The magic formula is to stop looking for one.
For almost three decades, communicators have known that framing can be effective, but the different scenarios and particular audiences for such messaging are still up for debate.
As mentioned in the concluding remarks in my last post, the textbook formula of ‘When you want people to stop doing something, make them aware of the negative consequences,’ and ‘When you want people to do something, promote a reward or good outcome,’ can fail us.
Efforts have been devoted to reconciling the incongruent results of positive and negative framed messages and found that message characteristics, situation characteristics, and demographic characteristics are all poor predictors of how effectively each message performs. But don’t fret, not all hope is lost. There are indeed a few factors that we can consider when determining the usefulness of framing.
Spatial and emotional distance as a moderator
In an experiment, scientists asked two groups of participants if they were willing to purchase a sustainable battery that is 20% more expensive than the less-sustainable alternative. Group A was told that using the battery would solve the environmental problems and Group B was told that not using the battery would lead to an environmental collapse.
Group A and B were further divided into two groups respectively, participants from one group were told that the environmental problem happened in their city, while the other group was told that the environmental problem occurred in a city downstream from them.
Researchers concluded that where the spatial distance is close (depending on the scenario presented), positive frames trigger hopeful emotions and thus have a positive impact on purchase intentions, and negative frames trigger fears and thus weaken people’s willingness to buy green products.
However, the researchers also found that for those with farther spatial distance, the positive frame did increase participants’ environmental awareness, but had less influence on green product purchase behavior. For participants with the same spatial distance, the negative frame would trigger people’s shame emotions and increase people’s willingness to purchase green products.
Personal sense of power
Another interesting insight, contrary to what we might believe, is that those with higher levels of power are more susceptible to the effects of framed messages. In another study, researchers defined power as ‘the perceived control over valued resources in a social relationship.’ Based on participants’ chronic sense of power from a self-reported questionnaire, they were assigned to a positive or negative framed ad copy randomly.
To quote two short sections from the ad copies, ad A stated that ‘Airline B is worse than Airline A on both on-time performance as well as in-flight amenities!’ (positive frame) while ad B stated that ‘Airline A is better than Airline B on both on-time performance as well as in-flight amenities!’ (negative frame).
Individuals with lower levels of power were not significantly influenced by the message frames in the experiment while individuals with a higher personal sense of power showed a higher purchase intention after reading the positively-framed comparative ads than negatively framed ones, partially due to greater scrutiny towards the communicator’s motivation of the negatively framed advertisement.
Other factors that influence the effectiveness of the message frame include individual characteristics such as certainty of outcome, personal preference for risk, processing style, and level of subject knowledge (3).
Applying a more audience-centered focus to evaluate how individuals in a target market think about an issue appears to be a useful way to understand the results of gain-based versus loss-based messages, given that the same individual may apply different risk preferences or heuristic processing criteria when presented with a different environment.
It seems that the time spent digging into textbooks and literature in search of that one magical formula for marketing success might be better invested in understanding the target audience.
As our human brains are complex and multifaceted, so is your target audience. Why not run your own pilot testing before launching the campaign?