Dominoes communication

9 psychological effects that can ruin your communication campaign


Dominoes communication

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.



1) CONFUSIONcommunication campaign

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.



communication campaign3) BOOMERANG EFFECT

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.





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’.




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.




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.



communication campaign9) SOCIAL NORMING

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?



1 Cho & Salmon (2007) Unintended effects of health communication campaigns. J. Com. 57, 293-317.

2 Witte (1991) The role of threat and efficacy in AIDS prevention. Int. Quart. Community Health Educ. 12, 225-49.




Dr Morgan DAVID   

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, CogniMenu, the first new-generation menu engineering service, and the neuromarketing service applied to packaging CogniPackaging.


photo ville nuit

Smart City & Behavioural Sciences: two sides of the same coin?


photo ville nuit



Why and how Smart City and behavioural sciences are meant to collaborate in the close future.






Urbanization has never been spreading so quick. The percentage of people living in cities is increasing every day (50% worldwide and 77% in Europe). An ever-growing population living in reduced spaces becomes a real challenge. A geo-demographic conundrum lies in maintaining people’s life quality, as well as promoting a reasonable, ecological and sustained use of energy. Real-time data collecting, artificial intelligence, big data and connected objects are all technological innovations that bring a new dimension to this challenge: they create an information network from which decisions can eventually be taken.



Twenty-first century’s cities shall be built around their inhabitants’ habits, behaviours and needs Click To Tweet



Adjusting public transport to real-time busy periods, improving waste recycling, centralizing cities’ services for better efficiency, encouraging the production and use of sustainable energy, improving the co-existence of different ways of commuting… these are all issues which a Smart City is eventually supposed to provide adequate solutions.





As Smart City enthusiasts put it, users’ behaviour is at the heart of the system. Smart Cities will be developed through them and for them. Twenty-first century’s cities shall be built around their inhabitants’ habits, behaviours and needs. Smart Cities will be democratic! Beyond the above-mentioned technological improvements, other more down-to-Earth issues are at stake: 1) understand users, their psychology and expectations to adequately answer their needs, and 2) reciprocally, for users to respond to a Smart City’s requirements, guiding them towards new habits.



Communicating is not influencing, proposing is not persuading Click To Tweet




photo main globe réseau

Understanding and predicting citizen’s behaviour is one thing. Favouring the adoption of new habits is another. Public projects commonly fail to stimulate citizens’ commitment mainly because communication agencies and public relations experts usually are unable to anticipate users’ psychology and behaviour. This is especially true for projects linked to waste recycling or sustainable energy use. Communicating is not influencing. Proposing is not persuading. Yet communication represents the launching platform for Smart City projects. It is not sufficient to provide recycling bins for citizens to use them. For guidelines to be followed, it is not sufficient to ask people to save water on a drought period, nor to save electricity during times of peak demand. The Smart City can eventually optimise our collective lifestyles if and only if users behave in a way that makes this optimisation possible. Without adherence or commitment from users, Smart Cities will simply fail.


The aim of a Smart City is by definition to promote efficient and sustainable collective interests. The question lies in how to translate these collective interests into individual motivations; without any effort of this sort, new habits promoted by the Smart City simply won’t be added to its citizens’ behavioural repertoires. There is a need for persuading users to modify their habits and adopt new ones. This can be achieved through associating the ergonomy of the Smart City to users’ psychology.





The good news is that behavioural sciences have uncovered many solutions intended to successfully influence behaviour: nudges, strategical communication, decision architecture or more traditional social psychology interventions all propose efficient techniques to encourage the creation of new norms and habits.


smart city behavioural sciencesIt does not come as a surprise that currently these disciplines are largely ignored by strategic planners and agencies. Indeed, these groups commonly tend to focus more on the aesthetic aspects of communication campaigns than on core messages and how they are framed. I argue that Smart Cities’ stakes are too high to ignore users’ psychology and not put it at the centre of the thinking process. Encouraging citizens to adopt new habits is a subtle and crucial process. Behavioural sciences genuinely provides necessary and reliable tools to make it a success.


In 2014, the governments of 51 countries worldwide were using or planning to use a range of behavioural science techniques, including nudges, for public innovation projects. In the UK for instance, David Cameron’s government set up a Behavioural Interventions Team from 2010 onwards.


These past initiatives now provide useful feedback about how Smart Cities can benefit from behavioural sciences’ techniques. Cities have a chance to be smart only if the professionals involved in their development rely on rigorous approaches and knowledge about how people think, take decisions and act. This represents a critical turning point for the creation of tomorrow’s user-powered and sustainable urban centres.





Dr Morgan DAVID   

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, public innovation, communication & customer experience. ANALYTICA is the creator of CogniSales and of CogniMenu, the first neuromarketing service of new-generation menu engineering aimed at improving restaurants’ sales.