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Slip, Slop, Slap! Behavior Change vs. Skin Cancer

Australia's catchy sun protection campaign is working. What can we learn from 30 years of behavior change results?

Photo of Shauna Carey
7 16

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A campaign encouraging Aussies to Slip on a shirt, Slop on the 30+ sunscreen, Slap on a hat, danced its way into the public domain in the 80s, and Cancer Council Australia now says they have the results—a sharp dip in skin cancer rates—to prove it's working.

The thing about behavior change is that it is much easier to do when the new behavior has immediate and obvious benefits. For issues like the long-term effects of skin damage, it can be very tricky to get a population to take action, because the effects are too far in the future.

It seems to me that there may some lessons in here about how to change parents' mindsets around what activities they should be prioritizing with young children. Early childhood development is—as its core—an exercise in priority setting. Especially in low-resource contexts, emphasizing preschool or other time-intensive activities means parents making difficult choices about spending their scarce time on something for which the benefits may not be immediately visible. 

What do you think we can learn from Slip, Slop, Slap! and other successful campaigns to change public behavior?


Join the conversation:

Photo of Jes Simson

Great provocation Shauna!

I grew up in Australia in the 90's and vividly remember this campaign (and I still 'slip, slop, slap').

For me, there are three important takeaways from this campaign.

(1) Know who you can engage to create impact. 'Slip, Slop, Slap' engaged parents and kids, with communications targeted at each. From memory, the ads aimed at kids screened in the afternoon during summer and involved a catchy jingle and some cute cartoon animals. Ads aimed at parents were a bit more factual. The campaign also engaged other community groups like schools, sporting clubs and lifesaving clubs (which have extensive summer holiday programs in Australia). Sunscreen is also heavily advertised during summer which adds to the cause.

Who are the members of your community who could are well positioned to change their community's beliefs about early childhood development? What is the best way to reach and engage those members of the community? How might we enable them to engage and reach their community? How might we tailor campaign communication to better serve that community?

(2) Skin cancer is a long term health issue, but getting burnt is not. It really hurts. You can't sleep. Your body feels freezing but your skin burns. On a particularly hot day, you can wind up with 3rd degree burns if you're not careful.

Noticeable short term benefits, even if they are small, can really help you stick to longer term visions where the benefits aren't immediately visible. Are there any noticeable short term benefits that we might harness to increase support for longer term goals like early childhood development?

(3) It's all about tradeoffs. Spending a couple of minutes lathering yourself up in sunscreen and chucking on a hat and long sleeved shirt is inconvenient, but it's not a particularly high price to pay. Setting aside valuable resources (like time and money) when you are resource poor is incredibly difficult. How might we frame the benefits so that individuals can see the benefit of this tradeoff?

Photo of Catherine Collins

Great questions Jes and Shauna! To build on these questions:

What are examples of current parenting behavior that put children at risk in their early childhood?

What are the top parenting behaviors that ensure a healthy childhood?

How can we encourage and integrate those parenting behaviors into existing behaviors?

Photo of Kaye Han

I think Jes hits the nail on the head on point number two - which is actually a key difference rather than something that can be directly applied here. There is a short-term and tangible negative outcome for not 'slip, slop, slapping' that provides more than enough punishment to incentivise people (i.e. pain, ugly skin, etc.). Additionally the method to obtain results is very simple and linear, so that makes it much easier to adopt.

Parenting obviously is not the same, but where I think we can learn from this campaign is actually in its simplification of complexity - this is a powerful tool to lighten the load on already very busy minds. 'Prevent skin cancer = slip slop slap'. Obviously there's more to preventing skin cancer than just that, but the campaign makes it incredibly easy to remember and simple to do. Rather than say 'focus on getting a nutritional and balanced diet' we could just say 'drink 8 cups of water every day'. Maybe focusing on small simple things that parents can easily do (but currently don't) is a much more effective strategy.

Not all big problems need an equally big solution to solve it.

Photo of Shauna Carey

Love these provocations! Especially with respect to identifying the near-term "wins" that can belie longer-term outcomes for children.

On a recent trip to Ethiopia, I spoke to some parents who talked about the importance of soft skill development like expressing one's self in a similar way. The longer-term goals here are self-efficacy, agency and civic participation, but parents were most excited about their children raising their hands in class or being identified by teachers as well-spoken.

Anyone know other similar long-vs-short-term plays we could make with this challenge to change behavior?

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Great conversation here guys!
Lots of interesting things to think about here. One is how to identify what motivates parents and perhaps also children and to use it. Another is once something is working share it, scale it to other communities. Many years ago I spent 6 weeks working in Australia , during their summer. I noticed that all children wore caps with flaps covering the back of their neck. I had not seen this type of hat before. I have rarely seen children wear that type of hat elsewhere since. Jes do you know if this campaign was picked up outside of Australia? Was this a missed opportunity?

Shauna - Great share about your conversation with parents in Ethiopia. It is important to find what these short term wins are as they seem to increase pleasure in the short term and reinforce behavioral change. (In the case you wrote about the short term win was unexpected which is so cool. Important to keep on the lookout for these unexpected outcomes and use them!)
In NYC there is a innovative educational program for children living in Harlem, The Harlem Children's Zone. I cared for for a child who lived within the catchment area and attended one of the schools. One day the mom and child were in the office for an appointment and when we went to schedule follow up she was very particular about the appointment time. She did not want her son to miss part of a school day. Why? Because if he had perfect attendance for the month the family would be rewarded with $50. I was shocked. It is a public school. At first I did not believe it. Then I felt it was inequitable. Many other families did not have access to this in the low income community where I was working. I recently heard the director interviewed. He was asked about this approach. (They also reward older kids directly with money and gifts. They fundraise for these initiatives.) He stated that although he wants the kids to be intrinsically motivated what he wants more is for them to succeed, to go to college. If that means rewards he is willing to do it. He believes eventually intrinsic motivation will come as they continue to succeed. It occurred to me that this is not so different than a middle class family promising a gift for a good report card, except that families in the Harlem Children's Zone do not have the means to provide the rewards that the kids are being given. Short term win, long term gain.

How can we translate this for this challenge?
How can we identify needs, or experiences that bring parents pleasure, and provide them, so that parents and children benefit in the long and short terms?

Photo of Jes Simson

great provocations here.

Shauna, I think this also links into a sense of achieving a sense of 'Mastery' - linking long term behavioural change with really small goals and steps that make gaining that skill relatively simple.

Rob, I really like your insight that one reason why the slip slop slap campaign has been so successful is that it focuses on one simple goal. It is such a simple message, easy to remember and easy to execute.

Bettina, I also think that this feeds into your point regarding the Harlem Children's zone. This initiative seems to be focusing on encouraging a behaviour that is feasible for parents and children to execute (although the behaviour change might stretch them). I also like how it doesn't try to incentivise things that might be outside the kids or parents control (like getting great grades), which could discourage participation.

Bettina, I'm not sure if 'slip, slop, slap' has ever been rolled out outside of Australia - I certainly have never stumbled on the hats anywhee else (although, now, most of the kids have to wear really wide brimmed hats that also cover ears.)

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