Shame Curbs Bad Behavior

In China, no one is safe on March 15th, World Consumer Rights Day. An Evening Gala is hosted every year by CCTV, China Central Television since 1991. The purpose is to name and shame companies for their misconduct against consumer interest.  In decades past, firms like Starbucks, LG and Hewlett-Packard have been called out when offering poor products or irresponsible customer service. Many Chinese companies and state-owned enterprises like China Mobile have been inducted in this Hall of Shame as well.

This year, the Evening Gala aimed mainly at the misconduct in E-Commerce and Social Media. According to the State Ministry of Industry and Commerce, during this gala, Elema, a billion-dollar food delivery company, was shamed for making food under unsanitary conditions; Yipai (Easy Pass), China’s leading online automobile marketing platform, was accused of hurting consumers by providing personal   information to outsiders; Taobao, the biggest online shopping website founded by technology giant Alibaba, was  named for fraudulent consumer reviews which influenced product  rankings.  The Gala quickly became a battle cry for corporate PR teams, who had to come up overnight with explanations and damage control.

Will these allegations curb bad behaviors in companies and individuals? The answer seems to be “yes”. A new law prohibits indoor smoking in Beijing.  Individuals breaking these regulations can be fined $30, restaurants up to $155. In addition to the fines, repeat offenders see their names posted on a government website for one month, alongside a list of their offenses. Witnesses to infractions are urged to notify the government. Social shaming pressure is expected to make the new law more effective – and it works!

Shame can be used to focus attention on some “bad apples”, especially when it comes to major collective problems. It helps to be creative and focused when choosing targets. Companies, such as British Petroleum or SeaWorld, do not feel guilt. However, the people working in these corporations do. Their thoughts and behavior can be influenced by public disapproval and even mortify them. Public opinion can be essential for companies, especially if they are producing consumer brands, such as IPhones or agile Orcas. Reputational risks are a concern, and public shaming can be most effective if targeted at ”friendly” corporations and their employees.

One must ponder the question: can “shame” really work in implementing government policy? Jennifer Jacquet, author of Is Shame Necessary?, claims success for a website run by the state of California that lists the names of people who have not paid their taxes. The site targets only the top 500 delinquents, and the state has retrieved more than US$395 million in back taxes since it was launched in 2007.

Another possible and very helpful area for “shame policy” is immunization of a country’s population. Typically, 90 percent of people need vaccination for there to be true immunity. People can opt-out and get a “free-ride”, since everyone around them is taking the needle for them. However, with reduced compliance, immunization doesn’t work anymore. That’s where shaming can help encourage participation.

Another example is the Rainforest Action Network and its shaming campaign against banks which financed coal companies doing mountain-top removal in the Appalachia region. After a five-year campaign, two of the nine banks have changed their policy of lending to coal companies. Two out of nine may seem like limited success, but every march starts with the first step.   Shaming can act as a stop-gap for the period when people are concerned about something and when actual change comes about.

Working to avoid shame can lead to better weights and measurements. Who wants to be ridiculed by competitors or lose a long-developed fine reputation. Particularly in fields such as marketing, where the brand and personal perceptions are paramount, shaming can become a major influence if not the rationale for the curative marketing approach which aims to heal relationships between business, government and consumers. Avoiding shame by reducing, eliminating and making up for past mistakes, can strengthen a company’s unique selling proposition and let it emerge as a seasoned competitor.