Getting public service messages right

Our team has been releasing “public service messages” on various supports over the last few months. Nothing like prime-time TVs, but some good little videos for the Web and stakeholders groups. It’s satisfying to see your stuff getting picked up by the people you want to influence and motivate.

Public service messages are, of course, soft propaganda. The idea is to get people to modify their behaviour for their own good: stop smoking, click your seatbelt on, exercise, call your mother more often, don’t eat unwrapped Halloween candy, shred your bills before throwing them away to recycling. Some marketers call it “attitudinal adjustment”, which has to be the most evil-sounding piece of marketer jargon around.

One of the most difficult problems with those things is when you go negative, as in “Stop smoking now or you’ll die alone and in terrible suffering, real soon.” As with election campaigns, sometimes too much is… well, too much for your audience. Can’t ask for too much effort either. It turns out that “Run 20 k each day to keep in shape!” scares people even more than lung cancer.

Anyway, as the office nerd I feel obliged to dig into the theory once in a while to see if what we’re doing is kosher with communications theories. One of the most interesting papers I came across was Using Protection Motivation Theory to Increase the Persuasiveness of Public Service Communications, by Magdalena Cismaru of the Saskatchewan Institute of Public Policy (available on the Net in pdf).

The following drawing from the study illustrates well the “don’t go too far” warning addressed to social marketers.

(click on the image and expand it to view properly)

Basically, you need to convince your audience that:

  • They are in serious danger (for their health, career, pension, safety or anything having to do with their kids) – if you fail, they won’t be listening
  • What you’re asking them to do will avert the danger and isn’t too much trouble – if you fail, they’ll make fun of you or put their head in the sand.

That gives your audience five specific moments through the reasoning process (if you can call it that) where they can opt out.

Like baseball pitching with three balls and no strikes, or throwing the football on third and 10 – no room for error at all.

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