Choose the Right Frame to Open New Doors

The average American consumer is exposed to nearly 3,000 ads per day. In this increasingly data centric world in which more information is available than ever before, you’d think we’d be smarter than ever with our decision making. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The most powerful ads do not captivate us because of the information that they provide, but the way that they appeal to our emotions.

Consider Prospect Theory, which holds that the “framing” of health related messages can be categorized in two ways: as appeals to the positive aspects of adopting a specific behavior, or as warnings to the negative outcomes of failing to adopt the desired behavior. Furthermore, it suggests that decision makers categorize information as a potential gain or potential loss in relation to a reference point, in many cases a baseline level of health. Basically, we are motivated to adopt new healthy behaviors when they present minimal risk and offer a significantly positive gain in relation to our idea of “normal”. Conversely, we are highly motivated to stop risky behaviors when the consequences of failing to do so are readily apparent and threaten to decrease our standard of living.

For example, a gain-framed message with relation to nutrition could imply that eating more fruits and vegetables promotes increases energy and vitality. A loss-framed message, however, would focus on the fact that eating a diet low in fruits and vegetables is associated with increased risk for obesity, diabetes, and cancer. These two messages convey essentially the same information — that eating fruits and vegetables is good for your health — but studies show that they achieve differing levels of situational success. In either case, you can think of the mindset of your consumers thusly: “How risky is this?” and “Show us the goods! And bads!”

Recent literature on framing and health promotion supports the tenets proposed by Prospect Theory. While loss-framing has been particularly effective when promoting detection activities such as breast self-examination and mammography utilization, gain-framed messages have been used to effectively encourage behaviors such as physical activity and the use of sunscreen.

In a field study on mammography screening, women at a large telephone company who had received less than 50% of the recommended mammogram exams for their age watched identical 15-minute videos on breast cancer and mammography, respectively titled, “The Benefits of Mammography” and “The Risks of Neglecting Mammography.” Despite this difference in framing, the women reported that their opinions towards the video were the same and that they found them equally informative. However, there were stark differences in their mammography related behaviors in the following 12 months. Among those shown the loss-framed video, 66.2% obtained a mammography within the next year while just 51.5% of the women who watched the gain-framed video obtained a mammography in the twelve months following the video.


At MORE, we’ve had the pleasure of working on numerous health-related campaigns, which bear out the elements of the Prospect Theory. For example, we created a “Get Talking, Get Tested” campaign to encourage men and women to take HIV tests. We’ve also learned that achieving lasting behavior change doesn’t start with clever slogans and images, but with understanding the behaviors, attitudes and beliefs of your target audience—and appealing to emotions vs. rational thinking.

So get out there and get inside the head of your target audience. What do they want and why? Does your recommended call to action present a significant risk to the life they live? What do they stand to gain or lose?

Great idea, you think? We thought you might say that…