Social Marketing And Message Framing

Social  marketing  employs  commercial  marketing strategies  to  try  to  solve  social  problems  and  to effect  voluntary  behavior  change.  An  important aspect  of  social  marketing  is  message  framing,  which is the tone or valence in which the information related to the behavior is conveyed. This entry discusses  social  marketing  and  message  framing in the context of physical activity (PA) promotion and exercise adherence, provides examples of successful marketing campaigns, and identifies factors that influence the effectiveness of such campaigns.

PA is unquestionably important for health, yet the majority of people in developed countries are not  active  enough  for  health  benefits.  Part  of  the difficulty  may  be  that,  although  there  is  abundant  information  available  regarding  the  benefits of  being  active,  many  people  do  not  fully  understand  what  it  means  to  be  active.  Further,  there are  myriad  conflicting  messages  about  “exercise” put  forward  by  commercial  companies  that  can result  in  confusion.  Messages  about  health  compete with messages about achieving a certain look and  may  cause  misunderstandings  regarding  how much PA is needed, of what type, and how often. Thus,  although  consistent  messaging  is  needed, “too  much  confusion”  is  often  cited  as  a  reason for not adhering to positive health behaviors. It is therefore important that health promoters have a single,  consistent,  clear  public  health  message  to counter trends in physical inactivity.

Promoting Physical Activity Through Social Marketing

Social marketers use the “four Ps” of marketing to effect change: a product (e.g., the benefits of PA) is offered at a certain price (e.g., discomfort, costs of  running  shoes),  and  is  promoted  (e.g.,  using advertisements)  in  specific  places  (e.g.,  through television).  Social  marketers  also  often  work  in partnerships with other agencies to try to influence policy.  Because  it  is  recognized  that  a  “cookiecutter”  approach  to  PA  messaging  is  ineffective, a  key  to  social  marketing  is  targeted  marketing, where the audience is segmented into groups who share characteristics. As such, a message targeted at older adults will likely be very different from a message targeted at teenagers or working mothers. However,  regardless  of  the  audience,  it  has  been advocated  that  the  messages  contained  within social  marketing  and  health  promotion  efforts should be framed positively and highlight the benefits  of  PA.  This  recommendation  is  made  based on  a  body  of  research  that  examines  the  effects gain-framed  messages  (i.e.,  highlight  benefits:  PA will help prevent heart disease) compared to those that are loss framed (i.e., highlight risks: you are at greater risk of heart disease if you are not active). Essentially, the same information is conveyed but in different ways. Reviews of research that examine  message  framing  and  PA  conclude  that  using gain-framed  messages  is  more  effective  than  loss-framed messages in changing PA.

Why Gain-Framed Messages Are Effective

Several reasons have been proposed as to why gain-framed messages may be optimal for promoting  PA.  One  suggestion  is  that  gain-framed  messages match how people think about PA. That is, for the most part, people consider PA a behavior that will afford sure health benefits. Gain-framed messages reinforce this notion of benefits and have been  suggested  as  the  most  persuasive  message type  when  people  are  considering  behaviors  such as PA that have sure outcomes. There is also some emerging evidence that gain-framed messages may better capture attention and have a stronger impact on peoples’ beliefs about, and attitudes toward, PA than loss-framed messages.

VERB is an example of a successful social marketing campaign that employed gain-framed messages to encourage PA among “tweens” (children ages 9–13) in the United States between 2002 and 2006.  Gain-framed  messages  included  “A  steady regimen of physical activity doesn’t just keep children fit, it helps build social skills and confidence” and  “Kids  who  are  active  are  a  step  ahead  when it  comes  to  their  health.”  Children  who  saw  the advertisements had more positive opinions regarding  PA  and  were  more  active.  Parents  were  also positively influenced by this campaign.

A  broader  example  that  has  included  multiple campaigns  targeted  at  different  market  segments is   ParticipACTION,   a   national   not-for-profit Canadian  organization  dedicated  to  increasing PA in the Canadian population. ParticipACTION has received much international recognition and is identified as one of the most successful campaigns ever and contributed to creating societal norms for activity  in  Canada.  Many  of  ParticipACTION’s campaigns  are  targeted  at  parents  with  the  goal of informing them about the importance of PA for children  and  youth  (e.g.,  the  Think  Again  campaign). Over the years, the content of the messages in  the  campaigns  have  varied.  Gain-framed  messages used by ParticipACTION included “Regular physical  activity  is  an  essential  part  of  early childhood  growth  and  development”  and  “Being active teaches young kids healthy habits that will be more likely to stick with them for life.”

Message Awareness and the Hierarchy of Effects

Despite  these  examples  of  how  gain-framed messages can be incorporated into social marketing, PA participation is still low in North America, and  the  question  remains  as  to  why  information  does  not  necessarily  translate  into  behavior change. Though there are many possible reasons, we note and discuss the following three: (1) good marketing and message campaigns may have many positive  outcomes  other  than  behavior  change; (2)  sociodemographic  differences  exist  in  how quickly  information  is  disseminated  into  society; and (3) the competing, often conflicting, messages that are pervasive in the wide media context may influence behavior.

The  first  of  these,  that  behavior  change  is not  the  only  possible  outcome  of  PA  messaging, boils  down  to  a  key  marketing  principle:  The crux of a successful campaign is basic awareness. Because  increased  information  is  a  goal  of  many campaigns,  the  hierarchy  of  effects  framework  is sometimes  used  to  evaluate  the  success  of  a  PA campaign.  In  this  framework,  awareness  of  the message  is  a  key  effect,  followed  by  changes  in variables  such  as  beliefs,  attitudes,  or  intentions, and, ultimately, a change in behavior. The point is that behavior change may not happen because of a messaging campaign, but increased awareness of a problem and perhaps positive changes in attitudes or  beliefs  could  occur.  Indeed,  evidence  supports that gain-framed PA messages are more attention grabbing than loss-framed messages. For instance, researchers  used  eye  tracking  technology  to  measure individuals’ eye movements as they read gain or loss-framed PA messages. With eye movements being an indicator of attention, it was determined that participants attended to gain-framed messages more  than  loss-framed  messages.  However,  the messages did not affect PA behavior. As exemplified in this study, gain-framed messages may be a good  starting  point  for  behavior  change  but  they evidently need to be supplemented with additional behavior  change  techniques  and  interventions  to produce lasting change.

The Think Again campaign of ParticipACTION (2011–2012)  is  also  a  good  example  of  a  campaign  that  had  awareness  as  its  main  goal.  The problem being addressed was that less than 10% of Canadian children meet national guidelines for PA (i.e., 60 minutes of daily moderate-to-vigorous physical  activity  [MVPA]),  but  over  80%  of  parents  think  their  children  are  sufficiently  active. ParticipACTION,  therefore,  created  a  campaign targeting  mothers  with  children  ages  5  to  11  to try to address this discrepancy and to raise awareness of how much activity children actually need. Though  it  is  possible  other  effects  will  occur because  of  this  campaign  (e.g.,  parents  support their  children  in  being  more  active),  the  message first  needed  to  be  disseminated  and  understood by  parents.  For  instance,  if  parents  believe  that swimming  three  times  a  week  is  enough  activity for  their  child,  it  is  unlikely  they  will  try  to  help their  child  be  active  in  other  ways.  Subsequent campaigns may then target changing beliefs about PA or actual PA.

The Knowledge-Gap Hypothesis

Second, health promoters should be aware that PA-related information does not necessarily reach everyone in society at an equal rate and, when it does reach them, it may not be considered relevant by  all  message  recipients.  This  problem  has  been considered through the knowledge-gap hypothesis, which states that as mass media are introduced into society,  those  with  more  education  will  acquire knowledge  faster  than  those  with  less  education. This  occurs  because  people  with  more  education are  often  better  able  to  manage  communication, have  more  prior  knowledge  about  a  topic,  have broader  social  networks,  and  pay  more  attention to public health education campaigns. A variety of contextual and personal factors have been shown to influence health information seeking, including demographic,  socioeconomic,  information  environment, health status, and motivation. For example,  researchers  have  argued  the  “digital  divide” of  Internet  use  that  exists  between  seniors  and younger adults is due to generational differences in uptake of new technologies rather than differences in  cognitive  abilities  or  “stage  of  life.”  A  meta-analysis  indicated  that  knowledge  gaps  in  health promotion have persisted and have not decreased over time. The authors of this meta-analysis argue that  such  health  knowledge  gaps  may  account for  the  differences  in  prevention  behaviors  found between high and low socioeconomic status (SES) groups.  Thus,  ways  to  overcome  the  knowledge gap are needed. Moreover, it is important to consider  that  once  the  information  reaches  recipients  its  uptake  may  vary  from  person  to  person. There  are  a  number  of  personality  characteristics that  have  been  found  to  affect  whether  an  individual is receptive to gain-framed information. For example,  people  who  focus  on  achieving  positive outcomes  are  especially  receptive  to  gain-framed messages,  whereas  people  who  are  concerned about  preventing  negative  outcomes  are  less  persuaded by gain-framed messages.

Social Marketing in a Complex Media Environment

A  final  difficulty  in  translating  PA  messages into increased behavior is the conflicting messages in  the  wider  media  milieu.  Several  authors  have questioned how well health promotion campaigns fare  within  today’s  increasingly  complex  media environment.  For  example,  little  is  known  about how  commercial  advertisements  may  compete with  public  service  health  promotion  campaigns. This is a concern because the number of commercial  marketers  of  exercise  products  and  services is  far  greater  than  noncommercial  marketing efforts.  One  manifestation  of  this  competition  is the attention afforded commercial advertisements may draw attention away from gain-framed health promotion  advertisements.  However,  whether  the attention paid to commercial advertisements is necessarily  detrimental  to  population  health  remains to   be   determined.   Though   limited,   research increasingly  points  to  negative  effects  of  promoting PA for appearance reasons. Another difficulty is that we do not fully understand what information  is  available  to  consumers.  For  example,  the Internet is a popular source of information, yet the challenges of understanding what PA information is available and who accesses it have not been overcome. At the time of this writing, typing the word exercise into the Google search engine resulted in 579,000,000 hits and the specific phrase physical activity  got  87,900,000  hits.  With  such  an  overwhelming amount of information available, those interested in promoting PA are strongly advised to not ignore where people get information regarding PA and how such information is interpreted.


Marketing  campaigns  are  often  used  to  counter trends  toward  physical  inactivity,  with  messages promoting  PA  for  health  disseminated  not  only via traditional media such as television and magazines  but  also  through  the  Internet  and  social media.  Whatever  the  medium,  the  general  goal of  mass-market  health  promotion  campaigns  is to  increase  the  amount  of  information  available on a particular health topic. Targeted social marketing  campaigns  that  promote  the  benefits  of being  active  through  gain-framed  messages  can successfully  (albeit  modestly)  influence  societal norms. However, if behavior change is looked to for evidence of success, one may be disappointed. Rather, evaluation efforts should examine awareness of the basic message followed by changes in attitudes and beliefs prior to looking for increased PA. Further, PA messages may reach some people faster  than  others  due  to  socioeconomic,  education,  or  other  barriers.  The  plethora  of  information  available  from  multiple  sources  may  also impede  uptake  of  PA.  Thus,  a  consistent  public health  message  is  needed  to  counter  trends  in physical  inactivity.  The  message  can  be  tailored to meet the needs of different segments of society, but the unfailing basic message should be that PA is unquestionably good for you.


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