Shockingly bad – maybe

pr057-09-poster1Yesterday I received an email from America. It was asking me, given my negative stance on shock tactics in this post, what I was thinking about an anti-obesity campaign currently underway in New York. My first reaction was pretty much (as the reader expected maybe) “Oh no!” – fear & shock appeals that haven’t worked with cigarettes, are now being used to market anti-obesity measures. But then I thought a little more about the campaign, and what research actually tells us about positive and negative message framing.
When conducting a Social Marketing promotion campaign, the message can always be framed either positively (i.e. emphasising the positive outcomes) or negatively (emphasising the negative consequences of a behaviour). So, for example in terms of sugary drinks, I can either frame the message as “cutting back will make you slim” or as “drinking them will make you obese”. My first point of call is to see what the research says about which one to choose: And well, to put it mildly, the research on message framing is fairly contradictory: Some studies advocate framing messages positively – others seem to contradict this. The problem seems to boil down to fundamentally five questions (there are some other variables, but these five seem to be the “big ones” for a rule of thumb):

1) Who is the message aimed at?
2) How easily is the behaviour changed/exchanged
3) How knowledgeable is the target population about the potential effects of the undesired behaviour.
4) How co-operative or reactant is the target population?
5) How long are you planning for?

The very generalised rules are then:
If the message is addressed at people with a higher educational level, then negative framing seems to be less persuasive than positive framing (and reasoning). On this one the campaign would be a good one, as it is aimed more at people from a less educated background.

If the behaviour is changed fairly easily (like drinking a non-sugary drink, having a one off vaccine) then positive framing seems more effective than negative framing, which is more effective for complex behaviour. On this one the campaign could be a bad one, depending on how complex choosing a daily beverage is (I suspect that would be very different from person to person!)

If the target population is knowledgeable about the negative consequences of a behaviour, then negative framing can create more reactance than support. But conversely, if the target group does not know much about the potentially negative effects, then shocking (sparingly!) is actually a good attention getter.

This immediately leads over to the next question: if the target group wants to change, then negative framing is ok (though it is not a very clear yes do it, positive still seems to work!). If however, the target population is already feeling “under attack” negative messages can have a total boomerang effect – making it even harder to reach them and entrenching the behaviour rather than changing it. Our own research at Middlesex University has shown that most students don’t really understand calories (and we are not alone in this!) – so with a little leap of faith here, I suspect most people would be quite shocked to find out that they would actually have to walk 70 blocks to make up for that one Iced White Chocolate Mocha.

Importantly though, shock appeals don’t tend to work for a long time. It’s a bit like watching a horror movie: If you’ve never seen one before, you’d probably loose many nights after watching it – after a few, you’re pretty likely to sleep soundly after watching one. In other words: shocking works in the short run – but it wears of quickly.

So how does the campaign measure up against the non-smoking campaign? Well, I guess that the campaign is aimed at raising awareness, trying to achieve a quick hit and importantly is designed for an audience that is fairly willing to change. This is quite a different type of campaign than the non-smoking one, which was directed towards an audience that above all does not want to change and often regards smoking as one of the few little pleasures in life. You can see why in one campaign, negative framing would be bad, while in the other it may be a good way to get where you want to be…. though as a word of caution… once you have achieved awareness, start being supportive and positive in the message framing!

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