The use of strategic communication has an ancient history dating back at least to Aristotle’s Rhetoric. But technological and theoretical advances beginning in the twentieth century, most notably the growth of electronic media and media studies, have resulted in dramatic improvements in the scale, sophistication, and effectiveness of purposive communication and in the rise of contemporary communication campaigns. Billions of dollars are spent globally each year on commercial, political, and public service campaigns aimed at influencing consumer decisions, mobilizing support for political candidates, changing unhealthy behaviors and reinforcing healthy ones, advocating for social issues and policy changes, and much more.
Contemporary communication campaign theory and practice owe much to public health movements, such as Benjamin Rush’s efforts to promote smallpox immunization during the American revolution (Artenstein et al. 2005), and to the abolition of slavery movement in America and Britain beginning in the late eighteenth century, both of which are early examples of large-scale organized attempts to influence mass publics through the use of communication. Fears about the effects of Nazi propaganda during World War II launched decades of primary and applied research on the social psychology of persuasion, establishing a conceptual foundation from which commercial and political campaigns still draw for inspiration.
Beginning in the 1950s, post-World War II reconstruction efforts took full advantage of national broadcasting media to encourage such things as agricultural innovation, childhood immunization, and contraception; and national independence movements used national and local media to create or renew identities based on new political boundaries and mobilize populations to support political agendas. Mixed success with these large national communication campaigns drew attention to structural, political, and economic factors – particularly inequities in access to resources and control over them – that constrain or facilitate access to and use of campaign information. Beginning in the 1970s, these concerns pushed campaigns to re-assess the relationship between campaign designers and their audiences, resulting in more participation by beneficiaries in the design, implementation, and evaluation of campaigns and more integrated, multilevel campaigns that address individual, as well as structural, change (Rogers & Storey 1987).
Commercial advertising and marketing campaigns build on similar foundations, but focus on influencing consumer behavior and promoting the purchase and use of products. So-called social marketing campaigns (Kotler et al. 2002) redefine behaviors, such as recycling glass or plastic, or condom use to prevent HIV transmission, as “products” and apply the principles of marketing to the promotion of behaviors that have personal or social but little or no commercial value for the adopter. Worldwide, commercially oriented campaigns draw inspiration from popular culture and build on social and political structures and trends in order to make their products appealing and relevant to consumers.
Paisley (2001) argued that successful public communication campaigns historically have used some combination of what he called the “three Es of public communication campaigns” to achieve success: engineering, enforcement, and education. Engineering refers to planned technological change that facilitates a change in behavior, such as requiring car manufacturers to provide seatbelts. Enforcement refers to planned policy or law enforcement systems that sanction noncompliant behavior, such as creating and enforcing fines for non-use of seatbelts while driving. Education refers to informing people about desirable practices, how to perform them or reasons for doing so. Engineering and enforcement strategies almost always require some educational support, such as advocacy for technological change or communication to motivate the public to use a technological innovation or to comply with regulations.
Characteristics of Communication Campaigns
Although there are many variations, Rogers and Storey (1987) identify four attributes that characterize communication campaigns. They intend to generate (1) specific outcomes or effects, (2) in a relatively large number of individuals, (3) usually within a specified period of time, (4) through an organized set of communication activities.
Campaigns are purposive. The desired outcomes of campaigns can range from individual cognitive changes in knowledge, attitudes, or behaviors to societal-level structural changes in political systems or the distribution of resources. Individual-level behavior change continues to be the most common type of outcome sought, but campaigns increasingly seek to change or support collective behavior.
Campaigns typically target large audiences. Large is a relative term that serves to distinguish campaigns from smaller interpersonal efforts to communicate or persuade. Because considerable financial, technological, and human resources can be required to design and carry out communication campaigns, campaigns usually justify themselves in terms of the number or variety of people they are able to reach.
Campaigns typically have defined time limits. Because campaigns are results-oriented, they often specify a time period within which those results should be achieved. While it may seem that campaigns begin with the launch of campaign messages, the launch is almost always preceded by a period of systematic needs assessment or formative research and strategy development before messages can be produced, pre-tested, and disseminated.
Campaigns typically end with some kind of formal or informal impact assessment that determines whether or not they have achieved their stated goals, how the results were achieved, and what might be done differently in the future. The period of time between start and finish varies greatly from one campaign to another. An advertising campaign for a weekend sale or the promotion of a national immunization day may last only weeks from beginning to end, while an HIV/AIDS stigma reduction campaign or a national political campaign might unfold over a period of a year or more. Some commercial or national development campaigns may be better characterized as communication programs composed of a series of carefully sequenced campaigns designed to achieve change in stages or to change and then maintain behavior over time.
Campaigns consist of an organized set of communication activities. Communication activities refer not just to the dissemination or exchange of information, but also to the other support functions that make campaigns run smoothly and effectively. The P-Process (Piotrow et al. 1997) describes one such set of activities ranging from systematic audience research, needs assessment and situation analysis, through strategic design, message development and pre-testing, implementation, and monitoring of campaign activities, to campaign evaluation and replanning. The most effective campaigns also involve their audience, beneficiaries, and stakeholders in many – if not all – of the steps in the campaign. Some social change or development campaigns go a step further and work to strengthen the capacity of beneficiaries and stakeholders to design, carry out, and evaluate communication campaigns themselves in order to increase the sustainability of pro-social communication.
Another aspect of campaign organization is the use of integrated mutually reinforcing messages and communication activities, rather than relying on one form of communication – for example, a poster or a television advertisement – to achieve the desired outcomes. More sophisticated campaigns use multiple messages and activities to reach audiences in a variety of ways. For example, a sport drink marketing campaign might reinforce television messages with outdoor advertising and giveaways at sporting events, as well as point-of-purchase advertising or discounts at the supermarket. Similarly, pro-social hygiene campaigns might reinforce radio messages about hand washing with community-based activities about the upgrading or maintenance of community water sources and safe water handling in the home.
Objectives of Communication Campaigns
Variations in the ways campaigns are organized and conducted can be described in terms of three broad dimensions: the level of objectives, the locus of desired change, and the locus of benefit (Rogers & Storey 1987).
Level of objectives refers to the type of effect sought, ranging from relatively simple awareness or knowledge gain (e.g., creating brand awareness for a new commercial product) to relatively complex mobilization and maintenance of behavior (e.g., motivating and sustaining community recycling practices). Many hierarchies of this sort are identified in the literature (see, e.g., Rogers 2005). Higher-level objectives typically build on lower-level changes.
Locus of change refers to whether changes are sought at higher or lower levels of social aggregation from the individual level to the group, community, institutional, or societal level. Often individual behavior change is directly sought in a campaign, but the ultimate locus of intended effect may be at the community or societal level. For example, a smoking cessation campaign might attempt to motivate individual smokers to quit, but the ultimate intended effect is lower smoking-related morbidity and mortality at the societal level.
Locus of benefit refers to whether successful achievement of campaign objectives primarily benefits the campaign designers or the campaign audience. Commercial campaigns are generally thought to benefit advertisers or producers of consumer goods through product sales, although marketing and advertising are often described in terms of an exchange process in which consumers voluntarily give money or other resources in exchange for a product of value to them. In comparison, health or environmental campaigns are often considered to benefit members of the audience or society at large in the form of better health or a cleaner and more stable environment. Little direct benefit may accrue to the designers of a health campaign in a government agency, except in the sense that a healthier populace means lower burden of disease and fewer demands on public health resources.
How effective are communication campaigns? Given the enormous variety of campaigns and campaign objectives, it is difficult to generalize. If expenditures on campaigns are an indicator, they must be effective. Commercial advertisers paid up to $2.6 million for 30 seconds of television airtime during the 2007 Super Bowl football championship. Impact data from commercial advertising tends to be proprietary, but meta-analysis (synthesis of findings across studies) of health mass media campaigns provides some estimates of average effect sizes. For example, Snyder and Hamilton (2002) analyzed 48 health campaigns conducted in the US for which impact evaluation data could be found in the published literature. Overall, they found that health communication campaigns using mass media achieved on average an eight percentage point change in behavior among members of the targeted population, with greater effect sizes achieved by campaigns that targeted larger audiences. The size of the effect varied by type of behavior, with seat belt use, oral health, and alcohol abuse reduction campaigns being the most successful. Greater effects were found for campaigns focused on adoption of new behaviors compared with prevention or cessation of problem behaviors.
A number of planning and implementation steps, if followed, make campaigns more likely to succeed. Most campaign designers conduct at least some formative research to understand the campaign context and audience characteristics and they carefully pre-test messages with members of the target audience before the campaign is launched. Because most people are exposed to hundreds of communicated appeals every day, novel and creative messages are more likely to stand out from the information clutter and be noticed. The use of theory to guide campaign strategy and message design also increases the likelihood that the program will have desired effects.
When audiences are large and diverse, audience segmentation techniques (Grunig 1989) are often used to identify meaningful sub-groups that may benefit from individually tailored message strategies or message treatments. Messages should be placed in channels that are widely used by the audience at times and places when they are most likely to be seen or heard. Even within the same campaign multiple channels may be used to reach the same audience segments with multiple reinforcing messages, or to reach different audience segments that have different media use habits. And because campaigns play out within a larger social environment, many campaigns design messages that encourage interpersonal discussions (e.g., within the workplace or the family) and try to mobilize interpersonal influence (e.g., of co-workers on each other or of wives on their husbands) to support campaign goals.
Finally, depending on the length of the campaign, its scale, and the need to justify expenditures or to learn from experience and improve future efforts, many campaigns conduct monitoring and impact evaluation research. Monitoring research includes the collection of data on the campaign implementation process: are the activities going as planned, on schedule, on budget, and reaching the intended audience? Many campaigns also monitor other events and activities occurring simultaneously with the campaign (e.g., policy changes, presence of other campaigns, disease outbreaks) that may affect outcomes either positively or negatively. Impact evaluation of campaigns refers to the collection of data that indicate if change occurred and whether or not the change can be attributed to the campaign.
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