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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