Insights (Essays)

Insights (Essays) February 2010

Haiti vs. Avatar - and Behavioral Economics 2.0

Neil Seeman

 Say you have $15 only. You could spend it on seeing "Avatar" - or you could text a message on your cell phone to send the cash to Haiti. Imagine you yearn to see the movie but you also want to assist - even in a small way - to help relief agencies mobilize nurses, physicians and medics in Haiti.


What would you do? If you took economics 101 - or if you were ever a teenager with a scarcity of funds - you will be familiar with the concept of 'opportunity cost'.  Suppose you have just a few dollars at the fruit market; the opportunity cost of a bag of cherries is a bushel of bananas. The opportunity cost of working late at the office is lost time with your family.


Faced with the Avatar vs. Haiti choice two weeks ago, many people chose to spend their money on Haiti. According to Google Trends™, Haiti is waning in importance - despite the continued urgency of the crisis.

Avatar will be a smashing success at the box office for months - even though some, notably Academy award-winning Spanish director Fernando Trueba, say the trailer is likely as good as the film. Meanwhile, the people of Haiti suffer amid ruins and staggering death.

One month after its international release, Avatar has grossed over $1.85 billion in ticket sales. At this rate, the movie's earnings will eclipse Haiti's pre-earthquake annual GDP ($11.6 billion). Before the earthquake, Haiti's per capita income was $3.60 a day, the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Since the disaster struck on January 12, more than 150,000 Haitians have died. The injured are approaching 200,000. Avatar's director, James Cameron, has already announced a sequel. Meanwhile, Raymond Joseph, the Haitian Ambassador to the United States, has said: "If nothing is done immediately to stop an ecological catastrophe, big chunks of land will continue to disappear into the Caribbean Sea." One of Avatar's main themes is biodiversity.

People of the world, including many Hollywood stars, have stood by Haiti during this time of need.

On rational self-reflection, I believe most of us would opt to help the people of Haiti rather than spend our money on Avatar. Avatar will still be around in one year; it will cost less when it's out on video; and, if you insist on seeing it in the theatre, it will be less crowded then. If you do not send money to Haiti, you suffer the opportunity cost of guilt (or the absence of doing a good deed), which is not insignificant in human motivation.

Watching Avatar is a three-hour commitment, plus commuting time. Losing that time is an opportunity cost. A text message to the Red Cross takes five seconds. So let's pretend you take a pass on Avatar - for today. Going to see the film at the IMAX, with a soda and popcorn, will cost you about $30, $40 with parking. Two tickets to Avatar plus parking and popcorn could pay for a tent to house one displaced family in Haiti.

Don't See Avatar (Now), Help Haiti

Behavioral economists have suggested incentives and policies to 'nudge' people to act in their best interests, or to benefit society, and, in the process, to forgo immediate self-interest (such as seeing Avatar). Several people, notably Fabio Gratton - have broken new ground in the field of behavioral economics by accelerating a viral campaign called "Don't See Avatar, Help Haiti". Others have joined the chorus: "Avatar for Haiti."

Mr. Gratton is not an economist. A former screenwriter, he is the Chief Innovation Officer and a founding partner ofIgnite Health, a health advertising and marketing company. On Twitter, he goes by the handle @skypen. Along with Wyclef Jean (@wyclef), the Haitian-born singer, Mr. Gratton has been one of the most influential advocates for earthquake relief via Twitter - a platform that has raised astonishing sums of money for the people of Haiti. The influence of Messrs. Jean and Gratton is demonstrable through the numbers of people on Twitter who have "retweeted" their advocacy. Viral campaigns for Haiti have been enabled by the text-based charitable giving technology at the award-winning Mobile Giving Foundation and MGive.

I have no brook with Avatar; it has been hailed as a breakthrough stereoscopic wonder. But economists and policy-makers around the world should learn from the Twitter campaign for Haiti. Its impact has been stunning - and scientific in its simplicity. For one, the campaign lays bare the baseless supposition that young people who are active on Twitter, the so-called Millenials, are an uncaring, inward-looking bunch.

There are a number of policy lessons to take away from the success of 'Avatar for Haiti'. First, marketers need to leverage the micro-format used on Twitter. With 58 million monthly visits, the "SMS of the Internet" - which allows for 140-character messages to get passed along to friends and strangers - is a global broadcasting and alert system. "Haiti, not Avatar" - plus a short Web link embedded in the message - runs fewer than 40 characters; this means it can be transmitted to other Twitter users, who in turn pass along the message.

Second, the message passes the four-second test. Within four seconds of hearing it, it is intuitive to anyone aware of both the disaster in Haiti and Avatar. Sure, it won't work for people who haven't heard of Avatar. But social marketers should know that you need to capture a segment of people who are socially aware and, ideally, people whose actions inspire other people to emulate that behavior (i.e. global influencers, like Messrs. Gratton or Jean, or Oprah Winfrey or Ashton Kutcher).

Third, a micro-campaign on the Web - or what I call behavioral economics 2.0 - can present mutually exclusive options that are bite-sized. Let's apply this to health or hospital policy more broadly. Instead of encouraging people to "give generously," you could try: "give to your local hospital, or see it disappear." Or, to fund medical research: "help cure cancer, skip your latt├ęs this week."

When opportunity costs are described crisply, people act upon them. They lose what economists call their 'present-focus'; people are prepared psychologically to sacrifice immediate pleasures, like seeing Avatar.

"Avatar for Haiti" took advantage of an existing platform, Twitter, which people were already using to discuss the Haiti crisis. Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on newspaper ads, or a televised campaign, would have accomplished little in comparison.

The 'Help Haiti' message caught fire because it combined two as-yet unassociated concepts: a disaster and a pleasure. With social marketing in healthcare, we are often told to "eat our fruits and vegetables" or "get active". How often are we presented with binary choices that convey immediacy? Skip Avatar, help Haiti. 

About the Author(s)

Neil Seeman is director of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell. To learn about how you can help Haiti from your mobile phone, click here.


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