Inspiration

Reframing perceptions: A case study approach

A cup of tea and a biscuit! This is the last thing one would expect when you get pulled over by the traffic police. However, this is exactly what some people experienced when they were driving on a treacherous section of the Puttalam-Colombo Road at night. The Puttalam-Colombo road has been a news fixture for some time now due to the present trend of fatal road accidents that have taken place consecutively, killing commuters and pedestrians alike. In spite of the launch of the Decade of Road Safety in 2012, enforcement has remained weak. Chairman and senior lecturer at Moratuwa University, Prof. Amal Kumarage noted that 60% of fatal and grievous injuries happen to be caused by speed combined with fatigue. Speaking on this, he elaborated, “Despite advice to take a break from driving continually beyond four hours, long-distance drivers often ignore this rule, and authorities are not looking into it as well. Medical conditions of drivers such as eyesight and hearing too have been neglected. There is no annual health check for drivers,”.

Friendly traffic cops decided to advise drivers, providing a safe place for drivers to rest and have a nap if they require it, so they will be more alert on the road ahead. At first glance, it appears to simply be a gesture of care and concern that is largely thought to be uncharacteristic of cops. However, ensuring a safe accident free journey is what was their primary purpose with this initiative. Giving out tickets for speeding, carrying out breathalyzer tests and arresting people for jaywalking- all these activities are just a means to an end of ensuring that the roads remain accident free. What the traffic police had inadvertently unleashed here is the power of reframing; a technique that is quite popular in the worlds of business strategy and creativity.

This voluntary programme was funded and organised by members of the Puttalam police. In tandem with enforcing law and order in the district, S. I. Nasheed and his team carried out the programme on a bi-weekly basis. On reviewing the outcome, it was revealed that the rate of road traffic accidents on the once accident-prone road had finally been minimised. This wasn’t unintentional but rather the primary purpose and expected outcome (or lack thereof) of their efforts. Apart from being an exemplary case of lateral thinking, the actions of the Puttalam Cops also demonstrated that perception isn’t always the same thing as reality.

Defined by Entman (1993), it involves selecting certain aspects of a perceived reality and making them more salient in a communicating text, so as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation. It is commonly applied to influence how ideas are perceived, when trying to sell a concept, convince an undecided stakeholder, or persuade an opponent of the merits of your case.

There are many examples of this same technique being applied in a global context; case in point, where artificial scarcity is created because people want something simply because they can’t have it. This was most famously exemplified by Frederick the Great, when he rebranded potatoes as a royal vegetable, making them exclusive to the Royal family and hiring guards to protect the potatoes. Eventually, people began growing potatoes undercover as their perceived value had increased in people’s minds.

By toying with the perceived value of the potatoes, he managed to achieve his primary objective of encouraging the Germans to adopt the potato into their diets. This was because he realised that in having two sources of carbohydrates (namely wheat and potatoes) the price volatility of bread could be better managed . Additionally, the risk of famine was minimised with there being two crops to fall back on, instead of one. A similar reframing technique was employed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey, who sought to modernise Turkish people’s dressing.

He desired to abolish the veil but as dictated by logic, knew a ban would only result in resistance and opposition. Instead, he resorted to a softer approach that makes it compulsory for prostitutes to wear the veil. The approach taken by the Puttalam Cops too could be classified as “soft” as they sought to first understand the logic behind which the drivers refused to take a break on long distance journeys on their own.

On accomplishing this, they made it an attractive option, capitalising on the element of surprise involved, given the general perception of cops by drivers in Sri Lanka. Just as the level of road accidents decreased with the implementation of a “soft” reframing approach by the Puttalam Cops, so did the veil become a thing of the past thanks to Atatürk having reframed the majority’s perception of the veil.

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