Our first client (October 2004) was the Government of South Australia

Twenty years of Square Holes (almost) is quite the journey, and I find myself reflecting on our early and sustained clients. Our first invoice (October 2004) was to the South Australian Government.

Originally posted in my weekly LinkedIn newsletter >

Since then, we have conducted research across a wide range of social and health behaviours, including workplace safety, flu prevention, relationship violence, population growth, dog bites, and green waste. Our research has informed the creative, guided ad concept testing and pre, mid and post campaign survey tracking to measure recall, attitude and behaviour change over time to support evaluation reporting. We have loved our contribution to multifaceted campaigns helping to shift the narrative, and often slowly change behaviours.

Two of our early social marketing and behaviour change government clients were road safety and smoking cessation.

In our first months, we worked on a campaign (‘Wipe off 5‘) to encourage adherence to speed limits, promoting that reducing speed by 5 km/h would reduce accidents. Research participants debated speed limits and camera margins, showing often inaccurate perceptions of speed limit allowances. After persistent advertising and narrative changes, most people now recognise the importance of adhering to speed limits and acknowledge that speed kills.

Similarly, our significant ongoing research on smoking revealed that many smokers deflected the health risks. Of the 23% of current smokers in 2004, many hiding their habit, they remained addicted.

I can recall moderating community focus groups in first nation, regional towns and disadvantaged socio-economic areas and marginalised youth in which smoking was only part of the problem. Social issues are not an island, they fit within a wider cultural context.

“I will quit when life gets better.”

Lives often in turmoil, smoking the least of their problems.

Consistent advertising and interventions have reduced smoking prevalence to 8.3% in 2024, skewed socio-economically, a drop from historical levels. I can recall a period when a stop in advertising led to a measurable increase in smoking rates, showing the community can quickly forget. Increasing cigarette prices through taxes and health risk education were key strategies in reducing smoking rates, much like infringement fines and road safety education.

Now, smoking is far less acceptable, but vaping rates are rising.

Relevant and effective communication and sustained interventions over time change behaviours slowly. Decades of creative advertising and enforcement of road safety and non-smoking bans have shifted norms. What was once acceptable is now viewed as bad behaviour.

However, systematic omnipresent advertising for behaviour change appears less prominent in 2024, with exceptions such as road safety. This may be due to media fragmentation, the rise of social media, or shifting government priorities. Education and interventions remain critical to evolving the cultural narrative  and changing behaviours.

Over the past year we have worked on effective government campaigns to reduce dog bites, and encourage breast screens, both clients over many years. As well as topics such as seeking ways to increase green waste recycling to encouraging young people to move from Melbourne and Sydney to Adelaide.  Square Holes values our involvement in researching cultural contexts, informing strategies, and evaluating the impact of social marketing campaigns.

As we reflect on the social, health, and wellbeing issues of 2024, it is worth considering which issues deserve government investment in research and education advertising to change behaviours in the future. Digital addiction, domestic violence, environmental behaviours, and other issues worthy of attention moving forward.

Have a good Friday and weekend


Here are three favourite memorable ads we worked closely on.

All recorded strong (70%+) recall levels due to the prominence of TV advertising, and involved Square Holes concept testing, and survey tracking to measure campaign recall, attitude change and behaviour change, as well as how to evolve.

Below are a few highly effective social marketing ads we’ve supported recently.

South Australia has many wonderful, award winning creative agencies.

Showpony …

Fuller …

The research we conduct helps with identifying any fundamental risks from real people, language nuances, supports bold ideas and measures the impact.

Thank you for a support of the South Australian Government for providing us with such fascinating opportunities to shift the narrative of South Australia, change behaviours and to be ever making progress and such a wonderful place to be live and work.

We have appreciated working with the following summary list of South Australian departments and agencies. Most over many years. And, many are not included, since changed names, disappeared or merged.

Department of The Premier & Cabinet

Department of Infrastructure and Transport


SA Health

Drug and Alcohol Services South Australia

Commission on Excellence and Innovation in Health

Department for Communities and Social Inclusion

Department of Education

Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources

Department of Trade and Investment

Department of Treasury and Finance


HomeStart Finance

Independent Gambling Authority

Office for Digital Government

Office for Digital Analytics

Office for Problem Gambling

Office of Technical Regulator

Office for the Ageing


Renewal SA

Revenue SA

SafeWork SA

South Australian State Emergency Service

Thank you!

We look forward to building on this for the next 20 years.

More from Mahalia …

20 years of on-going and impactful South Australian Government research 


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