When it comes to promoting healthy behaviors and the causes we care about, why do people have such wildly different responses? Despite our best work communicating for a safe, drug- and tobacco-free community, we often face resistance to real change. “I support substance misuse programs and wear a mask where it’s required, but why doesn’t my neighbor?” To better reach audiences, we must share messages and use tactics that resonate with their deeply-held worldviews and values.

Building an effective communications strategy requires us to look beyond our personal interests and focus instead on the people we’re supporting and what they care about most. According to Johnathan Haidt’s research on moral foundations theory, in the U.S., politically conservative and liberal people have different moral values. However, much of public health conversation unwittingly uses a voice that speaks to liberal values of care, liberty and fairness. To resonate with conservatives, we need to include the values of loyalty, authority and sanctity. For example, one way to reach conservative elected officials regarding the harmful economic and social consequences of opioids in their home communities is to appeal to their sense of loyalty and their ability to provide protection.

Another example of this type of communication strategy is illustrated in Troy Campbell’s research on supporting climate change interventions. He found that conservative individuals were more likely to support climate change policy when it was associated with a market-based solution instead of one that incorporates heavy government regulation. If the policy was associated with an environmental issue, they would have been less likely to support it. Conservative individuals who don’t support the science behind climate change solutions don’t necessarily reject the issue as a whole, they may simply have different priorities based on their worldview, identity and values.

Resonating with Rural Values

As a result of these findings, it’s clear that our messages need to be tailored for these differences. Research shows rural residents may perceive smoke-free policies as incompatible with their values of self-reliance and personal freedoms. If they believe that a smoke-free policy is going to infringe on their personal freedom, they’re likely to resist the idea. One way to avoid resistance would be to focus on how they’re infringing upon the rights of others and clearly demonstrate how secondhand smoke is harming other people and family members. Tap into their values of protection and loyalty.

Combating Tobacco Industry Tactics

In his talk at the 2018 frank gathering, Eric Asche, Chief Marketing Officer at Truth Initiative, shared how the tobacco industry uses these same communication tactics to sell their products. More specifically, he shared how the tobacco industry recognizes the “need states” of young people — their desire to fit in, feel independent and have opportunities for self-expression — and uses this to their advantage. To help young people resist, Asche said we must enter the conversation with the mindset of “I need to earn their trust,” rather than forcing their hand against tobacco. In one Truth Initiative campaign, the organization did this by creating a video that didn’t focus on the negative health consequences of smoking at all. Instead, in a video full of celebrities and influencers, the campaign appealed to young people’s desire to date by showing them how smoking cigarettes hurts their chances on dating apps.

Regardless of our position or the limited marketing and communication resources we have, all of us have the opportunity to tap into this strategic way of communicating to key decision makers.

Additional Resources