Riding the DC metro the other day, I noticed a new “in house” metro ad campaign. The campaign is a call to keep the metro clean. The copy at the top of the ad says, “This is not a diner.” Below is an image of a metro train made to look like a 1950s-style diner. The scene is warm with attractive waitresses serving happy people burgers and fries. Finally, the copy beneath the image compels us, “Please don’t treat it like one.” Ironically, of course, the ad has done just that.
Framing is tricky business. It’s easy to inadvertently activate the frames you’re working against. As we argue in our eZine Issue No. 7, the order of communications matters – what happens first matters most.
This is the concept of priming. Many people believe that a report must be organized to “start where your audience starts” by restating what they already believe prior to rebutting their ideas. Research from the cognitive sciences suggests that, while intuitive, this tactic is a trap, and is likely to simply reinforce old patterns of thinking, not help readers appreciate alternative approaches to a topic. Rather than restating false beliefs, it is much more effective to begin with the value that promotes the ideas and thinking the report proceeds to evoke.
When advocates say, for example, that, “It’s not only minority children that suffer from these problems, other children suffer as well,” the clearest image in the audience’s head is of minority children. Not only has this message failed to make its point, it has actually turned itself upside down.
This is perhaps even more true when communications combine words and images. Take the metro campaign ad. One might argue that people read top to bottom, and thus the ordering of the message is correct; but images have a special identity in communications. Our eyes are naturally drawn to image before text, so, in a sense, the image always comes first. Paradoxically, in the metro ad, the positive image “diner” has the potential to dominate the textual argument “is not.” Effective framers will make sure that images reinforce their messages — not provide their counterpoint.