Beware the unintended consequence, my son

Mark Baker says that the purpose of all communication iThe White Rabbits to change behavior. It’s hard to argue with that, especially because Mark defines the phrase change behavior pretty broadly. I think that influence might be a more suitable word. But that’s a small point, and overall I agree with Mark’s assertion.

But here’s the thing. Whether our writing is designed to influence people or to change their behavior, we have to remain constantly vigilant for unintended consequences.

Case in point: A certain, ahem, medical product is marketed heavily in the U.S. through television and print ads. I won’t write the product’s name lest I draw unwanted search engine traffic. But it’s pronounced “See Alice.”

Whenever I see one of those ads, my mind plays a little game. Specifically, it plugs the product name into the opening lines of Jefferson Airplane’s song White Rabbit :

One pill makes you larger.
And one pill makes you small.
And the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all.
Go see Alice, when she’s ten feet tall.

Images from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland float through my brain. Sometimes an earworm lingers in my head for a while — a pleasant one, since I like the song.

It’s harmless fun. Except that it’s so completely not what the drug manufacturer had in mind when they set out to change my behavior.

So, boys and girls, here’s the moral of the story. Writing is powerful: it influences people. Before you hit the Publish button, make sure that your writing will influence people in the way you want. Otherwise you’re apt to lead your readers down a rabbit hole.

Originally published on the SDI blog, 12 October 2011

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