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.