Writing clear and effective short forms of communication, such headlines, promotional taglines, patient health labels and information, can be particularly challenging.
The way we chose to frame health messages in our writing requires careful consideration, especially when we only have a few words to convey.
Writing about the risks associated with poor health behaviour, or fear mongering, is a commonly used technique. However, it’s not necessarily the most effective strategy to persuade readers to make healthy choices.
Choosing words that engage readers involves understanding how to positively frame messages to motivate people to change their behaviour and improve their health.
A study recently published in the Journal of Health Communication looked at warning labels on cigarette packages in the Netherlands.
The findings suggested wording is more effective for smokers’ intentions to quit when the warning label focused on immediate gains associated with quitting smoking.
This was especially true when the messages had real meaning for smokers in the short-term.
Warning labels on cigarette packets are mandatory within the European Union, with most warning labels including alarmist messages stressing long-term health problems.
The study suggested smokers found these threatening or negative smoking labels ineffective and there was no consequence when it came to changing habits.
Short and sweet warning labels most effective for smokers
One hundred and thirty-two smokers of a variety of ages were selected and randomly assigned to read different smoking warning labels on cigarette packages.
Smokers’ intentions and information seeking behaviour for changes in habits to quit smoking were influenced by both the interaction of message framing and temporal context.
Smokers who were exposed to messages that showed gains associated with quitting smoking had a stronger intention to quit smoking compared those exposed to loss-framed messages.
Additionally, quitting smoking based on short-term outcomes generated a positive response to quit from smokers than messages than focused on long-term outcomes.
Message framing gains versus losses
Several studies have previously found smokers do not engage with highly threatening or fear-eliciting messages for quitting smoking.
In this study, the Dutch researchers found smokers who were exposed to gain-framed messages had a significantly more positive attitude to quit smoking compared to smokers who were exposed to loss-framed messages.
Researchers haven’t yet established why effects are stronger for gain-framed messages that emphasise benefits.
It could be explained by risk perceptions and uncertainty with matching these to associations of fatal heart attack, lung disease with motivations to quit smoking.
The study suggests feelings of fear may not always correlate to changing behaviour.
Predictably, smokers who read gain-framed messages on their packages rated the messages as significantly more positive; however, there was no effect from the combination of these messages with perceived time frame for quitting.
Short-term beneefits were better received
Besides stressing benefits or costs of quitting smoking, health outcomes communicated from warning labels can reflect immediate (short-term) or delayed (long-term) results.
The study suggested perceived time frame (temporal context) had a significant effect, with smokers who received short-term messages more likely to perceive positive health outcomes of quitting smoking to occur in the nearer future.
Smokers in the short-term messaging group thought of their outcomes as more relevant.
Smokers who were receiving gain-framed conditions also had an effect of temporal context.
Using words that have temporal context, such as words that allow smokers to understand immediate health benefits rather than the long-term consequences of smoking, motivated more smokers to quit.
The study highlights how using words that are positive and focused on gains, can deliver immediate beneficial health outcomes in smokers.
These methods could be useful for other public health concerns, especially those that require messaging focused on quitting an unhealthy habit.
Mollen S. Engelen S. Kessels LTE. et al. Short and sweet: The persuasive effects of message framing and temporal context in antismoking warning labels Journal of Health Communication 2017;22:20-8.