To what set of values should we appeal?

This blog was originally posted at Identity Campaigning.

Joe Brewer and I were just Skyping about a piece of work that we are starting to do together. We are interested in what range of values (or what ‘deep frames’) climate campaigns could most usefully appeal to. We agreed that such campaigns should seek to simultaneously:

(i) Maximise the probability of successfully motivating political engagement on the issue. There is clear empirical evidence that some values or goals are more effective as a means of motivating behaviour than others (for example, people tend to be more motivated in engaging in behaviour when they are doing so in pursuit of a set of intrinsic goals). What, we wonder, is the ‘full suite’ of values upon which campaigners can usefully build?

(ii) Minimise the extent to which dissonance between these values, or the counterproductive side-effects of promoting some of these values, undermines effort on a broader front. For example, there are ways in which, by appealing to some set of values, a campaign may help to win the battle, but simultaneously contribute to losing the war. Selling hybrids on the basis of looking cool is such an example. If your interest is narrowly focused on selling hybrids, flogging them on the grounds that they are beautiful things to own is probably a good idea. But in doing so, your campaign will help to promulgate a set of consumerist values that are ultimately counter-productive to motivating the more systemic changes that are needed. (Tim Kasser and I argue this point in more detail in Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity).

How do we strike the balance between these two imperatives? And how, in doing so, do we bring together work in social psychology on the importance of appeals to intrinsic values and the promotion of more self-transcendent values, with work like that of George Lakoff or Drew Westen on the narratives that underpin successful campaigns.

Ciaran Mundy just pointed me in the direction of work that Drew Westen and Celinda Lake have done on this. Here is a section from a recent article in the Huffington Post:

What we found is that when we talk in plain, values-oriented language, we solidly move people, motivate them to action, and beat the industry’s well-crafted messages by 20-40 points. What resonates with people are not specific fuel standards or the mechanics of how a cap and trade system would work or the precise tonnage of carbon emissions per year. What moves them is a set of themes that bring the issue home to them: economic prosperity and jobs; energy independence and self-sufficiency; clean, safe, natural sources of energy that will never run out; getting pollution under control and making polluters pay for their own messes so we protect our health and the health of our children, preserve the majesty of our land, and reverse the deterioration of our atmosphere; harnessing American ingenuity and restoring American leadership; and protecting our legacy to our children the way our parents and grandparents protected their legacy to us.

I completely get the importance of being  clear about the values your audience holds, and articulating your campaign in emotional and accessible language. I also understand the importance of appealing to a “set of  themes” (Westen’s phrase). As is apparent from other work in which Westen has been involved:

Messaging on both energy and climate change is much stronger when it uses values-oriented language rather than a technical or policy-oriented approach or when we debate science. More so than in many areas we have seen, activating multiple values tends to be stronger then just invoking a single value.

But there’s something slightly Panglossian about this  ‘have your cake and eat it’ approach to campaigning, unless we are clear about the deep frames that underpin the pursuit of “themes” like “economic prosperity” or “jobs”.  Can we define these ‘deep frames’, and apply them practically to campaigning in a way that goes ‘deeper’ than Westen’s “set of themes”?

Tom CromptonTo what set of values should we appeal?


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  • Sara Robinson - July 4, 2009 reply

    I don’t think there’s a choice to be made here. One of the great mistakes made by the environmental movement going all the way back to the 1970s is that it did nothing to counter (and often unwittingly supported) the opposition idea that the needed shifts were going to be unpleasant and sacrificial; and that the life we were proposing was going to be decidedly inferior to the one we had.

    I think we’ll get farther faster by pointing out that sustainable living is actually far richer, juicier, sexier than what we’re leaving behind. You get to eat gorgeous food and drink wonderful water and sleep on air-dried sheets and drive beautiful, quiet little cars. If you’re not tending to your accumulated crap, you have time to see friends, look after yourself, and pursue your bliss. Instead of buying the latest junk at the mall, you shop like smart Europeans do: buy a few things that are incredibly well-designed and made to last (and hand down), and then enjoy them every time you use them, forever. And we’re talking about the true freedom that comes from living unbeholden to corporations or debt. That’s pretty resonant stuff.

    The best antidote to consumerism isn’t to fight it; it’s to hijack the deep framing that drives it, and turn those impulses toward a new anti-consumerist *cool*. This is already happening in many parts of society (and is a dominant ethic among Millennials), and I think it’s a trend that will grow in global appeal as time moves on.

  • jules - July 7, 2009 reply

    Sarah I guess it partly depends on your definition of ‘cool’. For me ‘cool’ has connotations with ‘better than’ and a competitive extrinsic values set. If so then its entirely counter to what Tom and Tim and others suggest are the values we need to tap into.
    However I do agree fully that the future sustainable wellbeing economy would indeed be a far beteer and moreflourishing place to be. But not for those currently locked into thinking that a new car and being cool is the way forward. For them (thats maybe at least 30% of UK) any such shift would be painful and fought against.
    I think Drew’s above work looks really powerful but agree with Tom that it need to push itself to think about tapping into less self-interested, more intrinsic values. I will email him and invite comment. Jules

  • Nicola Thomas - July 7, 2009 reply

    Based on the research I did as an academic… the ‘deep frame’ needs to orientate around how it affects a citizen’s Quality of Life. Sustainability will improve your quality of life, whether it be more money in your back pocket, increased wellbeing, personal safety (“I want to live in a safe neighbourhood”), better looks (note these are egocentric values), a better lifestyle in general.

  • Nicola Thomas - July 7, 2009 reply

    Following on from my previous comment, once a person is aware that their ego-centric, materialist values depend on true bottom line (natural resources, ecological services and the integrity of the biosphere), then will be more inclined to get in touch with their more society-centric values such as being socially responsible.
    Much easier to bring about social change if you appeal to ego centric values first, rather than try and make people less materialist in the first place.

  • Tom Crompton - July 7, 2009 reply

    I think so much of this debate hinges on what we mean by ‘wellbeing’ or ‘quality of life’.

    Sara’s saguine about encouraging people to shop like smart Europeans or to buy “beautiful, quiet little cars”. But we can’t all shop like Europeans. Nowhere near. And we can’t all (peaking at 9 billion of us, perhaps) be driving little cars – we couldn’t make them, or build the roads to drive them on.

    These might seem like cheap shots – and I do get the general idea that a simpler life can be more fun.

    But there is a serious point here. For decades, governments (and too many environmentalists who should have known better) have been banging on about the scope for simultaneously pursing economic growth and environmental needs. But it is now clear that all too often, these ends diverge, rather than converge.

    I worry that we may end up in the same situation with ‘wellbeing’. There are some nice convergences between wellbeing and sustainability (more time with your friends, less time spent commuting). But also, potentially (depending on your definition of ‘wellbeing’) some very important divergences (e.g. it’s good for wellbeing, in some sense, to fly around the world and experience different cultures, but 9 billion of us can’t do that as the Europeans currently like to).

    So the devil is in the detail: what do we mean by ‘wellbeing’ or ‘quality of life’? If we mean the sense of purpose that comes from living in a way that respects the needs of others (human and non-human), then maybe we begin to get near where we need to be.

    But most of the wellbeing debate, it seems to me, doesn’t mean this.

  • Nicola Thomas - July 7, 2009 reply

    I think it’s perilous to say that this debate hinges on what we mean by ‘wellbeing’ or ‘QoL’ – because there are many individually constructed truths on what wellbeing is.

    To help convergence…

    Once a citizen grasps that their own ‘wellbeing’ – whatever it means to them – is critically dependent on the planet’s wellbeing, then they will be able to make sustainable trade-off decisions concerning their own wellbeing.

    So, for the citizen who previously thought flying around the world to experience different cultures was good for their own wellbeing – once they grasp the interconnectedness between their own wellbeing and that of the planet – then that person is more likely to embrace Slow Travel.

    I believe this debate hinges on the understanding that our wellbeing is supported by the wellbeing of the planet (and so is the case for economic security). Convergence will arise from this holistic understanding.

  • Sara Robinson - July 7, 2009 reply

    Jules: It might be useful to go back to the original sense of “cool,” which was (according to both Paul Fussell and Tom Frank, who have written insightfully on the topic) a postwar attempt to break down class signifiers and create a new, more egalitarian American culture. Mostly, this happened when members of the upper classes started borrowing fashion, music, housing, and such from the lower classes as an anti-status statement. Wearing boots and a jean jacket and riding a motorcycle and playing blues guitar was cool — especially so when, by birth and breeding, you were entitled to wear Brooks Brothers, drive a Cadillac, and have a box seat at the symphony.

    This kind of class breakdown play became a generational art form in the hands of the Boomers, to the point where we consider it a cliche now. And it did get so badly co-opted and perverted by advertisers that it’s hard to remember that this was originally a rather romantic strike for honestly, simplicity, and values that transcend class. When I think of “cool,” this is what resonates for me: a voluntary willingness to step off a place of privilege to discover the pleasures of a simpler and more balanced way of life. And I see this sense of it very much at work in the Millennials I meet in the US, Canada, and Europe (my kids are in this age group, and they and their friends get around).

    Nicola, yes. Quality of Life (which can be abbreviated QoL) is the hook. You gotta promise people something better, or they have zero incentive to change. But sadly, even that’s not enough. People will happily cite you chapter and verse as to why change would be a good thing; but you will almost never get them up off their butts until they’re actually, personally feeling the very real pain of not changing. The pain can be emotional, social, or economic; but somehow, you’ve got to make them say “ouch” before they’ll make the effort to move. Unfortunately, the current system expends a lot of energy (both literally and figuratively) to protect us from ever having that moment of reckoning.

    Tom, I’d agree that there’s a gap between what you need to tell well-fed North Americans and Europeans to get them to accept change, and the realities of the final outcome. It’s a process, and it needs to meet people where they are and move them toward a new worldview one step at a time. (The future you seek will probably not be fully realizable until the people raised in the old regime have aged out of power, and been replaced by a younger cohort with a much more flexible vision.) And of course we hope to replace most of the world’s cars with transit — but in your average North American suburb, that’s not a viable option right now, and won’t be for a decade even if they got started today. In the meantime: better cars are better than nothing.

    One strategy may be to sell a greener lifestyle pretty much like we were sold the current hungry one: by using the known (and very effective) tools of PR to sell people an attractive, satisfying alternative. The key is that, embedded in that process, you also sell them a new and better set of underlying values that will make them very resistant to going back to the old ways. Once they’re cut loose from the old system — and realize that life out there is pretty good, after all — then further changes become easier.

    As for what “well-being” means: that’s a very long conversation that’s going to have be had planet-wide. I suspect the solution is in promoting a small handful of core values (which is happening), and then allowing the various cultures to work out for themselves how that looks for them, based on their own local ways.

  • Ian - July 8, 2009 reply

    You may be interested in this: There is a recent posting on Chris Rose’s site at
    which I think is very much about this issue you’re looking at. See, in particular: .

    How can those people who donn’t share the values of the ‘usual suspects’ – or the ‘ethical base’ as he calls it – be appealed to enough to start to care about an ‘environmental’ issue? and address the urgency of the problem, with respect to climate chaos? He seems to suggest that the common shared value for many people is “being a parent” ( as an average, even taking into account those who don’t have children)Whether it’s true would be interesting to test! there is an urgent need to focus on impacts of climate change somehow in a more personal ‘values’way.

  • Ciaran Mundy - July 10, 2009 reply

    Ian, It is interesting to see Chris Rose saying this. This is something we tussled over at the Communicate 08 conference in Bristol UK.

    Effectively, the ‘values modes’ market segmentation approach he often uses, and recommends to others for building successful campaigns, runs counter to the idea that there are transcendant deeper intrinsic values.

    I think we often get confused when arguing whether or not most people can be effectively messaged to live differently if they exist predominantly in a egoistic realm. Clearly it is going to be harder if you have not had the practice doing it, there are not so many copy writers used to messaging that side of people as there are millions of ways to sell stuff. . . . BUT as in this case, where all types of people are parents, there are a host of things that the vast majority of people accept as for the greater good, or elicit compassion and empathy. Most people are happier knowing they live in a community of people that look out for each other for example.

    We are at heart and through conscious choice, strongly co-operative social creatures after all. We want to be liked and loved for being good people, how many people would feel ok about being publicly identified as treating others unfairly, how many people are ok with that in private? I suspect the diffeence is not so great. The intrinsic values exist in most people, but we must avoid letting commercial advertising set the frame, keep expanding the language and stories that speak to the side of people capable of responding to challenges we face. How many kids want to be the bad guy and how many young men have signed up and laid down their life in war believing it to be for a greater good?

    Don’t stop to worry others are not caring like us, I just don’t believe it, but we tend to keep that bit of ourselves hidden away if we think it will not be valued. There is a world full of heroes out there waiting to build a better world. We just need to show we believe in each other at every opportunity.

  • Nicola Thomas - July 10, 2009 reply

    I don’t think anyone is arguing the importance of intrinsic values as a key message, but it’s how you get them to listen to it in the first place.

    Re. for the greater good, e.g. how men and women are laying down their lives right now in war. Take the father of my child who was flown out to Afghanistan two weeks ago and is an officer losing men in this short time, and risks his own life every day. I have often talked of the need for social change, using the greater good as my stance. Not a flicker of interest. I have quickly come to the conclusion that for him (and many others)they want to know if this is such a crisis why isn’t the government treating this as a national emergency? Once this has been answered, then I feel someone who has the greater good in mind, will be receptive.

    There will need to be a mix of messages to match the needs of various groups to break down the initial resistance. Once this resistance is broken, then I believe the intrinsic message will hold much power to bring about social change.

    Would be good to hear from Tom Crompton himself. Most in the social change field have dropped all notion that an advertising platform/marketing campaign can bring about the change we need – a waste of money. But it would be good to know from TC how he thinks we can engage the masses in the first place before we introduce this message.

  • admin - July 10, 2009 reply

    Hello, Nicola,

    I’d love to see the five-year research project you mention that you’ve recently completed, if it’s been made public.

    I’m not at all dismissive of the need to tailor messages very carefully to different audiences, in order to engage them. But I think the crucial question is, having engaged them, do we work with the values they present (taking these as essentially ‘fixed’) or do we recognise the need to shift values?

    The evidence that I’ve seen suggests two things:

    (1) We can’t hope to address the scale of environmental challenges we confront through an appeal to extrinsic goals: the coincidence between the behaviours that can be motivated through appeal to these goals and the behavioural changes that are needed are just too great. (I’m talking here about ‘behavioural change’ in the broadest sense – not just changing light-bulbs, but joining demonstrations etc.). The more difficult the behaviour, the more true this is (the dividend of appealing to intrinsic goals becomes proportionately greater as the difficulty increases).

    (ii) It’s very difficult to ‘lead on’ from engagment on extrinsic goals to engagement on intrinsic goals. These goal ‘clusters’ are antagonistic. In appealing (as so much environmentalism currently does) to extrinsic goals we don’t just risk accentuating those goals, we also risk suppressing the intrinsic goals that we need).

    All this raises the question: how do we legitmise an appeal to intrinsic goals (given that clearly we are not in a good situation to do so at present). There are lots of possible approaches to this – we tried to set them out in the book.

    That’s the evidence from social psychology, as I understand it. But I’d love to hear more about your experiences that seem to refute this.

    All the best,


  • Nicola Thomas - July 10, 2009 reply

    Hello Tom

    By all means, take a look at my Phd, completed not recently, but several years ago. John Grant currently has my only hard copy but I’d be happy to pass onto yourself face to face at a meeting.

    I have consistently said I do not refute the importance of intrinsic values – did you miss that?!

    Is it about shifting values, or once engaged, helping them to reconnect with deeply ingrained needs (or values) for a sense of community? I will remain open, but are they as fixed as some academics (yourself?) claim? Are not your intrinsic values not a basic human need, and for many, are simply buried deep and masked by the seductive power of consumerism? (shift or reconnect?)

    re. demonstrations – not convinced this is the answer. Participating in Transition Towns and the like offers a far more powerful tool for change. Nonetheless, when you look at the psycho-social research, particularly when you look at multivariate models, I do believe intrinsic values would account for a large degree of variance in observed difficult behaviours, e.g. replanting river bank vegetation, participating in Transition Town, to name but a couple, but there are also several other socio-psycho factors at play too. Why dismiss the valid research of others?

    The only thing I refute is heralding one factor as the champion message component over others.

    I do still believe getting someone engaged requires more discussion and reluctant at this stage to accept that the two are mutually exclusive.

  • Renee Lertzman - July 13, 2009 reply

    To follow up on Ciaran’s comment, I do believe people care even if they do NOTHING at all in response to various ecological problems and threats. Framing the issue on grounds of caring, is in my view, totally inappropriate, and is a legacy of the earliest public information campaigns, when a lack of ‘response’ indicated a lack of care or concern.

    The point is about how we can connect meaningfully with the care or concern that is THERE and needs to be cultivated. Environmental efforts to date, sadly have been ill equipped to address the huge variety of perspectives and orientations. I am afraid it has been stuck too long in a middle class discourse and it’s now beginning to shift (on account of necessity, no doubt). What classifies as ‘living well’ or quality of life is deeply culturally specific, as we know; there are basics that cannot be disputed (e.g. access to clean water, air, healthy food, housing, clothing etc) and there is a lot that remains variable. So let’s be sensitive to these culturally contingent issues; if we are talking about getting middle and upper classes (those with dosh basically) to get more green, we can be explicit about this.

    Based on my own research, which consisted mainly of very in-depth interviews with a small group of ‘working class’ citizens in an industrial region of the Midwestern United States, it was clear that care and concern exists but was not being tapped. There were many very complicated factors why these individuals did not ‘act’ on their values; both biographical and social. Rather than top down approaches, there is much potential to actually find out what would engage and inspire people to become involved … in other words, meeting people where they are and leveraging the shift. I will write more about this soon in a post on this site.

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