A Frame full of Sugar Helps the Message Go Down

How framing affects message reception

By Evette Clayton

You’re at home, and you’re watching the news. The reporter is telling you that there has been an outbreak of a new strain of virus. It’s estimated that 600 people will die. Reports come from the scientific authorities on the issue. There are two possible programmes for treatment that can be adopted.

It’s estimated that programme A will save 200 people. Programme B has a 1/3 probability of saving everyone, and 2/3 probability of saving no one. The government wants to know which programme will get the support of the public.

What do you say? A study by Kahneman and Tversky showed that 72% of people will vote for programme A, which can save 200 people.

Now, rewind. New scenario. There is still an outbreak, but the treatments are different. If treatment 1 is used 400 people will die, but if treatment 2 is used there is a 1/3 chance that no body will die, and a 2/3 chance that all 600 people will die.

Which treatment do you opt for now?

The study showed that 78% voted for treatment 2.

But how can this be? We’re all clever enough here to recognise that treatment 1 and programme A are the same thing. Saving 200 out of 600 people is the same thing as leaving 400 out of 600 to die. So, why do those things sound so different to us. Why is the prospect of curing only a portion of the people is more acceptable than the one in three risk of losing all 600, but the certain death of the remaining portion is less acceptable than the two in three chance that all will die?

Chong and Druckman write extensively on the topic of framing, and how it can be used in a political context. They do, however, stress the point that their findings and the psychology behind them can be applied to any topic involving opinions, including science. The application to science communications is illustrated by the previous example.

As scientists, we like to think we can objectively view information, process it and respond to the data we’ve been presented with. The truth is, we’re all human, and a product of our psychology. Our responses to information depend on the frame that we’ve been presented with. One example that Chong and Druckman return many times in their paper is the response of voters on the issue of rallies.

When asked whether they would favor or oppose allowing a hate group to hold a political rally, 85% of respondents answered in favor if the question was prefaced with the suggestion, “Given the importance of free speech,” whereas only 45% were in favor when the question was prefaced with the phrase, “Given the risk of violence”.

This example originates in a study conducted in 2004 by Sniderman and Theriault, but Chong and Druckman run with it, continuing the analogy throughout the review, to effectively illustrate the point. How the public responds to an issue is more dependent on the connotations presented, than the content. Values trump facts.

It is suggested that the seemingly subtle differences in connotations may not be identifiable to the researchers, but they hugely influence the public response.

Framing can be either positive or negative, that is, promoting benefits or losses. Frames can also be long or short term, and may focus on the individual or the community. Which combination of frames will be most effective for a topic depends on the topic itself. Studies have shown health related issues are best framed as benefits to the individual, and in a short term frame, like the new adverstising campaign for Quitline, that emphasizes the health benefits if people stop smoking, compared to older “scare tactics”, which remind the viewer that “Every cigarette is doing you damage”.

Every cigarette is doing you damage

Screen shots from television advertisement as part of the old Quitline campaign "Every cigarette is doing you damage"

New Quitline advertising campaign poster "Stop Smoking, Start Repairing"

Recent Quitline poster, as part of new campaign "Every cigarette you don't smoke is doing you good"

To some it may beg the question, “if my findings matter less to the public than how I tell them, why should I bother telling them?”. My own response to this would be to pull your head in. If you don’t let your findings be known, there was no point in looking. This is just something to remember when doing so.

Part of Chong and Druckman’s discussion stated that the connotations of an issue and its frame are also influenced by the availability of past knowledge on the topic. That is to say, if you already have ideas about something—and  they’re not too far from your conscious thought for your memory to recall them—they’ll influence what you think about incoming information. So, the more awareness people have on a topic, the more complex the issue of framing becomes, but the more likely people are to think about new information.

We, the doers of science, like to think that these political-type communications issues don’t apply to us. We present facts, we say. People can respond to the evidence, we [try to] believe. But the “fact” of the matter is that the public responds based on connotations and past exposure to issues. Who presents the information, what is already known and the frame of the message is far more important than the actual content, and even scientists would do well to remember this.


Chong, D. & Druckman, J. (2007). Framing Theory. Annual Review of Political Science, 10, 103-126.
[Available from SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1077308]

Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect Theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica 47(2), 263-292.
[Available from JSTOR: www.hss.caltech.edu/~camerer/Ec101/ProspectTheory.pdf]

Schneider, T.R., Salovey, P., Pallonen, U., Mundorf, N., Smith, N.F., Steward, W.T. (2001). Visual and auditory message framing effects on tobacco smoking. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 31(4), 667-682.

Sniderman PM, Theriault SM. (2004). The structure of political argument and the logic of issue framing. In Studies in Public Opinion, ed. WE Saris, PM Sniderman, pp. 133–65. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press


8 comments so far

  1. cgak05 on

    You made a very important point Evette. We tend to think forget that it is not just what is the message that we want to put across, but more like the emphasis on the message. And in order to have an emphasis on the message, to put the message strongly across to the public, we need not only to be aware of the way we frame the message, but also to be aware of how people would respond to it. As you have mentioned, “People can respond to the evidence, we [try to] believe. But the “fact” of the matter is that the public responds based on connotations and past exposure to issues.”

    We can try to get the same message across to the public over and over again, but the difference it would make, to have a greater impact, would not only rely on the way we frame the message, but also the way we “put” the words together. Getting the words together and trying to get the message. We can use the same words and switch them around and it’ll affect the message to become a positive or negative one.

    This then brings us to the last point you mentioned that who presents the message is also important. For example, PETA is know for using a shocking frame. Yes it works, but only for a short time. This is because the public has been desentitised to these images and hence it no longer works. Hence, it is important for organisations, governments, etc. who intend to make an advertisments to get a certain message across, to remember that they need to think of better ways to get the message across. In other words, they need to always be thinking of new ways and ideas of framing a message, and not always use the same one over and over again.

  2. clayte01 on

    Hi Crystal, thank you for your comment. I thought it was convenient that I posted this the day before our tutorial with Miriam on framing in animal welfare messages.

    I think that PETA have put themselves in a difficult position now. They have lost credibility because people don’t want to see things the way that they advertise them, but we saw in class that when asked to produce a campaign for PETA, people still assume that a shock frame will be used.

    I would like to further comment that when I suggest we can’t just present facts and expect people to come to the “right” conclusion; I do not mean to say that we shouldn’t do that to some extent. People like to be able to make up their own minds, I just think this shows it would be pertinent to keep framing in mind. This doesn’t mean tell people what to think, it just means suggest a view or opinion about a topic, and the public is likely to see things your way.

    I guess what I am trying to say is the difference between saying “Treatment X is safe” and “N reasons not to worry about treatment X”, both still imply a degree of opinion, but the second way gives evidence and lets the audience make up their own minds.

  3. Beau Gamble on

    You got my attention with a catchy title and kept it till the end — great post.

    I think you’ve done well to emphasise the importance of framing, and that the same content presented in a different way can elicit a very different response.

    I have a question about the Quit campaign… Do you think the recent switch to positive messages — focusing on the health benefits of not smoking — is more effective because it follows on from the ‘scare tactics’ campaign? In other words, if people didn’t initially have the background knowledge on the dangers of smoking, would they be able to respond as positively to the ‘start repairing’ messages?

    I mean, the old campaign could be seen as a mistake in light of studies that show ‘benefit’ type frames are best for health-related issues. But maybe, in this case, such a frame couldn’t be effective without the original focus on the health risks?

  4. clayte01 on

    Thanks Beau!
    Great question! I was thinking about that, myself, the first time I saw the new ad campaign. I do think that in this specific case that the “benefit” based campaign will work better because it is so juxtaposed to the previous campaign that it will get more attention.

    I am not a smoker, but I do sometimes feel like I can understand why I see so many people from the chemistry labs at uni sitting outside having a cigarette break; in the lab we’re often exposed to carcinogens that are far more dangerous than those in cigarettes, it seems that the common attitude is “it wouldn’t be the cigarettes that would kill me”. With the previous campaign, this attitude isn’t really challenged.

    Seeing the new campaign, I am reminded of the extent of the reasons there are not to smoke, but they are supported by the previous campaign’s reminder of just how bad the effects can be.

    This makes me wonder whether the combination of shock-then-benefit frame could work again, like with the other drug-related campaigns in the media at the moment. Do you think it could work the same for the ecstasy/methamphetamine/marijuana campaigns? (If you’re not sure what I’m referring to, the posters can be found here).

    • Beau Gamble on

      Hmm good question. I’ve been thinking about it for a while and don’t really know… But I think it depends on the drug.

      I could see the shock-then-benefit frame working for marijuana. But I can’t imagine any kind of benefit frame working for more ‘hardcore’ drugs like methamphetamine — I think meth addicts would be past the point where learning of the benefits of quitting — fewer headaches or less chance of stroke, for example — would be enough to sway them out of drug use. Maybe the purely negative, attention-grabbing frames really are the best approach for a drug like meth?

  5. Evette Clayton on

    Yeah, I think you’re possibly right there. I definitely see potential for a shock-then-benefit campaign for marijuana. But, for methamphetamine, the evidence does suggest that benefit frames work better for health-related issues.

    Maybe the scare-tactics would work better to prevent people from taking those drugs in the first place, but the benefit-frame would be more likely to affect addicts.

    Perhaps it is also relevant to note that smoking addictions tend to be a lot more “life-long” than, say ecstasy or methamphetamine use.

    Ecstasy, for one, shows a high level of self regulation in rats and in humans. That is to say, people are less likely to feel the physical addiction, and even the psychological addiction is more able to be over come. So, in the case of ecstasy there would be more value in preventing people from ever taking it, than to get “addicts” off it.

    On the other hand, because it is easier for ecstasy users to stop their addiction, perhaps there would be great benefit in encouraging that with positively framed messages.

    Methamphetamine, to my knowledge, is a lot more addictive. Maybe there is more value in hammering the loss-frame home, in that case.

    I think in any situation, as we saw with the loss of credibility suffered by PETA, perhaps there would be reason to tone down the number of shock-framed messages, and add a few more loss-but-not-shock-frames and maybe some benefit-framed messages for both of the above mentioned drugs.

    • Beau Gamble on

      Agreed — each frame can work better for different audiences; the loss-frame targets non-users and the benefit frame targets users. And I think the frames you suggested would certainly suit an anti-ecstacy campaign.

      I read somewhere that loss and shock messages have proven effective at discouraging methamphetamine use in the first place. But I still can’t picture a benefit frame appealing to long-term meth addicts. I know the literature supports benefit frames for health related issues but the severity of a meth addiction may warrant an exception. I think at some point all frames in mass-advertisement would become ineffective to someone suffering an extreme addiction, and any decision to quit would be provoked not by an advertising campaign but something more personal like family intervention, support from friends or some internal revelation.

      Anyway, that’s just personal opinion. It’s probably cynical to assume that no sort of advertising campaign would reach a long-term meth user. I don’t really know. But it will definitely be interesting to see if the new anti-smoking strategies carry over to other drugs…

  6. Evette Clayton on

    I think you’re probably right to a large extent, about the ability of advertising to reach long-term addicts when it is “hard” drugs like methamphetamine.

    It is possible that they could have an effect, but maybe you’re right about personal reasons being the more likely reason for a meth addict to quit. Perhaps it would be better to frame a ‘benefit’ campaign at families and friends of addicts, then? Like showing how they could help their loved one…. Hmmm. It’s all postulating now.
    I do hope to see the new anti-smoking strategy carry over into the “softer” drugs, like alcohol, marijuana and ecstasy.

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