What health policy ads can teach us about communicating climate change

Healthcare professionals

Changing minds is hard, particularly in a divided world where group identity can matter more than facts in determining viewpoints. The mission of NCSE’s Breaking Down Barriers program is to reach people who are skeptical or unsure about climate change in order to help them feel more comfortable taking steps towards understanding and action. Unsurprisingly, then, we can learn from the successes and failures of attempts to change people's minds in other areas.

Take health policy, for example. The makers of health policy ads have to contend with many of the same issues that plague clear public messaging about climate change. Both changes in health insurance systems and climate change share the necessity of incurring short-term costs to create long-term benefits for the broader population. By examining effective health policy ads targeted to the undecided, we may gain insight about strategies to better communicate issues related to climate change.

First—and this cannot be said enough to the scientists in the audience—no good political ad spends a lot of time explaining either the policy or the science behind it. With only a brief amount of time, it’s much more important to focus on an emotion and choose an appropriate messenger to deliver it. Ads for local or statewide health initiatives often feature members of the healthcare community, as a way to signal trustworthiness. Healthcare workers, particularly nurses, consistently outrank all other professions in trust. Nurses in popular imagination are also seen as being competent professionals without being elitist or unapproachable. The most effective health policy ads take advantage of this to convey health policy information from a source that is regarded as trustworthy, authoritative, and relatable.

Climate change communication, in contrast, has long had a messenger problem, with many vocal advocates painted, fairly or not, as out-of-touch, elitist, politicized, and judgmental. By attacking and othering the messenger, climate change skeptics have been able to convince people to be dismissive of the message. However, the messengers of climate change have become more diverse and more prepared to reach out to communities whose interests and values they share. For example, the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, herself an evangelical Christian, is particularly effective in communication with the evangelical Christian community. It is harder to ignore or dismiss messages when they come from people within your community.

Even with the right messenger, however, message presentation still matters. Often credited as the first issue-oriented television lobbying campaign, “Harry and Louise” was a suite of ads predominantly written to oppose the proposed Clinton health care reform plan of 1993-1994. Once a popular idea, the reform effort died owing in large part to declining public sentiment as a result of these advertisements. These 30-second spots featured conversations between two well informed middle-class adults, often an older married couple, to highlight real (and imagined) problems with a national healthcare system. The ads would strategically highlight a supposed problem with the Clinton healthcare plan.

Effective communication is relevant, local, and personal.

Most scholars attribute the ads’ effectiveness to three features. First, by allowing the audience to “spy” on these conversations, they helped to normalize skepticism about the plan with an air of authenticity that direct communication by a politician or constituent might not yield. Next, while enough specific information was included to give the public talking points, each detail was contextualized using the emotions of the characters. Linking a fact to an emotion helps less informed audiences both retain information and know how to interpret it. Finally, though the ads often veered strongly negative, they always ended with one of the characters indicating that there was a better way forward.

Thankfully, when it comes to effective climate change communication by peers, today’s youth seem to have it figured out. The Global Climate Strike captured everyone’s attention by (at least having the appearance of) being peer-led and emotion-driven. Young activists like Greta Thunberg were able to link evidence-based science to their emotional response, while ultimately projecting a positive image of a better world. Through news coverage, the older generation was able to spy on these conversations, perhaps learning a few ways to effectively communicate climate change themselves.

Effective communication is relevant, local, and personal. As a result, a popular health policy advertising strategy in 2018 involved politicians on both sides of the aisle sharing a story of themselves or a family member contending with preexisting conditions or navigating a complicated health situation. Such stories helped viewers make connections between the policymaker and the policy, while also provoking an emotional response. Similar constructions exist in climate change communication, particularly around emotion-provoking conservation images, such as biodiversity loss in their own backyard.

While ads that focus on relevant, local, and personal concerns can be effective at helping people expand their identity to include a particular viewpoint, they also can become reductionist, and keep people from asking the important questions. In climate change communication, a huge opportunity developed in 2017 during the campaigns against ocean plastics. A growing percentage of the public was aware of the problem and willing to take simple actions in their own lives to reduce plastic use. Campaigns with a longer-term horizon in mind would have leveraged this public discourse to celebrate the success of reducing plastics while also nudging people towards identifying as conservationists and making other eco-friendly decisions. Ineffective campaigns reduced the whole problem to that of plastics, leading people to not craft identity around the broader issue of conservation or ask the questions that would help make the science content resonate. In extreme cases, savvy marketing companies invoked the danger of microplastics to urge consumers to buy microplastic-free products that were nevertheless packaged in non-consumable plastics, continuing to contribute to the bloat of plastic waste. While single-issue campaigns can be effective and important in communicating to a broad audience, it is important to distinguish between those that broaden the conversation beyond the single issue and those that fail to do so.

Finally, I want to address a larger issue. I realize many readers may react strongly to the very premise of drawing lessons and inspiration from political advertising. The idea that in science the facts should speak for themselves persists in scientific discourse. However, we must also accept the reality that despite the overwhelming evidence for anthropogenic climate change, the cognitive barriers and the political obstacles to understanding and appreciating the seriousness of the situation mean that climate change remains a controversial issue. Countless studies show that attempts to communicate the science alone don’t lead to a greater recognition of the seriousness of climate change or a greater desire to take action. If we are unwilling to recognize how human irrationality mediates the uptake of the facts, we are almost certain to fail in communicating with key groups.

By considering alternative communication strategies and drawing inspiration from a variety of sources, we can attempt to reach people who may have been hesitant to acknowledge climate change in the past and help them embrace the task of preserving and protecting our future.

Thanks to a great conversation with the 2020 NCSE Graduate Students Outreach Fellows that helped with the writing of this article.

Kate Carter
Short Bio

Kate Carter is Director of Community Science Education at NCSE.


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