Shame factor can curb bad behaviour in firms and individuals

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2015, 4:13pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2015, 4:13pm

As a researcher in international marketing issues at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, I am interested in the crackdown on indoor smoking implemented by the Beijing authorities.

Beijing has for decades been infamous for its heavy smog. Yet, outdoor air quality is not the only worry. Also of concern, but relatively more difficult for the government to monitor and control, is indoor air pollution, which is mainly caused by smoking.

To reduce the second-hand smoking risk, a new law came into effect on June 1. Anyone breaking these new regulations and policies will now face fines ranging from 200 yuan (HK$250) for individuals to 10,000 yuan for restaurants. Not only hitting with fines, repeat offenders will see their names posted on a government website for one month, alongside a list of their offences.

A core dimension of the new law is public shaming. Witnesses to infractions are urged to notify the government. Social pressure can be exercised through shaming and is expected to make the new law more effective.

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.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush advocates the use of shame as a tool, and says it should be used to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies. He believes that since people don't feel ashamed of single parenting, it has become OK for young women to give birth out of wedlock and young fathers to walk away from their paternal obligations.

These examples show how shame can be used to prevent certain behaviour in business and society.

Working to avoid shame can lead to better weights and measurements, a concern to avoid being ridiculed by competitors and losing one's long-developed reputation. 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.

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 approach leading to a healing of relationships between business, government and consumers.

Michael R. Czinkota, Washington, DC, US