The Public Relations Strategist

Mind Sciences Yield Insights About How Audiences Perceive Messages

October 26, 2017

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According to mind scientist Antonio Damasio, “More may have been learned about the brain and the mind in the 1990s — the so-called ‘decade of the brain’ — than during the entire previous history of psychology and neuroscience.” That pace of learning continues today.

The mind sciences, especially cognitive psychology and neuroscience, have revealed much about how the human mind works. We have learned, for instance, that communicators have limited direct influence over how an audience understands a message; we cannot inject messages into people’s minds. We also know that emotions are central to how people interpret messages.

As Damasio says, “We are not thinking creatures that feel; we are feeling creatures that think.” People are “cognitive misers,” seeking to process information with the least amount of effort. Like the mass of an iceberg, most cognitive and emotional reactions to messages occur below the surface of our consciousness.

Moreover, our unconscious reactions to messages often have greater influence on our interpretations and behavior than our conscious responses do. Traditional research methods such as surveys and focus groups cannot uncover these deeper mind reactions. A different approach is needed.

Co-created messages, mental frames

Insights from mind sciences constitute a new reality for all communication professionals. Every PR message engages at least two minds — a producer and a receiver. The producer selects words, and perhaps images, in an attempt to communicate a particular meaning. Those words and images, or cues, then activate concepts, orientations and emotional inclinations in the receiver’s mind. Specific cues in the PR message blend with the concepts and orientations they activate in the audience to co-create the meaning of the message.

Most co-created meaning is fast and automatic, popping into the receiver’s mind without much conscious thinking. PR professionals can partially control a co-created meaning by carefully selecting words and images and weaving them into a coherent message. 

But mental concepts and orientations activated in the minds of the audience also have partial control, as they combine with message cues to co-create interpreted meanings.

Knowing which mental frame a PR message is likely to activate is critical for crafting effective messaging. A mental frame is the constellation of beliefs, concepts, orientations, values and emotions associated with a particular topic or idea. We are seldom aware of our own mental frames or how they operate in our minds. But when a mind is exposed to a message, a mental frame is always activated, which then unconsciously influences how the person interprets the message.

Positive frames, of course, are desirable. A classic PR example concerns Johnson & Johnson’s decision to remove all Tylenol products from store shelves in 1982, after seven people in the Chicago area, including a 12-year-old girl, were murdered by swallowing capsules into which a serial killer had inserted cyanide. The company’s quick action generated the mental frame that “J&J cares about me and has my best interests at heart.” Many consumers retain that positive frame, which continues to generate favorable attitudes toward J&J and feelings of trust in its brands.

When different people possess different mental frames about the same topic, they will interpret message cues differently. For example, both Republicans and Democrats may strive for fairness in health-care policy, but their mental models for fairness seem different. Republicans may consider a health care system fair when most people have access to health care, whereas many Democrats consider guaranteed health care to be fair. Unsurprisingly, Republicans and Democrats are likely to react differently to messaging about the fairness of a proposed health-care policy.

PR professionals need to know their audience’s mental frames so they can select message cues that co-create desired meanings. Politics offers many examples of how verbal or visual cues frame topics in ways that influence people’s reactions to messaging about those topics. Consider the mental frames activated by different verbal labels for social issues: “estate tax” versus “death tax,” for instance; “climate change” versus “global warming”; “safety net” versus “welfare”; “tax relief” versus “tax cuts.” Successful communication requires careful attention to verbal and visual cues.

Metaphor in PR messaging

Although the surface-level knowledge of “who, what and when” helps craft effective messages, knowing the “why” is a deeper, more foundational insight. But how can PR professionals attain insights about the unconscious, emotional contents of the mind? Asking people direct questions about their unconscious thoughts and feelings cannot produce valid answers, because in that abstract respect, people literally do not know what they know. Instead, we can use metaphor to indirectly express the unconscious mind and explore its contents.

Metaphors that people use when discussing a topic often reveal unconscious orientations that direct their surface-level thoughts and feelings. In a study of motor oil, for example, fleet owners referred to their vehicles as their children, and to themselves as parents. That metaphoric frame underpinned the fleet owners’ strong sense of responsibility to “feed” their vehicles quality motor oil (nutritious food).

Once they are identified, we can leverage metaphoric insights to create effective communications.

In another study, people with hearing loss who had resisted buying hearing aids were asked to find pictures that expressed their thoughts and feelings about their ailment. Many participants presented images of jails and chains, which symbolized their feelings of being isolated and constrained by their hearing loss. Armed with this insight, the client produced ads showing cages bursting open and the “prisoner” flying free, which communicated the emotional benefits of its new model of hearing aid.

PR professionals should carefully select metaphors to include in their messaging. As the hearing aid example illustrates, metaphorically evocative words and images communicate at an unconscious level, thereby avoiding the counterarguments that explicit claims and factual evidence can provoke.

Metaphors also activate mental frames, which then influence how meaning is co-created. Consider how the different mental frames activated by metaphorically portraying life as a journey, a game or a dream will influence audience interpretations of messages about financial-planning products. 

It’s important not to activate negative frames. United Airlines recently faced a PR nightmare when one of its passengers was injured and humiliated while being dragged off an overbooked flight, and cellphone video of the incident spread on social and traditional media. United’s initial responses were defensive, arguing that the police officers who removed the passenger were at fault.

A better approach would have been to use metaphoric words and images that expressed concern for the passenger and his injuries, and for the airline’s passengers in general. Belatedly, United modified several of its procedures to prevent similar situations from occurring again and expressed more customer-centric sentiments. But by then, many consumers had already formed a negative frame. We will see if such a frame has long-term effects.

Mind sciences can give PR professionals insights about how audiences understand messaging and how interpretations can be influenced. Insights concerning metaphor and its role in the co-creation process are particularly relevant.  

Jerry Olson

Jerry Olson is the Earl Strong Professor Emeritus of Marketing at Penn State University and co-founder of Olson Zaltman, a marketing research and strategic consultancy. Olson Zaltman was a pioneer in using metaphor and related mind-science concepts to unlock the hidden power of the unconscious mind. Over the past 20 years, Olson Zaltman has provided insights that have led to powerful communications and innovation for many of the world’s biggest brands.

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