Communicating is not enough to influence people. Many communication campaigns are an objective failure. This is because providing information is insufficient to persuade and convince. It is crucial to take the psychology of any campaigns’ target into account for messages to be influential. Yet this fact is often ignored in favour of aesthetic and artistic concerns. A poorly designed communication campaign can even have detrimental consequences. I provide here a list of these consequences to be avoided when designing a successful communication campaign.
Communication professionals are often misled about which techniques can persuade and convince a given target. This is likely because of a lack of objective knowledge about the way our brain works. Detrimental consequences can be generated by the way our brain treats available information and uses it to make decisions. In a scientific article published in the Journal of Communication in 2007, American researchers Hyunyi Cho and Charles Salmon provided a list of unexpected psychological effects that can ruin communication campaigns1. Their study originally focused on health communication campaigns, though the consequences they mention (listed below) can be expected in many contexts.
Confusion occurs when a message’s true meaning is misunderstood (see poster on the right). Cho and Salmon give the example of a prevention campaign for breast cancer. If you stress the importance of check-ups for women with breast cancer cases in their family, women who this does not apply to might feel overly safe and not book an examination. The wording of the messages themselves can also lead to confusion. Claiming that ‘The motorway is not a bin’ to promote the use of bins does not propose any clear recommendation in terms of good practice and behaviour.
Dissonance refers to the anxiety generated by the gap between a promoted message and a person’s situation. For instance, promoting breastfeeding can induce discomfort and anxiety in women who, for whatever reasons (necessary medications, low breast milk supply, etc…), cannot breastfeed their child.
Well known by social psychologists, the ‘boomerang effect’ refers to the adoption of a behaviour that opposes the desired behaviour being promoted by the campaign. As depicted on the poster on the left, showing a cheerful group of friends sharing beers is definitely not the best strategy to prevent binge drinking. Also, insisting on the importance of one group member to stay sober to drive the others home, might encourage the others to drink more than usual. And messages high in emotions, such as ‘fear appeals’, are known for distracting the target from understanding and integrating the core prevention meaning2.
4) EPIDEMIC OF APPREHENSION
Apprehension, related to hypochondria, corresponds to an exaggerated concern for health issues due to the pervasiveness of risk messages. For example, a higher sensitivity to thinking one is ill or has the physical symptoms of an illness, in countries where mortality due to infectious diseases remains low.
Desensitization is defined as the public’s diminishing response to repeated exposure to the same messages. In such instances pervasive TV advertisement campaigns can lead to a rejection of the message or the brand.
Guiltiness is an exaggerated focus on personal causes to explain individual health problems. By ignoring related social and environmental causes, people might experience psychological discomfort, low self-esteem, and interpret their state through the sole lens of individual responsibility: ‘I deserve what happens to me because I made the wrong decisions’.
7) LIMITED ATTENTION/OPPORTUNITY COST
Competition between different communication campaigns to prevent/promote a given behaviour or product tend to make messages less pervasive. This is because people show limited attention, memorization or empathy skills. In a marketing context, people also have limited money and time. Given all the different campaigns targeting people simultaneously, we cannot expect a particular communication campaign to easily reach its target and influence behaviours accordingly.
8) SOCIAL REPRODUCTION
Social reproduction corresponds to reinforcing a message towards a target segment that is already aware of this message. For instance, promoting waste recycling will have more impact with environmentally-friendly targets than with people who do not feel concerned about environmental issues.
Akin to the common “in-group/out-group” anthropological divide, social norming may isolate and put the blame on a target group depicted in a negative way, and marginalized within a majority. So, the slogan ‘Kissing a smoker is like kissing an ashtray’ is genuinely not the best message to make smokers aware of the individual, collective and health consequences of smoking.
In conclusion, here are 9 reasons to expect a communication campaign to fail. Yet social psychologists have become experts in predicting how successful campaigns can be. The good news is that they have also developed the tools to conceive successful messages and content. Does your communication campaign deserve some brainstorming?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
A former academic and behavioural sciences expert, Dr Morgan David is the founder and director of ANALYTICA, a consultancy agency based in the UK and in France. ANALYTICA uses the way our brain works to design better products and better services in the realm of neuromarketing, webmarketing, customer experience, sales strategy and pricing tactics. ANALYTICA created CogniSales, a neuromarketing sales service, and CogniMenu, the first new-generation menu engineering service.