Why Do Messages Backfire?

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In the 1970s, a magazine ad for Benson & Hedges cigarettes portrayed a hockey fight. Two players slug it out. Sticks and gloves litter the ice.

The point of view is on-ice, in the midst of the scrum. The crowd is on its feet, banging the glass. You’re right there with linesmen trying to break it up.

The hockey gloves are Coopers. Every hockey player knows the name. In the photo, one of the gloves has been doctored.

[caption id=“attachment_14403” align=“aligncenter” width=“665”]

Hockey Benson & Hedges Ad
clipped from The Dark Side of Subliminal Advertising: https://darksidesubliminal.blogspot.com/[/caption]

Where the word “Cooper” belongs is another word. A word you wouldn’t expect a cigarette company to place on an ad for cigarettes. But the word is undeniable.

It’s “cancer.”



Because advertisers understand how messaging works. Government and politicians don’t.

Here’s an explanation of the ad from the Dark Side of Subliminal blog:

This print ad has been deliberately created, with a subliminal message, to tap into the subconscious anxiety and fear of the target audience, surrounding the threat of cancer.

With concern over the fear of cancer, stress management expert Sally Wilson states:

“All fear will create a degree of anxiety. Conscious fears can be relatively easy to dissolve through reasoning. Other fears can deeply affect our subconscious attitudes and affect our mental health with the power to disturb our peace of mind. We may not even be aware of them. But they will all contribute to any anxiety state we may suffer.”1

Read the whole article on Darkside of Subliminal Advertising. It’s fascinating.

Still don’t get it? Smoking cessation guru Eric Eraly explaines more:

As a smoker, you smoke a lot of cigarettes when you feel fear…So, when I tell you that smoking is bad, that you can get cancer from it…that you are killing yourself, most likely you’ll become afraid and you’ll want a cigarette.

Every smoker knows Eraly’s right. Anxiety makes the monkey scratch. Fear makes him bite.

In Benson & Hedges ad, the advertiser increased the desire to smoke with an ad the Surgeon General would have applauded. Advertisers know what doctors do not. Perhaps because advertisers get paid to change behavior while doctors get paid to deal with consequences.

On Monday, I wrote about Senator Roy Blunt’s bill to require a disclaimer on Obamacare ads that informs people they paid for the ad. I understand his sentiment. His prescription will backfire.

Here’s another example of government messaging having and effect 180 degrees out from its intent.

Researchers studied the effects of messaging parents about the safety of childhood vaccines. The finding are amazing.

Parents who were initially skeptical of the MMR vaccine’s safety, but were convinced by the messaging the the vaccine is safe, became less likely to have their children vaccinated. From LiveScience:

Surveying 1,759 parents, researchers found that while they were able to teach parents that the vaccine and autism were not linked, parents who were surveyed who had initial reservations about vaccines said they were actually less likely to vaccinate their children after hearing the researchers messages.

While the parents were cognitively converted to the pro-vaccine position, they became emotionally more anti-vaccine because of the messaging.

And there’s more. Numerous studies show that government-sanctioned anti-bullying programs in schools increase the frequency and severity of bullying.

And the reverse hits just keep on coming. Again from The Dark Side of Subliminal Advertising:

Recently, the largest neuromarketing experiment in history was conducted using two of the most sophisticated brain-scanning instruments in the world, fMRI (Functional magnetic resonance imaging) and SST (steady-state topography-an advanced version of the electroencephalograph).

This study was funded by eight multinational companies and cost around $7 million.

Dr. Gemma Calvert, the leader of the research team for the large neuromarketing experiment, discovered the following:

1.     “Cigarette warnings—whether they informed smokers they were at risk of contracting emphysema, heart disease, or a host of other chronic conditions—had in fact stimulated an area of the smoker’s brain called the nucleus accumbens, otherwise known as “the craving spot."  This region is a chain-link of specialized neurons that lights up when the body desires something.” 12

2.     “In short, the fMRI results showed that cigarette warning labels not only failed to deter smoking, but by activating the nucleus accumbens, it appeared they actually encouraged smokers to light up.” 13

So what’s the answer? Throw up our hands and give up?

No. Changing beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors is too important to surrender. Advertisers don’t give up. You never heard Don Draper say, “Forget it, Roger. You can’t get people to buy laxatives.”

To change beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, look at the sciences. Don’t craft messages that make you feel good about yourself. Don’t try to convince people that you have the facts on your side. It doesn’t work.

Instead, think about the person you’re talking to. What do they believe? What’s important to them? What do they want? You might have to talk to them to answer those questions.

Help people get what they want, and they might put some emotional stock in what you believe. And without emotional connections, behavior change won’t happen. Facts don’t matter until after the emotional decision’s been made.

The FBI’s behavior change model is one approach. It involves five building block:

** Active listening ** Empathy ** Rapport ** Influence ** Behavior Change

(Read more on Barking Up The Wrong Tree.)

That’s actually the model for getting anyone to do anything. It requires a willingness to communicate with people who don’t agree with you yet. It means thinking in their context, not yours.

Yes, effective behavior change takes more effort than slapping a disclaimer on a radio commercial or printing a warning on a pack of cigarettes. But scientific persuasion actually works.