Words aren't magic
Or, when we can’t ‘reframe’: how Lakoff taught us to over-think communications
It’s a trope of most motivational speakers that we learn more from our failures than our successes. So in that spirit allow me as the kids say to ‘post my L online’.
Recently I was working with a non-profit on messaging around natural gas, which is one of the major fossil fuels (particularly because many people cook with it).
We were quite taken with the idea that somehow the phrase ‘natural gas’ is part of the problem. Natural sounds nice, you see, people like natural things. Methane, however, sounds nasty and chemical; people like that less.
So we ran a test to confirm our thinking. We showed two separate but identical audiences two different anti-gas messages, the only thing that altered was we used the phrase ‘natural’ with one and ‘methane’ with the other. We did that in four countries.
The results showed…not a lot.
We trigger less opposition with methane, but only because we cause more confusion. We don’t increase agreement. The brand of methane is indeed worse, dirtier. But nobody has really heard of it, so it made no difference to the number of people who support our message. In a separate experiment, ‘fossil gas’ made more difference, but only a bit – it’s not a massive game changer.
It basically doesn’t matter, but we’d probably just be better off sticking with whatever term people best recognise.
So why am I sharing this rather esoteric piece of climate communications research with you?
Because I think it’s an interesting example of an argument we can colloquially summarise as “words aren’t magic”.
If you’ve worked around NGO comms in particular for any length of time, you’ll almost certainly have been exposed to arguments about ‘framing’.
Framing theory is the belief that support for ideas or ideologies is bound up with language, metaphors and the imagery they provoke. It usually posits that our opponents win because everyone uses their ‘frames’ or language, and that to win we need to “reframe” the debate onto our terms, our language.
A classic reframing proposition might be to stop talking about climate change as a risk, and start talking about it as an opportunity. Usually it’s about semantics, though: see those who argue we can only win support for spending if we replace the dominant metaphor of the ‘state as a household budget’.
An entire cottage industry has sprung up around this philosophy on the left in particular. Whole organisations exist to tell us that we need to “reframe the ocean” as a human body to increase concern about biodiversity. Or that we should ‘reframe the economy’ as being like a railway track, or replace people’s ‘extrinsic’ value considerations (eg money) with ‘intrinsic’ (eg social justice).
Consultants regularly wring thousands of pounds out of campaigning NGOs for such insight.
The chief architect of framing theory is of course academic George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant.
But while it’s true that stories matter, and that persuasion is possible, in my view ‘framing theory’ is often not very helpful as practical communications advice. Specifically, I think that’s because there are three major circumstances where we can’t ‘reframe’ public attitudes or language in the way it instructs us:
The first is when we are introducing terminology or imagery that people are not already familiar with. In this circumstance, as we saw with the above experiment, our message will just bounce off people. Here we are presented with a trade-off: just make our argument within the imperfect terms people already engage with, or invest a lot of money in educating people and the media on our alternative. Which brings me to:
When we have very little media power or advertising budget. You can have a perfect alternative ‘frame’ or vocabulary for your issue, but if you’ve only got 5k ad-spend and one or two press releases lined up, it’s not going to make a difference. Most people are simply not paying attention to us often enough. Governments can sometimes ‘reframe’ issues with voters (see how the Conservatives ‘reframed’ Labour spending after 2010) but that’s because they have constant access to a bully pulpit. Oppositions and NGOs rarely do.
When people’s views are shaped by fundamentals beyond our control (e.g. deeply held experiences, values, exogenous constraints or events). Quite obviously, there is no ‘framing’ that can make ordinary people get, say, an electric car if they are just too expensive. Just saying “get on the housing ladder” less, as NEF argue (because it “strongly implies private ownership is the direction of progress”), will not stop people wanting to be home owners when the alternatives are so crap. The name ‘social housing’ may be a drag on support for public housing, but that’s bound up with what the product itself is. Words will not save us here.
Usually, at least one of the first two considerations will apply to most NGO issue campaigns. More times than we admit, the last one will.
Most often, our biggest challenge is that nobody knows what the hell we are talking about or why they should care – and they are really busy. So our best option is just to take a ‘frame’ or argument they already engage with, terminology they already understand, or things they already care about, and connect it to our issue. In my case, less time worrying about semantics, more time telling people that natural gas causes climate change and damages people’s health.
A lot of the case studies that the mythology of ‘reframing’ is based on are also over-hyped. Lakoff spent the Bush years telling Democrats that they’d never win again until they reframed taxes as “membership fees” or activated a ‘nurturant parent frame’ in the minds of American voters. None of this had much to do with Obama winning the White House.
Elsewhere, the oceans didn’t need to be reframed as a human body: David Attenborough showing cute things dying on beaches has been enough to get people to care more about plastics! And an increased sense of risk has been enough to increase the salience of climate change, as predicted by analysts back when others were saying this would never work.
Even Republican consultant Frank Luntz’s dubbing of the estate tax as ‘the death tax’ contributed little more than a few percent to opposition to that measure, according to research. Partisan cues and the fact people don’t like inheritance taxes did much of the work.
There are occasional exceptions to this rule. The ‘bedroom tax’ was a neat piece of branding. Most likely this is because it had first mover advantage – it defined something totally new. But even here, stories of sympathetic people hit by the measure probably did most of the work in killing it. The boring branding of ‘the poll tax’ hardly stopped it being deeply unpopular.
At best, a focus on ‘re-framing’ can create a neurotic focus on language that encourages us to overly sweat the small stuff. At worst, it can be used by activists as an excuse for talking to themselves instead of meeting ordinary people where they are.
Back to basics
Since I’ve criticised one school of thought on issue campaigning, I should probably briefly outline an alternative. I’m not a nihilist; we can change attitudes if we are pragmatic about it.
In my view there’s three basic steps to a good issue campaign aimed at the public:
1. Find a reason your target audience already say they have to care about your issue – that is, the existing dominant ‘frame’. You can easily get this from basic qualitative or quantitative message testing. Most people won’t be totally unsympathetic, they’ll just be ambivalent. (If you can’t locate this, probably you need to think more carefully about what you’re selling)
2. Find creative and interesting ways of bringing that story to life through paid and unpaid media, ideally with messengers trusted by your audience.
3. Do this over and over again for a sustained period of time!
Most campaigns (including many I’ve been involved with!) fail because they fall at one of these hurdles, not because their opponents had better metaphors. Usually it’s the last: organisations get bored easily; they put out one release or video and then move on to something else.
That is totally understandable. These steps may be basic but they are really difficult, especially in the context of internal politics, budget constraints, shifting external agendas. But they nevertheless remain the task at hand. It’s from this perspective that we can see a neurotic focus on language and ‘reframing’ for what it is: an exercise in procrastination.