Applied Behavior Analysis: Laboring in Obscurity

Harla B. Frank, M.S., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

You can have a great product, but if communication fails, it’s like watching a stand-up comedian do a gig in a completely different language.   —  Steve Jobs

Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve been doing “a gig in a completely different language” (Jobs, n.d.).  For decades, we’ve been touting the benefits of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to a community of people who do not understand our language.  Oh yes, those who seek our services for those diagnosed with autism have learned some of the lingo – just enough to be able to get by, but many of those people went in search of information and, eventually, found us.  But, do we want individuals to have to search for us?  Instead, shouldn’t we “get the word out” that ABA has solutions to many of society’s problems?  It’s time we advertise!  We must utilize marketing technology to “sell” our technology (Ogilvy, n.d.).

“User Friendly”

Dr. Jon Bailey (1991) stated that behavior analysis had “not realized that we are ultimately in the business of developing a ‘consumable’ product that must be ‘user friendly’” (p. 445).  Part of making a product ‘user friendly’ is presenting information in a language all can understand and making that information easily accessible.  Think about it.  When you introduce yourself as a behavior analyst, do you have to then embark on an explanation of what a behavior analyst does?  Typically, those we meet outside our work environment have either not heard of behavior analysis or, if they have, do not know what we do.  The general public’s lack of knowledge regarding behavior analysis is a strong indication of our inability to promote the benefits of applying behavior analysis to society’s problems.  Let’s explore how we can “advance the acceptability, usability, and social validity of behavior analysis . . . .” (Bailey, 1991, p. 446).


A brand, in a few words or images, should create a picture in the minds of consumers of what the product does and why it is the best choice to solve problems (Lake, 2018).  A “brand” should do many things, such as state a clear message about what the product can do; establish credibility; evoke in the consumer a desire to buy; build loyalty; and develop an emotional connection with consumers (Lake, 2018).  One of the challenges of creating a brand for our technology is that our target audience is quite diverse.  After all, behavior needs are immensely varied.  Our brand must be marketed to society and individual needs.  To do that, we will need to market the vast applicability of our technology and present examples of that applicability.

Passion and Credibility

“Nike represents passion, crossing your limits, training, enduring, and accomplishing your goals” (Villafañe, n.d., para. 10).  Nike commercials rarely mention “shoes” (Villafañe, n.d., para. 10).  “Nike” sells a “lifestyle” (Villafañe, n.d., para. 10).  We can “sell” solutions without using behavioral lingo.  Reflecting a “passion” for our technology’s ability to improve lives and working to earn trust in what we have to offer is vital to getting the public to “buy” what we’re selling (Parera, n.d. -a; Parera, n.d. -b).  In order to create a strong brand that engenders trust and loyalty, we must advertise our desire to help those who are in need and show how our technology is uniquely suited to solving problems.  Showing instead of telling is important in a successful marketing strategy.  Just as Nike doesn’t talk about shoes but, instead, shows how those shoes can improve lives and allow the wearers to access a lifestyle one often dreams about is a great marketing model for ABA.  We are, after all, in the business of helping individuals access a more reinforcing lifestyle.

Pitching Our Product!

Hallmark commercials . . .  I can’t look away and I can’t watch them without crying my eyes out!  Just the other day, I was at the greeting card isle looking for a birthday card for my daughter.  Reading card after card, I stood in front of the display at the point of sobbing out loud!  Afraid I was drawing attention, I realized I’d better choose one and make an effort to pull myself together.  What is it about Hallmark cards; Christmas commercials; and even car advertisements; that reach into our hearts and make a connection?  I believe good advertising communicates common human experiences and takes every consumer to a place that holds special memories or impacts the emotions we feel about those most special to us.  Have you seen the latest Shriner’s Hospitals for Children commercials?  I absolutely come apart when the little one says, “Mommy, I’m walking . . . Mommy, I’m walking!”  What has Shriner’s communicated with that simple picture of the child learning to walk with prosthetics?  The commercial shows, in just a few seconds, that Shriner’s has a technology that solves human problems.  Wow!  We can show ABA solutions in the same way.  It is time we reach hearts and minds through demonstrations of what we do.  For example, picture a child who has struggled for years in his elementary school classrooms to comply with classroom rules and expectations, walking to the front of the auditorium to accept his first “Good Conduct” certificate.  Imagine a commercial showing a young couple that has struggled for over a year to keep their small business afloat, realizing a profit for the first time because their Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) advisor helped them apply a production incentive for their employees.  Think about a commercial of an elderly man diagnosed with Asperger’s who wishes to stay in his home as long as possible, realizing that dream because a behavior analyst created checklists and routines that could be set up on an alarm system that allowed him to be safe and to take his medications properly.  These are just some of the ways our technology can change lives – and these are the images we need to circulate.


Will there be resistance to a rather unconventional approach to “selling” our technology?  Probably.  Some may think that utilizing marketing and advertising approaches to reach consumers is unsophisticated.  I would argue that the way we inform the public about the solutions we can offer society and individuals hasn’t worked – at least not to the degree we have hoped.  It is time to step outside our comfort zone, stop laboring in obscurity, and embrace new ways to reach our target audience.  After all, we can’t change the world if the world doesn’t know what we have to offer.

. . . the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do. 

— Steve Jobs

Related bSci21 Article: How to talk ABA to the rest of the world.


Bailey, J. S.  (1991). Marketing behavior analysis requires different talk. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 24, 445-448.

Lake, L.  (2018). Learn why branding is important in marketing. Retrieved from

Parera, E.  (n.d. -a). 6 lessons from Warren Buffett to achieve success in digital marketing.  Retrieved from

Parera, E.  (n.d. -b). What can you learn from the co-founder of Google?  The 10 best quotes from Larry Page that will boost your business on the Internet.  Retrieved from

Skaf, E. (n.d.). 27 lessons from Philip Kotler, the father of modern marketing, to apply to your online marketing strategies.  Retrieved from

Villafañe, C.  (n.d.). Steve Jobs marketing lessons: 10 timeless lessons he’s taught us and his most famous marketing quotes.  Retrieved from

Harla Frank, M.S., BCBA earned her Master’s degree in Psychology, with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis, from Florida State University.  Since receiving her certification as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) in 2007, she has worked primarily with children and young adults on the Autism Spectrum, but has also worked with adults with a variety of diagnoses and needs. She has served as an expert witness for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) in the Colorado court system and has had the privilege of providing “ABA approaches” training to foster care staff and families.

Since 2010, Harla has taught ABA course sequences, as well as general psychology courses, for Kaplan University.  Currently, she also contracts with a pediatric home healthcare company in Denver to provide ABA therapy to children with a variety of diagnoses. You can contact her at [email protected].

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4 Comments on "Applied Behavior Analysis: Laboring in Obscurity"

  1. Susan Pfadt, M.S.Ed., M.A., BCBA | March 24, 2018 at 11:28 am | Reply

    What a highly relevant article you have written here! In my 30 years working as a Behavior Analyst, largely with systems supporting adults with IDD, I have witnessed the gradual degrading of both perceptions and uses of behavior analysis. This has become such a problem that even the use of behavior analytic terminology elicits little more than perceptions of restrictive procedures and lack of person centered approaches. The need to work on the development of more appropriate skills to replace and/or minimize the need for inappropriate behavior has become lost in a sea of psychotropic medication management and monitoring for process rather than outcome. I think we have been slow to recognize this as a field, and even slower to respond to Bailey’s admonition advice that we explore how we can “advance the acceptability, usability, and social validity of behavior analysis . . . .” .

    I read your article as a call to arms to fellow BCBAs to begin talking about how we can advance the usefulness of behavior analysis in systems that see the practice of behavior analysis as antithetical to person centered practices. I am interested in hearing and discussing specific ideas as to how we might do this. Any takers? Harla, might you be interested in writing another article extending your thoughts on this ? Thank you for writing this article. It is a great start to a much needed discussion.

    • Thank you so much, Dr. Pfadt, for your kind comments! Change begins with an idea that ultimately leads to conversation. Hopefully, we’ve begun a conversation that can guide how behavior analysis is seen by the world. I would love to continue this conversation and hear your ideas about directions that could be taken! The journey continues . . . .

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