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Skip the path of least research

Fishbein argued that few campaign planners use theoretically based research to create their messages — and poorly researched concepts are one of the main causes of failed campaigns.

Poorly researched concepts are one of the main causes of failed campaigns.

You’re in a concept meeting. Your client, a skin cancer organization, has asked you to come up with an advertisement that will convince young women to stop using tanning beds. Your coworker, the mother of a teenage daughter, speaks up. “My daughter Kelly had no idea that tanning beds can cause cancer until I told her recently,” she says, “so the ad should probably focus on melanoma.” Her idea is received with nods of approval, the creative team is informed, and out goes the fear-appeal ad. How easy was that?

Easy, perhaps, but at what cost is such a strategy used by adverting agencies? According to the experts, great cost. A number of these experts, including the late Martin Fishbein, have studied mass media campaigns and found that most have little or no effect on the target population’s behavior. This finding did not surprise Fishbein, who was the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s health communication program.

In order to illustrate Fishbein’s argument, let’s look back at the 1990s anti-drug public service announcements (PSAs) created by the Partnership for a Drug Free America (PDFA). The PDFA’s goal was to prevent the use of drugs (e.g., marijuana and inhalant) among young people in the United States. Here’s a classic example:

To the best of Fishbein’s knowledge, the PDFA did not base these PSAs on theory or research before broadcasting them nationally. Fishbein and his colleagues conducted a study to evaluate 30 of the PSAs by asking more than 3,600 adolescents to rate the PSAs’ effectiveness in reducing drug use. The results may surprise you. While the viewers found a number of the PSAs significantly more effective than a control video (a public television program about video production techniques), they rated the six PSAs that used humor or focused on avoidance behaviors like “just say no” (such as the video embedded above) as significantly less effective. As explained by Fishbein and his colleagues, “adolescents viewing these 6 PSAs reported that they and their friends would be more likely to try or to use drugs, and would feel less confident about how to deal with situations involving drugs, than adolescents viewing [a program about video production].”

More likely to try drugs? Less confident about turning them down? If this so-called “boomerang effect” isn’t incentive enough to do rigorous research before creating and broadcasting messages, I don’t know what is. My advice to the anti-tanning concept team mentioned above? Don’t spend your time and your client’s money creating a campaign that may be ineffective (or worse). After all, though your coworker’s daughter Kelly is a great kid, she isn’t an accurate representation of the entire teenage girl population. If your team had followed this advice and done some research, you would’ve found out that a majority of young women already know that tanning beds can cause skin cancer, and that this knowledge doesn’t affect their decision to go tanning. In other words, though it was easy to create, your melanoma campaign is headed down the path of least effectiveness. Sorry, client.

What does affect young women’s decisions to use tanning beds, you ask? I’ll let you know when I finish my master’s thesis.

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