like to find out more about our behaviour change model, and how it can drive the success of your initiatives, please do get in touch catherine@sportandbeyond.co.uk.

We have also had strong confirmation of a Shaping the Path effect in our training delivery, through the overwhelmingly positive responses to our female only courses, both in the coaching sphere, and in our female leadership programmes.  Again, to find out more, and see how these courses (aimed specifically at building confidence and impact) can drive the performance of women who work in sport, please do get in touch catherine@sportandbeyond.co.uk

Catherine BAKERComment