We have all heard the story of the king who exiled an astrologer from his kingdom because he made the prediction that the king was destined to see all his family members die before him. The same king went on to shower another astrologer with gifts and wealth when he predicted that the king was blessed to outlive all his relatives! Both the astrologers were making the same prediction, but the terminology used by them was dramatically different. The second astrologer obviously understood the importance of framing the dialogue in such a way that it was viewed positively.
In an earlier column, we discussed the importance of framing and how it affects our perception of the outcome. Framing something as a loss can have a radically different effect than the same outcome being framed as a gain. And it is not just the framing that makes a difference. Even the labels we use to identify an initiative or an argument can significantly influence how people react to it.
For years, attempts were made in the US to repeal the estate tax, but with little luck. The public did not feel strongly enough about giving those with “estates” a tax break. Then, one political strategist with an innate understanding of cognitive linguistics (how people process semantic information) and semiotics (signs and symbols and the meanings people associate with them) made the recommendation that politicians refer to it as a “death tax”. This simple change in terminology re-energized the debate and was instrumental in shifting the public attitude in support of repealing the tax. While “estate tax” conjures up images of rich fat cats who ought to pay taxes on their excessive wealth, a “death tax” hits closer home. Who wants to support a tax on dying?
The implications of the use of semantic framing are widespread. Earlier this month, the public support for the congressional “bailout Bill” in the US was weak. Most people with little understanding of the complexities of economics, finance and credit default swaps were outraged that the ultra-wealthy were getting a “bailout” using taxpayers’ money. Still, the second version of the Bill, with even more added perks for unrelated causes, was passed partly because it was no longer a bailout Bill but an “economic rescue package”. We are all against “bailouts” but would hate to deny our economy a “rescue package”.
Though there are numerous examples of how a simple name change can affect public receptiveness to government policy decisions, it is also important to understand this at the organizational level. As a manager, when you need the rank and file to support a new policy, it is critical that you frame it appropriately. It is important to make sure that the associations people have with the terms used to describe the policy are positive. A “capitalist” approach may be rejected while a “free market” approach may be supported. “Quality assurance” sounds more reassuring and less controlling than “quality control”.
Careful use of the right term is very important in marketing communications as well. Can you imagine how differently people would react to “trade barrier protected coffee” over “fair trade coffee”? If you are trying to raise funds for a charity, make sure you talk about providing assistance to those in need rather than providing welfare. In his book Words that Work, Frank Luntz explains how studies have shown that a majority of Americans agreed with the statement that emergency care should not be given to illegal aliens (in itself a loaded word) while only 38% agreed when asked whether illegal aliens should be “denied” emergency care. Research has also shown that simply changing a dish’s name from “Fried Chicken” to something fancier such as “Grandma’s Special Recipe Chicken” can make people go for that dish and also overeat in the process. Merely changing the name of the “gambling industry” to “gaming industry” allowed it to be marketed as a fun, family-friendly activity that people could participate in without feeling guilty.
So, the next time you want to make a proposal or suggest an initiative, be careful about the terminology you use to define it. Different terms stir up different memories and associations, and you want to use the right ones for the message you want to send across.
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Praveen Aggarwal and Rajiv Vaidyanathan are professors of marketing at the Labovitz School of Business & Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Aggarwal also serves as the head of the marketing department and Vaidyanathan is the director of MBA programmes at the University of Minnesota Duluth.