Are we better off asking people to stop a problem from happening or asking them to help reach a goal?
In the previous article related to the “psychological immune response” we posited that people’s tendency to overestimate their future trauma could be useful in constructing political messages. Data from a study by PhD students Sara Pennard of the University of Manitoba and Olya Bullard of the University of Winnipeg seem to indicate that this could be affecting donor appeals as well.
Protection vs. Promotion
Sara, who used to do fundraising for the United Way, told me the research shows that philanthropy appeals to consumer’s “prevention-focused” goals of safety and security are more effective than “promotion-focused” appeals that address the fulfillment of goals, aspirations, and attainment.
The study used United Way donor letters with different framing – some focused on goal attainment and some focused on protection/security.
For example, separately controlled subjects were asked their likelihood of donating after reading two very similar appeals. One titled “Mental Health Support Saves Lives” and the other “Don’t Let Mental Health Take Lives.” Other subtle differences in copy distinguished between promotion vs. protection. For example, one line in the promotion version said “everyone deserves access to help” whereas in the protection version it said, “no one should have to struggle on their own.” The call to action in the promotion version is “You can make the difference in someone’s life by donating to United Way.” In the protection version, it is “You can prevent someone else having these struggles by donating to United Way.”
The result? Those that got the protection focused letter were 21% more likely to give than the people who received the promotion focused letter.
The concept that fear is a significant (if not primary) motivator in politics is nothing new to political consultants or online fundraisers. Debates over whether negative ads or appeals work feel quaint at this point – and more often occur between a hesitant candidate and his consultant vs. among those looking at data.
The kinds of protection-based messaging described above is obviously designed to trigger fears of a negative situation, but still draws a connection to a positive outcome. It’s more defensive than outright negative.
The study’s applications for advocacy fundraising are obvious: All other things being equal, campaigns should provoke these feelings of protection rather than goal promotion.
However, this seems to have potential applications to candidate campaigns as well, particularly in email or direct mail fundraising that is not an outright negative attack. This can be framed more like the extended warrantee – “Joan Candidate will help protect our economy” from those that threaten it rather than “Joan Candidate will help us improve our economy.”
PsyPology will be discussing numerous studies about negative ad framing over time – but Penner and Bullard’s research may also have some utility helping to convince reluctant candidates (that negative imagery (inherent in protection framing) has shown, quantifiably to make a difference, at least in fundraising. That the show “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” might get more traction if they had named it “You Can Avoid Getting Rained On By Staying in Philadelphia”
A lot of political email and direct mail writers may already be doing this – but these different framings should be tested within the political context. (We’d love to hear if your results show correlation.) Likewise, it might make sense to look at your speeches at fundraisers as well, and determine whether some of the promotional, aspirational language should become more protective.