Time to Get Trigger Happy

Creating an environment for your idea will make it more successful.

When you’re afraid of forgetting a folder that you need for work the next day, you may leave it right by the front door. You’ve created an environmental trigger.


This idea of using triggers extends far beyond your front door–into many aspects of our society, including business, although not as much as it should. David Allen, author of the classic Getting Things Done, uses triggers in service of personal productivity. He advises people to avoid a single master to-do list; instead, he recommends a series of context-dependent lists (such as a “calls list,” so when you phone a potential customer, you’re also reminded to call your A/C repairman and your sister for her birthday). The lesson: If you have something you don’t want to forget, don’t scrunch up your brain and try really hard to retain it; just install an environmental trigger to do the remembering for you.

That’s the power of a trigger in our culture. Spotting boarded-up or shattered windows in a run-down neighborhood may bring to mind the “broken windows” theory of crime (even if James Q. Wilson didn’t intend the trigger effect). In the proverb “red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailors take warning,” the color of the sky triggers a weather prediction. The urban legend that Snapple supported the KKK was backed up with whispered proof: “Look on the label and hidden somewhere on it, you’ll find a K with a circle around it.” Sure enough, if there is a circled K on the label, and if you see it, the urban legend may be triggered. In reality, of course, that slandered little K means “kosher,” not “Klan.”

What if people planned their ideas, from the start, to take advantage of triggers in the environment? Two professors, Jonah A. Berger and Grainne Fitzsimons, announce in a forthcoming paper that they’ve used triggers to do the impossible: get college students to eat more veggies.

In their study, students were paid $20 to report their daily eating habits. Then they were offered a seemingly unrelated opportunity to give feedback on a public-health slogan. One group of students saw the slogan “Live the healthy way, eat five fruits and veggies a day.” Another group saw “Each and every dining-hall tray needs five fruits and veggies a day.” In both cases, the idea is the same–eat more fruits and veggies–but the slogan with the tray hooks into a specific cue in the environment.

The students didn’t much like the tray slogan. They found it corny and rated it half as attractive as the more generic slogan. Meanwhile, the professors were keeping an eye on what the students ate. Those who got the generic “Live healthy” slogan, without the trigger, didnt eat any more fruits and vegetables. The same goes for those who got the tray slogan but ate in cafeterias without trays. But students who ate in cafeterias with trays ate 25% more fruits and veggies over the course of the next week. The trigger worked.

Marketers spend most of their time scheming how to drive messages into the heads of consumers, and yet rarely do they use triggers. A slogan by itself is a funny kind of trigger, because the only time it appears is when you’re exposed to the advertisements it’s featured in. Hopefully your colleagues don’t go around saying things like “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.”


A few marketers do get it. The ingenious “Got milk?” campaign coached us to crave milk when eating an Oreo or spooning out peanut butter (and, less usefully, when looking at a celebrity’s upper lip). Even times of the day can be triggers. Consider Dr Pepper’s classic campaign “10, 2, and 4”–the clock points when you should be enjoying a DP. Michelob borrowed this strategy with its successful “Weekends are made for Michelob” campaign. So if you were picking up beer for a friend’s weekend barbecue, you might reach for a 12-pack of Michelob instead of a more “everyday” beer like Budweiser. A chance encounter with a calendar convinced the Michelob team that abandoning the five weekdays might be limiting, so it gamely changed course: “Put a little weekend in your week.” Nice try, Michelob.

Triggers can also be the secret weapon of the underdog, because the “little guy” can co-opt the well-known imagery of a larger opponent to create an environmental trigger. Adbusters created a brilliant satire of an Absolut vodka ad, in which the bottle hangs limply to one side. The caption: absolut impotence. In a Truth spoof of the Marlboro campaign, with two cowboys, one tells the other, “Bob, I’ve got emphysema.”

Suddenly, these iconic ad campaigns have been turned into triggers for rebellious ideas. It’s hard to see an Absolut ad without recalling the droop. The big advertisers’ moves have been absorbed and redirected by another party. It’s idea judo.

Think about the ideas that are important to you: Could you hook them to something in the environment? An anti-nuclear-testing group, for instance, quietly placed signs around the walk buttons at urban crosswalks, and as a pedestrian’s finger moved toward the button, he’d notice that the sign read the world could end this easily. Suddenly, people would flinch, and think about nuclear weapons when crossing the street.

Whether you’re judoing a multinational or just reminding yourself to pick up milk, try planting some idea triggers in your environment. And if you think you’ll forget, just put this magazine by the front door.

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Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the best-selling authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. If you’ve successfully created a trigger or performed some idea judo, tell us.