The Importance Of Simplicity And Repetition
Misty Water-Colored Memories
Researcher Norbert Schwarz conducted a study of a flier developed by the Centers for Disease Control to combat myths about flu vaccines. The flier included a series of commonly held views and labeled them either “true” or “false.” The rather startling results showed that people, on average, incorrectly remembered more than one-fourth (28%) of the false statements as true. For older people, this lapse occurred almost immediately (within 30 minutes); for younger people it took about 3 days. According to a recent article about the research, “Most troubling was that people of all ages now felt that the source of their false beliefs was the respected CDC” (see the footnote for details). Instead of dispelling illusions, the CDC flier reinforced them and jeopardized its own credibility.
This kind of research has implications for anyone involved in public outreach and education, including animal advocates. At a minimum, it suggests that we cannot rely on people (specifically, our target audiences) to correctly remember the facts that we provide them. More importantly, the research underscores the need for advocates to avoid emphasizing any of our “opponents'” arguments, even if doing so only to refute them. Simply mentioning those arguments reinforces them. In the parlance of social scientists and marketers, advocates must avoid “reinforcing negative frames.” I’ll discuss some of these negative frames in a future post; for now, see the list of “five key challenges facing animal advocates” that I wrote recently.
Keep It Short and Simple
Avoiding repeating the oppositions’ negative frames is only one caveat of communications, however. The “KISS Principle” usually stands for “Keep It Short and Simple,” or the slightly more abrasive “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” Whichever definition you prefer, the idea is the same: for a message to work, it needs to be simple (and usually short). Of course, this may depend on your target audience; a policy analyst will have more tolerance for detail than a reader of USA Today. But in general it’s best for animal advocates to keep their messages clear and concise. Fenton Communications, a leader in non-profit messaging, agrees: “Clear goals and measurable steps toward them are supported by simple, concise messages that resonate with target audiences.” Fenton uses a classic anti-littering campaign targeting young male Texans as an example. Rather than asking them not to litter, the campaign used Willie Nelson as a spokesperson and the simplified tagline, “Don’t Mess with Texas” (see link below for details).
Wash, Rinse, and Repeat (and Repeat)
Finally, we have all heard about the advertising industry’s “rule of 7,” which says that most people need to see a (commercial) advertisement five to seven times before they retain the information. The need for repetition is arguably greater for advocacy messages if they are trying to change entrenched opinions or behavior (rather than, say, the relatively simple act of marketing a $5 happy meal). Given the small budgets of animal advocacy organizations and the typically high cost of advertising, however, few groups can afford to sufficiently “saturate” their target audience with their message. Advocates are therefore compelled to work on a relatively limited scale and focus their efforts on smaller target audiences that they can reach — repeatedly — through non-traditional methods such as word-of-mouth.
For more on the importance of keeping your communications simple (and how to evaluate them), check out the following resources from the HumaneSpot.org database.
- Strategy and Message Development for Animal Advocacy (Faunalytics)
- The Communications Toolkit: A guide to navigating communications for the nonprofit world (Cause Communications)
- Strategic Communications Audits (J. Coffman)
- Guidelines for Evaluating Nonprofit Communications Efforts (Communications Consortium Media Center)
- Now Hear This (Fenton Communications)
Footnote: For a summary of the research, see the Sept. 4 Washington Post article. For more details, see the journal article, “Metacognitive Experiences and the Intricacies of Setting People Straight: Implications for Debiasing and Public Information Campaigns” (Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 39, 2007).