How Not To Hit Your Mark With Your Marketing Message

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By: Dr. David Bridwell, People Scientist

Sometimes our messages don’t work out the way they’re intended, or they end up having the opposite effect than what is desired.

If you’re in marketing, then it’s important to understand why this happens.

One way to illustrate how messages can backfire is with the story of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. According to the story, a fox comes upon a rabbit stuck in tar and begins to think aloud about how he’s going to prepare the rabbit for dinner. The fox picked up the rabbit and said, “I’m going to roast you.” The rabbit looked around and noticed a thorny briar patch where he could escape if only the fox would set him free. The fox licked his lips and said, “I’m going to roast you”, so the rabbit said, “you can roast me, but whatever you do, don’t throw me in that briar patch.” Then, the fox said, “I’m going to skin you,” and the rabbit said, “you can skin me, but whatever you do don’t throw me in that briar patch.”

The fox, being mischievous and evil, decided that the best thing to do would be to throw the rabbit in the briar patch where he doesn’t want to be. The rabbit, of course, wanted to be thrown in the briar patch, and he recognized that the fox might throw him in the patch if he asked NOT to be thrown in. The rabbit’s message had the “opposite” effect on the fox.

The rabbit wanted his message to be ignored in this story, but there are many instances where messages can backfire when we don’t intend for them to. This is called “the Boomerang effect,” and it often comes up in public health campaigns facilitating quitting smoking or reducing littering.

One factor that contributes to the boomerang effect is if the message does not accurately align with people’s beliefs. In the case of smoking, for example, if you create an ad that conveys that smoking is unhealthy, but it’s not portrayed as being as unhealthy as people think it is, then the audience loses trust and becomes less likely to believe your message. You have to align with your audience first before influencing them to change their beliefs.

Another case of the boomerang effect comes up when your message implies that a lot of people are doing something. For example, if you want to discourage people from littering, then it’s not effective to imply that a lot of other people are littering. This normalizes the idea that many people are littering and makes the target audience realize that they are “just like everybody else” if they litter.   

A similar example has been used in getting people to pay taxes. If you imply that someone is like many others in not paying their taxes, then they are less likely to pay taxes than if you imply that there are one of few people who are not paying taxes. If there are many other people not paying, then it is assumed that the behavior is common, but if you are one of a few who isn’t paying then you’re more likely to feel bad about it.

The intensity of the message influences effectiveness. In circumstances where it’s less clear that people are supposed to pick up their own trash, like in a movie theatre, a politely worded message can potentially initiate the boomerang effect. But in places where it is less acceptable to leave trash, like a public park, a politely worded message is less likely to backfire. This means that the degree in which a message backfires depends on the severity of the message and the expectations of the audience.

This is an important thing to think about because there have been anti-violence campaigns that actually increase violence. One reason we think this happens is “desensitization”—if you’re frequently exposed to violence then you assume that it’s normal. Another possibility is that seeing violence primes people for violence. It plants the idea in their mind.

Another thing that people are sensitive to is their own freedom. If the message implies that you’re removing someone’s freedom, that person is likely to disregard or go against that message. This reaction is similar to the notion that censoring something can make people want something more. When behaviors or thoughts are censored, people get a rush from engaging in those behaviors.  

How can we shape a message to avoid the boomerang effect? There is an interesting example from the book Made To Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. They describe an experiment where people were asked to donate to children in Africa in one of two cases. In one case they were given an example of a single child suffering in Africa, and in a second case they ADDED statistics about the number of starving children in Africa. Surprisingly, they found that people were less likely to donate to children in the case where statistics were included in the message.

Why is this happening? The notion is that when people encounter statistics, it engages their logical and analytical thoughts and this takes away from their emotional reaction. Since their donations to charity are influenced more by emotion than logic, including statistics in the message reduces its effectiveness.

Another interesting example from Made To Stick is from Phillip Morris. Phillips Morris, as part of an anti-settlement campaign, was tasked with creating advertisements that discourage smoking. The team created a commercial that begins with a woman being turned off by a guy in a bar after discovering that he smokes. At the end of the ad, the text “Think. Don’t Smoke.” appears.

In this ad, the suggestion to “think” brings up the logical side, and as we learned in the previous example, our actions are often driven by emotion and not logic. This reduces the impact of the message in the ad, and has the opposite effect—it made people more likely to smoke.