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STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS—Hepatitis C affects nearly 4 million Americans and is associated with 8,000 to 10,000 deaths per year in the United States alone. Creating heightened awareness of the dangers of Hepatitis C—and how to avoid getting it—is considered a major public health challenge. But how can health officials, both in the public and private sector, ensure that their messages of prevention get heard?

A set of four studies by Jennifer L. Aaker, the General Atlantic Professor of Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business; Nidhi Agrawal of Northwestern University; and Geeta Menon of New York University suggest that there are two aspects to successful health communication. First, the emotional state of an individual is a critical aspect of whether he or she is receptive to a particular health message. Individuals with a positive state of mind find it easier to cope with messages containing bad news about health risks.

Second, there’s the fact that health messages fall into two categories: those that focus on the consequences of an illness for an individual, and those that emphasize the impact on close others such as family or friends. How attuned an individual is to the particular type of message—either self- or other-focused—can greatly impact the effectiveness of a message.

Consider an advertisement for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation depicting a picture of a man and two children that states: “Breast cancer doesn’t just affect women.” This advertisement—which is typical of many public service messages—focuses on the family and asks the reader to think about the consequences of one’s illness on others. In contrast, a recent hepatitis advertisement focused squarely on the self: “Five million Americans have hepatitis. Do you?”

Whether these ads work or not depends very much on the individual’s state of mind. The researchers found that when there was compatibility between the “self/other” orientation of the individual and that of the advertisement, the message had a much better chance of being heard.

Self/other orientation refers to the degree to which specific emotions focus on self as disengaged from others versus a self that is intimately intertwined with others. Self-focused emotions include pride, happiness, frustration, and anger, and are associated with heightened awareness of an individual’s own needs, goals, and desires to the exclusion of others. In contrast, other-focused emotions (empathy, peacefulness, indebtedness, shame) tend to be associated with heightened awareness of the internal state of close others, such as family or friends.

In addition to this self/other component, there is the emotional state of the targeted individual to consider. In the series of experiments, the researchers found that when individuals were primed with positive emotions such as happiness and peacefulness, they were much more receptive to health warnings than when they were asked to recount situations in which they felt sad or anxious.

More specifically, health messages were the most likely to be heard and absorbed when there was self/other compatibility and the emotion being experienced by the individual was positive. Conversely, when the individual’s mood was negative—sad or anxious—such health warnings dropped dramatically in terms of effectiveness when there was self/other compatibility. Further, the data shows that individuals in a positive emotional state are more persuaded by a health message with a “compatible” appeal because they have the resources to process the appeal and because the appeal is relevant and personal.

The implications from this study are many. Among other things, the findings suggest that messages that make a particular health risk seem very real might be effective under some conditions but also could backfire. In other words, although feeling positive emotions might make the thought that one is vulnerable to a particular disease acceptable, experiencing negative emotions can lead an individual to reject a health message considered to be bad news.

The fact that people are more likely to process emotionally aversive information when they are in a positive mood suggests that a health message may be more effective if aired in the context of a situation comedy versus a crime or hospital drama. In addition, if the content of the health message is compatible with the content of the television show (i.e., an other-oriented message shown in conjunction with a family show such as Everybody Loves Raymond), the message is likely to be even more effective.

Related Information

Getting Emotional About Health, Nidhi Agrawal, Geeta Menon, and Jennifer Aaker, Journal of Marketing Research, forthcoming (2006)

Bridging the Culture Chasm: Ensuring That Consumers Are Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise, Donnel Briley and Jennifer Aaker, Journal of Public Policy and Management, forthcoming (2006)

When Does Culture Matter? Effects of Personal Knowledge on the Correction of Culture-Based Judgments, Donnel Briley and Jennifer Aaker, Journal of Marketing Research, forthcoming (2006)

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  3. A Brand Is a Promise to a Customer

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