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From "Netflix & Chill Night" to StonerSloth - The Road to (Messaging) Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

featured / communication research / public health / advertising

Sometimes bad things happen to good people. And sometimes bad things happen to good causes. One day you're celebrating a new campaign and the next you're pulling an ad after a segment on the Daily Show calls attention to the inherent (or sometimes unanticipated) risk associated with the messaging strategy.

Daily Show Don't Jerk

Take last week for example. Suddenly everyone seemed to be as enthusiastic about alcohol messaging as we are. A recently released infographic intended to raise awareness of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders had struck a chord - but, unfortunately as it turned out, not in a good way. Reactions like shaming, shady, scare tactics, condescending, and offensive certainly would have been red flags during pretesting and are even moreso tough to swallow post release. Following the backlash, the CDC indicated in a New York Times interview that the message "wasn't as clear as we had hoped," and the infographic in its original form is not currently posted on the website.

What happened?

This is a question that's frequently raised as new outreach materials, advertising, and messaging come under scrutiny. When questions are raised about whether or not travel guidance related to Zika virus outbreaks is raising the appropriate level of concern, or if an anthropomorphic sloth is motivating teen marijuana use behaviors in the intended or unintended direction, people are left wondering: What happened with the messaging?

Teen Marajuana Stoner Sloth

In the world of public health communication, and in particular government-sponsored communication, communicators are tasked with accurately leveraging scientific evidence in an engaging and motivational manner - not an easy feat by any stretch of the imagination. The push and pull between scientific/evidence-based and creative/attention-grabbing is evident in much of the work we do.

We often talk about preventing the preventable in public health, and there are some lessons learned there for message development as well. How can good causes prevent, or at least mitigate, preventable messaging setbacks? We've found that research is an important tool in both identifying (a) what's likely to be effective in moving the needle on key outcomes like knowledge, attitudes and behaviors and (b) what, if anything, are the potential unintended consequences.

When a communication strategy has potential to generate negative reactions by design - maybe it's different; maybe it's a little edgy - a nuanced approach to testing is necessary because you often have a subset of people who feel, sometimes strongly, that light-hearted or less "traditional" communication approaches aren't "serious enough" for topics like health concerns and/or messages sponsored by the government.

Much like we work to develop and evaluate messages designed to help the public make informed decisions about the risks they face each day, we frequently find ourselves working with clients to identify their personal levels of acceptable risk when it comes to messaging strategies intended to "break through" the clutter. A few best practices we've found essential:

  • Operationalize outcome metrics carefully. Often the pressing question we get is something to the effect of, is this offensive? But, "offensive" communication means something different to every client and every person we interview/survey. For example, in follow-up probing on what drives the offensiveness of communication, explanations can range from something like "it's too silly for the topic" to "it's condescending or demeaning." Certainly there are different levels of concern that come with different types of negative responses, and the threshold of acceptability is different for each organization and each situation/context.
  • Set decision rules prior to research - and get all key stakeholders involved. Think about acceptable levels of risk, knowing that there is likely to be some degree of negative reaction among some subset of the population, and set parameters that will guide next steps beforehand. Benchmarks can be helpful in setting thresholds that are sensitive enough to mitigate risk appropriately but are not so sensitive that you set an approach up to fail before testing even begins. Often when a communication strategy is a little edgy by design, you go in knowing it won't work for everyone - but you still want to be sure any potential unintended consequences are identified and you have the ability to address them before release.
  • Test, refine, repeat. Qualitative concept testing. Quantitative copy testing. The approach will differ by context and materials, but gathering audience reactions to messages results in invaluable feedback. We most frequently talk about these audience insights in terms of greater behavior change among the audience - critical indeed - but audience research also results in greater control and confidence as communicator in the near term.

Effective communication and behavior change is no easy task, and the negative press associated with perceived missteps serves as a reminder of why we're passionate about what we do. Research first and research often - sometimes informing refinements (or rarely complete overhauls) but other times providing evidence that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Netflix and Chill

So chin up, communicators - you could be trying to explain to your boss what kids these days thought you meant by a "Netflix and Chill" night at the ballpark. Wait, what?

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