Campaign Communication Theories

Kami J Silk. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. Sage Publications. 2009.

Communication campaigns are intended to generate specific outcomes in a relatively large number of individuals, within a specified time, and through an organized set of communication activities. In other words, campaigns employ communication strategies and theories to influence large audiences in some measurable way. Perhaps the objective is to persuade consumers to purchase a particular product, as is the case with commercial marketing campaigns, or to influence an attitude, increase knowledge, promote awareness, or even change a behavior, as is more common in prosocial campaigns. Campaigns can be school- or community-based or regional, national, or international in their reach. Mass media campaigns, frequently used for their large reach, are most successful in increasing awareness and knowledge, while smaller school- or community-based campaigns are more likely to generate higher level changes in attitudes and behavior. Integration of mass media and interpersonal strategies creates the greatest likelihood for behavior change.

Campaigns are complex in that they are an art as well as a science. In other words, high-quality graphics and creative ideas are necessary to attract and maintain attention, but so is a fundamental understanding of communication theory to maximize understanding of audiences, message content, and evaluation strategies. A clear understanding of how theory can inform the campaign process will improve the likelihood of obtaining successful campaign outcomes.

The three major phases of a campaign are planning, implementation, and evaluation. While there are many potential theories that can be used to inform campaigns across the three phases, those theories that are highlighted in this entry are wide in scope and applicable to a broad range of campaign topics. This entry will discuss how theory can be integrated into formative research, message design, and evaluation procedures throughout a campaign’s planning, implementation, and evaluation stages.

Theory in Formative Research

The planning stage of formative research is commonly divided into preproduction and production phases. During the preproduction phase, research on target audiences is conducted to understand their beliefs, values, knowledge, attitudes, and perceptions about the campaign topic. Preproduction research informs how audiences may be segmented so that campaign messages can be tailored appropriately to an audience’s demographics, geographies, and psychographics. During the production phase, message concepts are designed on the basis of preproduction findings and then are evaluated by target audience members to determine how they may be revised for the larger campaign. Primary research strategies used in formative research include focus groups, theater testing, surveys, and intercept interviews.

To begin the formative research process, campaigners will first identify relevant literature related to the campaign topic. The relevant literature assists in the identification of a theoretical framework so that campaign researchers can identify factors that might contribute to individuals’ willingness to attend to, identify with, process, and ultimately comply with campaign recommendations. Specifically, during the preproduction stage, theory helps inform the questions asked in a moderator guide, survey tool, or interview protocol, and during the production stage, theory provides ideas for message design. Two theories often employed during the formative research phase are the transtheoretical model (TTM) and the theory of planned behavior (TPB).

Stages of Change/Transtheoretical Model

According to James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente, the TTM is based on the idea that individuals are at different stages of readiness to engage in a recommended behavior, which provides useful information for prioritizing audience segments and identifying who is most likely to be influenced. According to the TTM, people can be in either precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, or maintenance stages in terms of their readiness to change a behavior. People who do not believe a problem exists in their current behavior or situation would be in the precontemplation stage. Individuals in the contemplation stage are aware that a problem exists but have made no serious commitment to change. Individuals in the preparation stage intend to take action to change and may seek information about how to facilitate a change. In the action stage, people have begun to address the problem behavior by adopting a recommended behavior. When they continue to engage in the recommended behavior over time, individuals have entered the maintenance stage. As part of the formative research process, it can be helpful to identify individuals’ readiness to change as a strategy to segment audiences. The types of messages that influence people are likely to differ depending on individuals’ stage of readiness to make a change.

Associated with each of the TTM stages are activities that help move people through the behavior change process, including consciousness raising, dramatic relief, self-reevaluation, environmental reevaluation, self-liberation, social liberation, counterconditioning, stimulus control, contingency management, and helping relationships. These processes of change provide campaigners with a toolbox of strategies to incorporate as part of their campaign messages. For example, if a target audience was comprised of individuals in the precontemplation stage (e.g., I did not know anything about blood donation), campaign messages might focus on consciousness raising to increase awareness of the campaign topic (e.g. blood donations are at an extreme low), or if a target audience included individuals in the maintenance phase, campaign messages might focus on helping relationships (e.g., continue to donate blood with a partner) to ensure continued maintenance of the behavior. According to the TTM, people continually go through a decisional balance, examining the pros and cons associated with a particular behavior, which should be assessed at the formative research phase (e.g., what are the perceived benefits and barriers to blood donation). Additionally, the TTM notes that self-efficacy, one’s confidence that he or she can perform a behavior, influences behavior change, which indicates a need to assess factors that may impact self-efficacy (e.g., how confident are you that you are able to donate blood). In sum, the TTM provides information that allows campaigners to segment audiences on the basis of their readiness to change and design messages to test during the formative research phase of campaign development.

Theory of Planned Behavior

Icek Ajzen’s TPB provides a useful framework for conducting formative research in campaigns. According to the TPB, three conceptually independent variables contribute to the formation of behavioral intentions that predict actual behavior: individual attitudes, subjective norms, and perceptions of behavioral control. Attitude is comprised of behavioral beliefs that have outcome evaluations associated with them (e.g., wearing a seatbelt is a good thing to do); subjective norm is defined as a person’s beliefs that certain individuals or groups believe he or she should or should not perform a given behavior (e.g., my parents would approve of my wearing a seatbelt); perceived behavioral control is the perception that performance of a specific behavior is within a person’s control (e.g., it is easy for me to use my seatbelt), and there is a direct link between perceived behavioral control and behavior. The TPB is useful in the formative research phase because it indicates that campaigners need to investigate potential audience members’ attitudes about the campaign topic, normative influences that might affect their adoption of campaign recommendations, and perceptions of control, which can identify perceived barriers to adopting campaign recommendations. For example, formative research for a campaign to promote seatbelt use among pregnant women might find that women have a positive attitude toward seatbelt use, as do their significant others, but it might also find that women report discomfort during the later stages of pregnancy. In the production phase of formative research, message concepts can be designed that support positive audience beliefs and address barriers. For example, in the seatbelt scenario, pregnant women might be reminded about keeping their unborn baby safe and be encouraged to purchase a seatbelt extension to improve their comfort level. Thus, while the TTM provides guidance for understanding audience readiness to engage in behavior, the TPB provides insight regarding known predictors of behavior so that campaigners can engage in appropriate research that addresses those predictors in final campaign messages.

Theory in Message Design

The previous section discussed how theory can be used to understand audiences and create message concepts for testing in formative research. This section will elaborate further on the use of theory in message design as a strategy to improve the potential impact of campaign messages. Campaign messages need to be memorable, of high quality, and communicated via a channel appropriate to the audience. While creative messages are essential for society’s savvy information consumers, so is the theoretical contribution to message development, because theory provides campaigners with information regarding message structure, argument type, selection of appeals, and repetition, as well as source and channel choices. Many theories can inform message design, but to extend the discussion to other frequently used theories, social cognitive theory (SCT) and the extended parallel process model (EPPM) are discussed as they relate to campaign message design.

Social Cognitive Theory

SCT, a theory by Albert Bandura, is based on the same body of research as social learning theory but focuses more on human thought processes. The central idea of SCT is that people learn from observation and that the reinforcement or punishment of behavior impacts their behavior and subsequent outcome expectancies in similar situations. Also, learning is more likely to occur if a person identifies greatly with the role model and has high self-efficacy. SCT is fundamental to campaign message design because it explicates the idea that people learn and are influenced when they make observations, which includes observation of campaign messages. SCT notes that people are more likely to be influenced by models or message sources with whom they identify; thus, formative research can identify these models for subsequent use in campaign messages. SCT also discusses the importance of rewards and punishments: Campaign messages can promote the positive outcomes associated with adherence to campaign recommendations or highlight the punishments associated with low adherence to a recommended action or belief. For example, a campaign message that encourages individuals to vote on election day may point out that they will feel patriotic and proud to be an American if they exercise their right to do so. And a campaign that encourages individuals to drive the speed limit may also indicate a punishment, such as “If you don’t, law enforcement will ticket you.”

The theory supports message-design strategies that promote message sources with whom audience members identify, new information for audience members to learn, demonstrations of recommended actions through appropriate channels, and reinforcement or punishment as motivators to comply with message recommendations. SCT is particularly useful when a campaign aims to demonstrate how to engage in a new behavior. For example, health brochures that demonstrate how to appropriately conduct a breast self-exam, a public service announcement that shows how to “click” your seatbelt to avoid a ticket, or a radio message providing directions on how to apply sunscreen appropriately all provide observable examples of SCT. In sum, SCT provides guidelines about observational learning that can translate directly into message design strategies for campaigns.

The Extended Parallel Process Model

The EPPM, a theory developed by Kim Witte, describes conditions when fear appeals will or will not be effective as a campaign message. Fear appeals are persuasive messages designed to scare people by describing the terrible things that will happen to them if they do not do what the message recommends. Fear appeals typically use vivid language, personal language, and gory details or pictures, and they are a popular strategy in both health and political campaigns. Everyone can recall health messages that warn of terrible things that will happen if people do not exercise regularly, eat right, get regular checkups, wear safety gear, or take preventive action of some sort. For example, public service announcements about drunk driving that show a crushed car and warn of imminent death if you drink and drive would be considered a fear appeal. And during political campaign seasons, it is easy to recall messages sponsored by a political party that threaten negative consequences and policies should the opposing candidate be elected.

The EPPM describes three components of a fear appeal that predict whether message exposure leads to acceptance, avoidance, or reactance: fear, threat, and perceived efficacy. Fear is the emotional part of the message, while threat refers to the perceived severity (e.g., drinking and driving results in death) and perceived susceptibility (e.g., I or my friends could be hit by a drunk driver) of the message. Perceived efficacy is comprised of response efficacy (e.g., designated drivers reduce drunk driving), as well as the previously discussed construct of self-efficacy (e.g., I am confident that I could easily be or use a designated driver). The EPPM states that when threat is high and perceived efficacy is high, target audience members will accept the message because they see there is a problem and feel as though they can do something about it. However, if they perceive a threat to be high and their efficacy to be low, they will not accept the message and engage in avoidance or perhaps reactance, in which they respectively choose to not address the message or do the opposite of what the message recommends. If a fear appeal is the message appeal of choice, this theory identifies message components that need to be present in a campaign message for the fear appeal to be successful. Specifically, a fear appeal needs to promote a threat that is not too intense or scary, but still threatening, and it also needs to recommend an action that people believe will work and is easily done to address the threat. Essentially, the theory provides instructions for campaign messages that aim to scare people into action; however, the theory cautions that those messages should contain both a threat as well as an efficacy component to be successful. For example, campaigners may decide they want to use fear appeals as an antismoking prevention strategy. Messages may include narrative evidence that shows a woman on her deathbed with an oxygen tank and a vivid picture of her tarred, black lung. To be effective, the message would also have to have a strong efficacy component that encourages audience members to remain smoke free by recommending certain actions. While there is much controversy over the use of fear appeals in the campaign literature, they are commonly used in campaigns to illustrate undesirable outcomes for individuals. Campaigners have an ethical imperative to include an efficacy component, and if they do not include an efficacy component, they decrease their likelihood of successfully influencing audience members.

Theory in Evaluating Campaign Effects

In addition to formative research and message design, theory informs the process and summative evaluations of campaigns. Process evaluation occurs during the implementation phase of a campaign to ensure that all facets of the campaign are moving along as planned, while summative evaluation occurs at the completion of a campaign to determine its effectiveness. During process evaluation, theory provides a map for what variables are critical to monitor during the implementation process. For example, the EPPM would indicate a designated driver message that incorporates a fear appeal should result in acceptance of a message. However, if the message is seen as humorous rather than threatening or if the message does not have as strong an efficacy impact as expected, it would be critical during the implementation phase to assess the message and adjust it accordingly to avoid campaign failure. Process evaluation is often not done despite its importance for accurate evaluation of summative effects.

Social Norms Approach

Summative evaluation to assess the success of a campaign is based minimally on stated campaign objectives, which are informed by theory. At the outset of a campaign, campaigners look to theory to identify what variables (e.g., attitude, personal norms, knowledge) can be impacted by campaign messages and then develop measures that evaluate whether any changes occurred across those variables. Campaign evaluation is difficult as it is not a controlled experiment, but quasi-experimental designs often are used to compare different schools, communities, or regions exposed to a campaign to other equivalent, unexposed groups. Theory plays an integral role in determining campaign objectives, which direct what type of measurement needs to occur to assess effectiveness. Social norms campaigns, for example, aim to correct audience misperceptions about a social norm by providing evidence that a perceived norm is different from the actual norm. Social norms campaigns, an approach developed by Alan Berkowitz, are often used on college campuses to address binge drinking, typically providing evidence that most students do not binge drink and only drink a few alcoholic beverages when they do—which is contrary to the common perception that the majority of college students binge drink. Prior to the start of the campaign, campaigners collect baseline data based on the constructs of the theory (e.g., how much each student actually drinks, how much each student thinks other college students at the campus drink). They will then set measurable objectives for the campaign based on the theory (e.g., the campaign will increase student knowledge of campus drinking behavior, increase communication about drinking moderately, decrease drinking by one alcoholic beverage per social activity). During and after implementation, campaigners measure those same constructs to determine whether any changes have occurred within the target group, and they perhaps compare the findings with those from a control campus. In sum, theory identifies important constructs, provides measurement guidance, and contributes to the evaluation of campaign effects.