Application of Persuasion Theory

“The Application of Persuasion Theory to the Development of Effective Proenvironmental Public Service Announcements”

Renee J. Bator and Robert B. Cialdini, in Journal of Social Issues 56:3, 2000
Read October 2010

Cialdini is well-known for his writing on persuasion, so it was with some interest that I read this article about persuasive Public Service Announcements (PSAs). PSAs are an interesting genre. They are overtly persuasive, and the audience is not under any false impressions; they know they are being asked to change their behavior. As Bator and Cialdini point out, PSA creators have a tough job: they must grab a disinterested audience’s attention, and they must create a message memorable enough for the audience to remember later, when faced with the specific situation. For this reason, the authors advocate that campaign developers assume their audience will only be “mildly interested” in the message and that multiple messages will be needed to influence actual behavior. They also point out the importance of researching the target audience; this is, of course, a basic tenant of human-centered design.

Some interesting theories are brought up by Bator and Cialdini, including McGuire’s 1989 “input-output matrix,” which provides ways “to better understand the communication variables (input) and the response steps (output)” that affect someone’s response to a message (529). In particular, the 12 stages defined in McGuire’s output matrix could provide, the authors suggest, a way to evaluate the effectiveness of a PSA. I plan to look more closely at McGuire’s input-output matrix and see whether I could use is as a way to evaluate my own thesis project.

Another important theory described is Petty and Cacioppo’s 1981 “Elaboration Likelihood Model” (530). This model elaborates on 2 routes to persuasion: a peripheral (or indirect) route, used when a person’s motivation or ability is low, and a central route, used “when the audience for a persuasive message is motivated and able to take the time to consider its content” (531). Bator and Cialdini believe that a central route is better for more lasting changes. In addition, Petty and Cacioppo developed a sequence to “enduring attitude change”:

Attention -> Comprehension -> Elaboration -> Integration -> Enduring Attitude Change

Of course, I have learned from other readings that attitudes do not perfectly coordinate with behavior. Still, these fundamental ideas are, I feel, important to be aware of, whether I decide to utilize their frameworks or not.

Overall, the author’s focus on PSA campaigns is helpful to me because these types of campaigns are quite similar to my goal of designing for environmental causes. The article also contains some practical tips: personalization, the importance of vivid details, and retrieval cues, for example. Providing these tips along with the theories to back them up makes this a practical and engaging article.

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