Fighting Wild Animal Trafficking With Online Ads
The USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) Wildlife Asia initiative works to end wild animal crime in China, Vietnam, and Thailand. Historically, efforts to combat the illegal wild animal trade targeted the supply side of things. Meanwhile, desire for these products has remained strong in some segments of the population. Broad public campaigns have increased awareness of the problem, but they’ve done little to curb demand.
To target buyers of illegal animal products more effectively, USAID decided to test a new campaign that applied a social and behavioral change communication (SBCC) framework. This framework accounts for the motives behind purchasing wild animal products and the individual, social, spiritual, and other factors that play a role in purchasing decisions.
Before the campaign, researchers gathered information from three focus groups of ivory consumers and 14 individual interviews with tiger part consumers to learn how they used the Internet to support their purchasing behaviors. They found that consumers aren’t typically buying illegal wild animal products online, but they use the Internet to learn about the products they want to buy. In previous research, USAID also found that consumers were concerned about the legality of owning ivory and tiger products. There also remains a belief in the ability of ivory and tiger parts to bring good luck or protect the bearer against misfortune.
To that end, USAID targeted a range of Google ads at Internet users in Thailand who searched for trafficking-related keywords. The goals of the campaign were to combat the belief that wild animal products bring “good luck,” to increase the perceived risk of illegal purchases, and to heighten the sense that potential buyers were being tracked by the government.
The ads either focused on debunking the myth that wild animal products are lucky or highlighting the illegality of wild animal trafficking. Some ads told searchers that they were being monitored, and one presented itself as an “official alert.” All ads included a warning that trade in the specific product search was illegal and that undercover officers were online. Searchers who clicked through the ads were taken to the landing page for Thailand’s Department of National Parks (DNP), which enforced their messages and encouraged visitors to reach out with questions or tips about illegal activity.
The campaign ran from August 2018 to March 2019. In that time, 560,470 keyword searches in Thailand were targeted with one of the Google ads. Of those targeted, 3% of searchers clicked through to the DNP landing page. While the campaign ran in Thai, English, Chinese, and Vietnamese, most of the searchers were in Thai, and the Chinese and Vietnamese versions were withdrawn before the study period was finished.
Most searchers were men between the ages of 25-44 years old, and 90% came from Bangkok. “Ivory” was the most searched term in both Thai and English, with about 90% of searches. When the search terms included the words “purchase” or “price,” they were strong indicators of probable purchase intent. While the number of searches with such terms was only a small proportion of the total (52,684, or around 9%), this result remains concerning. Ads that had the key message “We’re Searching For You” had the lowest click-through rate, which, according to the authors, suggests they were the strongest deterrent.
Once this campaign concluded, researchers evaluated the results. Cost per ad served was just $0.015. The ads were also very targeted, reaching consumers whose behavior suggested interest in the wild animal trade. Based on these outcomes, USAID decided to run a second campaign from November 2019 to April 2020. They re-targeted consumers tracked in the first phase along with online buyers with similar socio-demographic profiles. They also included messaging from other campaigns and added a social media component. The second campaign served 21.4 million ads on all platforms and reached an estimated 7.8 million unique users.
After both phases of the campaign were over, USAID collected survey responses from people who were and weren’t targeted by the Google ads. They found that 9% of people targeted with one of the Google ads showed intent to buy ivory and tiger parts in the future, compared with 15% who weren’t targeted. Similarly, just 5% of people who saw an ad agreed that ivory and tiger products bring good luck and protect the owner from harm, compared to 19% of people who weren’t targeted. Finally, 12% of people who saw a Google ad said that ivory and tiger products are socially acceptable among family and friends, versus 21% who did not see an ad. Finally, a second survey revealed that the digital campaign’s messaging was salient, with up 56% of searchers recalling that trade in tiger parts and ivory is illegal and that undercover officers are online.
These outcomes are very encouraging. Digital campaigns can succeed in reducing demand for wild animal products while being very cost effective. What’s more, they can be set up by advocates around the world and directed at geographic areas of concern. Advocates can use these results to set up a more permanent digital deterrence program, not only in Thailand but in other locations where consumer demand leads to the killing, mistreatment, and trafficking of wild animals.