Social Marketing – Constructing a Message


Numerous studies cited for instance in Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein point toward a deliberate, effective message construction for social marketing campaigns that aim at changing behaviour. For instance, in experiments it has been shown that behaviour can be modified by not merely emphasizing the nature of a problem, but by offering a positive message. (Example: a sign that reads “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the park,” was far less effective in preventing visitors from removing artifacts than this positive message: “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest”).  

Similarly, a message focused on how many people are engaging in an unhealthy activity have been shown to be less effective at motivating the desired behaviour than one that emphasizes how many people are already doing things right. This type of message can aid in correcting social misperceptions and boost the healthy behaviour. (Example: “20% of Montana college students drink too much alcohol.” versus the much more effective “Most (81%) of Montana college students have four or fewer drinks each week”).

Again in a similar vein, a neuroscientific study reported on in Buy-ology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy by Martin Lindstrom showed through bran scans that explicit non-smoking messages, for instance the explicit depictions of the effects of cigarette smoking found on Canadian cigarette packs, and explicit messages like smoking causes lung cancer or smoking kills do little to keep smokers from smoking. On the contrary, brain scans showed how these messages in fact stimulated the craving in smokers, suggesting they may well be achieving the opposite results.