If You Don’t Read this Issue Something Terrible Will Happen. And It’s All Your Fault.

Free-Range Thinking | November 2000

Welcome to the world of public interest advertising, where too many messages work like this issue’s headline, relying on fear and shame to make the audience react.

Imagine if you were permitted to use only two colors in all of your advertising. After a while, all the creativity in the world couldn’t keep your ads from looking alike, and when fashions change and other colors become more eye-catching, you’d still be dabbing your brushes in the same two jars. Of course, no public interest group would willingly agree to such a bizarre restriction, but change the word “colors” to “emotions” and you have a pretty fair picture of public interest advertising over the past 30 years.

To be effective, advertising must engage the audience’s emotions, tugging at the heart while also feeding the mind. Public interest advertising, however, has appeared content to target just two emotions: fear and shame. Despite a vast palette to choose from – joy and sorrow, love and hate, all the subtle shades in between, all the complex feelings that make us human – good causes have tended to paint with these same two colors over and over and over again. Just think about two of the best-known public service campaigns in recent memory:

The Crying Indian
A stoic Native American scans a litter-strewn landscape. When passengers in a car toss more junk out the window as they speed by, the camera zooms in on the weathered face of Iron Eyes Cody to show a tear sliding down his cheek. This legendary TV commercial, produced in 1971 for Keep American Beautiful, Inc., is a classic example of shame-based advertising. How else are we supposed to feel when the announcer says, “Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country, and some people don’t.” Iron Eyes is staring right at us, isn’t he?

The Frying Egg
A hand holds up an egg as an off-camera announcer intones, “This is your brain.” The hand cracks the egg and drops it into a hot pan where it begins to fry, crackling noisily. “This is your brain on drugs,” the voice continues. “Any questions?” This oft-parodied PSA, which helped launch the Partnership for a Drug-Free America in 1987, set the tone for anti-drug advertising for years to come. It remains a classic example of the public interest sector’s reliance on fear as the emotion of choice in advertising.

The case against relying so heavily on fear or shame-based messages is convincingly made in Susan Moeller’s book, Compassion Fatigue(Routledge � 1999). Moeller describes an average reader’s reaction to the Save the Children print ads that featured the now familiar tagline, “You can help this child, or you can turn the page.” According to Moeller, most readers stop the first time they see the ad, too ashamed to blithely flip past it. The second time, they may linger and read the text, but they will spend less time with the page. By the third encounter, Moeller contends, “the reader typically turns the page without hesitation.” Multiply this experience by hundreds of campaigns conducted by thousands of groups and you’ve practically drowned your audience in the message that the world is coming to an end and they’re bad people for letting it happen. Moeller calls this sad state of affairs “compassion fatigue,” but it might be more accurate to name it “Fear and Self-Loathing in America.” Either way, it’s a problem that public interest advertising has been inadvertently feeding for decades.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other ways to engage your audience’s emotions. The “Don’t Mess with Texas” anti-littering campaign (profiled here in the February 2000 issue) succeeded by appealing to Texan’s love for their state. Instead of the baleful glare of Iron Eyes Cody, Texans got the smiling face of Willie Nelson singing an upbeat song about state pride. Since the campaign first hit the airwaves in 1986, littering has dropped over 70% across the Lone Star State, saving the Texas Department of Transportation millions of dollars.

More recently, the American Civil Liberties Union has begun running a series of ads to generate support for its work. The ad pictured here, created by the New York agency DeVito/Verdi, is designed to make readers angry over the injustice of racial profiling. Anger is a powerful emotion, and the ACLU is clearly hoping that it will translate into action on its behalf. (“I’m mad as hell and I’m gonna join the ACLU!”) It remains to be seen how successful this campaign will be, but there’s no doubt the ACLU’s ads stand out in the public interest crowd.

So consider yourself warned: if you continue to go to the well of fear and shame, your entreaties for support and action will eventually come up empty, you’ll be fired, and your friends and family will abandon you. Or, you can try using the full palette of emotions to connect with your audience in new, but equally powerful, ways. The choice is yours.

(Please note: the author is always excused from taking his own advice.)

 free-range follow-up

Public Education Campaigns Need Emotion, Too

Emotion-laden messages are not exclusively for action-oriented campaigns. If your goal is public education, you still need to connect with your audience on an emotional level. Education experts agree that learning is not simply a matter of receiving information, no matter how cleverly it is packaged. If your audience is going to translate your information into a lesson that has meaning for them – something they will remember, assimilate into their value system, and live by – they have to be emotionally engaged from the start. As Ronald Gross writes in Peak Learning (Tarcher/Putnam, 1991), “.most learning experts agree that feelings play far stronger roles in our learning than the purely rational, logical processes we were confined to in school.” And in Wise Up: The Challenge of Lifelong Learning (Bloomsbury Publishing, 1999), Guy Claxton affirms Gross’ conclusion, writing “New understandings of the biological bases of emotion show that our feelings are absolutely integral to our learning.” So, before your next public education campaign goes into the field, don’t be content merely to have your facts straight. Ask yourself, “Will it make an emotional connection with the target audience?” If it won’t, all the accuracy in the world won’t make a difference.