Much has been written about selling. That is, trying to get someone to do something: make a purchase or take some other action. Far less has been written about a completely different kind of selling: getting someone to not do something.

It’s the sort of thing that’s rarely attempted.

In 1971, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh created a cartoonish character named Mr. Yuk. The goal was to keep children away from household poisons.

Up until that time, the more or less universal symbol for poisons was the skull and crossbones. This had two major problems:

  1. The skull and crossbones is also recognized as the universal symbol for pirates. Pirates are appealing to children and are thought of romantically as daring, adventurous sorts. (That daring image is a double whammy, all but daring children to try the hazardous poisons they were supposed to be warning them away from.)
  2. The skull and crossbones was the team logo for a local Pittsburgh professional baseball team. This made the symbol doubly appealing to Pittsburgh children, especially those growing up in a household with sports fans.

The new symbol was developed by a pediatrician, based on careful research and study.

Although it’s still in use today, some subsequent studies have found that it may actually attract some children. Again, the very opposite of its intended effect.

On a much smaller scale, I recently noticed two clever attempts to ward freeloaders off from Wi-Fi hotspots. These were both personal, household internet connections. One was named “FBI Surveillance Van” and the other was named “5,000 Viruses”.

While neither of these is advertising in the strictest sense and both may just be┬ámanifestations of the owner’s sense of humor, I find them both clever and fitting with today’s topic.

In theory, convincing someone to not do something is no more difficult than convincing them to do something.

The primary difference I can think of is whether the message is something along the lines of “Go away and never come back” or something more like “Get away from this door but why don’t you go use that other door instead”? It could even be something like “This isn’t the right offer for you but it may be right for someone else”.

Those last two require establishing a fine balance where you ward people off without offending them. Hard stuff indeed.