Satire: Appealing to Younger Audiences

There’s nothing quite like ending the day with a healthy dose of news satire. A good laugh before bed helps me relax about all the political ineptitude and ridiculousness we hear about on a daily basis.

It’s clear that programs like The Daily Show and now sadly defunct The Colbert Report are wildly popular, especially among young adults. This enthusiasm has prompted much study to determine if political satire is the new way to engage and educate the younger crowd on issues they might otherwise ignore, or whether it’s just providing a good laugh.

Results have been mixed. It seems programs like these are just as likely to educate and persuade as not. A just-published study has delved deeper into the mechanisms of satire and offers insight into how it may actually be able to influence certain populations. Nonprofits can take advantage of this information to appeal to younger audiences.

In At Odds: Laughing and Thinking?,[1] the authors explore the finer mechanisms of political satire by separating out the differing influences of funniness and absorption (becoming highly engaged in the story to the point of being ignorant of surroundings). In their experiment that exposed a range of ages to serious and satirical news stories, Boukes et al. found that participants who were more absorbed in the story were more likely to be persuaded in the intended direction, while those who found the story funnier were less likely to be persuaded.

This is difficult to tease out since humor increases absorption. But apparently the trick is to not make the story too funny, which then makes it less credible and influential. The effect was particularly strong among those aged 18-28 years for one condition and between 18-35 years for another condition.

So how can nonprofits use this information to their advantage? While the study and many like it focus on satirical news programs, it is likely that the effects of satire could translate into other types of messaging. The study authors suggest the following:

  1. Young adults (between 18-30) tend to be more interested in satire than straight facts. So, if this is your target audience and your issue is conducive to satire, satire may be quite influential.
  2. Make sure there is also an element of seriousness to the message, so that it is clear that it is not only a joke.

Striking this equilibrium may just be the magic combination that both engages and educates an often hard-to-reach audience.  Last Week Tonight with John Oliver seems a nice balance of the two. I suggest a healthy dose of this program before creating your next satirical message, a hopefully enjoyable assignment. While I’m not suggesting you produce an entire program, you can incorporate satire into a tweet or Facebook post fairly easily. It may well be the thing that gets people to click your link or make your post go viral. What examples have you seen of good satirical nonprofit posts?

Excuse me now while I tune in to YouTube for a relaxing evening of humor and education.

[1] Boukes, M., Boomgaarden, H. G., Moorman, M., & de Vreese, C. H. (2015). At odds: Laughing and thinking? The appreciation, processing, and persuasiveness of political satire. Journal of Communication, 65(5), 721–744. http://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12173

VW, Ethics, and Persuasion

The VW scandal has me thinking. As someone who purchased an implicated car just 10 days before the news broke, I feel manipulated, angry, and a big loss of trust. At the same time, I feel resigned that big business, driven by the hallowed dollar, would resort to this type of sneaky persuasion. However, if a nonprofit had carried out a comparable action, I would be feeling far more than begrudging resignation. We expect more social responsibility from nonprofits, yet nonprofits also use a range of persuasive techniques.

Those of us in the business of changing minds, at least in the nonprofit world, tend to shy away from saying that we are using persuasion. Somehow, it seems a dirty word even though typically we are persuading for the purpose of creating a better future for an individual, a neighborhood, a society, or the planet. Out and out admitting we are using persuasion seems dangerous, like we are flirting with the forces of evil to accomplish good.

Yet, persuasion is exactly what we need to use to accomplish many of our goals. Persuasive processes provide useful cues and shortcuts for supporters when making decisions about how to respond to our messages. And recognizing that we are, in fact, employing persuasive techniques could help us maintain awareness that we need to keep ethics in the forefront.

So when does persuasion go bad? Methods of persuasion range on a continuum from providing information to coercing compliance through propaganda. Gass offers a balanced definition of persuasion as: “the activity of creating, reinforcing, modifying or extinguishing beliefs, attitudes, intentions, motivations, and/or behaviors within a given communication context,”[1] and I would add, per Soules,[2] that this activity can take place either consciously or unconsciously on the part of the sender or receiver.

Propaganda, often considered a more pernicious form of persuasion, is defined by Ellul as “a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, … through psychological manipulations…”[3] Propaganda involves power: it is consciously employed by those in power in order to gain or maintain compliance of those who are not in the dominant class, or employed by those who aim to become the dominant class, such as in revolution. Fortunately (or some might say unfortunately), nonprofits are rarely operating at this level.

While it is likely that few, if any nonprofits are participating at the intense level of manipulation that VW is, public benefit organizations are still using persuasion. Some have crossed the line of good ethics. We have all seen the stories. Some have done so knowingly while others find themselves caught unawares.

How do you stay clearly on the correct side of the ethical persuasion line? Here are some fairly simple guidelines:

  1. Provide accurate and truthful information, even if it doesn’t shed the best light on you or your organization. Have to share some mishandling of funds? Be honest about what happened, then state how you are rectifying the situation and what you will do to prevent future problems.
  2. Provide a fairly even exchange in benefits between the organization and its supporters. Asking for volunteer time or money? Make sure volunteers and donors feel rewarded in the ways you have promised they would.
  3. Keep compassion, cooperation, and common good at the core of your message. More likely than not, if a message divides or feeds on stereotypes, it could do more harm than good.
  4. Check your gut. If you were on the receiving end of the communication, how would you really feel about it? If your internal guide has mislead you in the past or you’re just not sure, find a trusted colleague with whom you can discuss the situation, especially if he has a neutral viewpoint (e.g. outside of the organization).

Ultimately, ethics depends on perceptions of truth, meaning that the line between ethical and unethical persuasion is not always clear. What may appear ethical to one person may not be ethical to another. However, the more you stay definitively on the correct side of the ethical line, the more trust you build with the public and supporters. If you do venture into a gray area, having a reserve of trust means they will be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt.

While I am enraged at the greediness and manipulation of a car company, I hope to never see an equivalent transgression made by a nonprofit working for the public good. We have a lot more to lose than customers or money. Our work depends on public trust, and violation of that trust by one organization can reflect on us all.

[1] Robert H. Gass. (2007). Persuasion, social influence, and compliance gaining (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon, pp. 33–34.

[2] Soules, M. (2015). Media, persuasion and propaganda. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

[3] Ellul, J. (1973). Propaganda: The formation of men’s attitudes. (K. Kellen & J. Lerner, Trans.). New York: Vintage, p. 61.

Image source: freeimages.com/Tom Campbell and Ton Koldewijn, with edits by the author

The Persuasive Potential of Interactivity

3 AM. Sucked in again playing with the internet. Why are we so drawn into this medium? Some say the interactive nature of web sites makes us stay engaged, even mimicking one-on-one human interaction in some cases. Others say interactivity just distracts viewers from thinking.

A recent study adds ammunition to the argument that interaction can increase the effects of a message, particularly persuasive effects.[i] This is good information for nonprofits with an aim to create social change through attitude and behavior change – an extremely challenging goal.

In the study, researchers had college students view a web site with anti-smoking messages. Some conditions included interactive features such as slider bars that morphed images and/or navigational controls that allowed users to create their own path through the information on the page. Adding these features made the students feel more absorbed and encouraged positive feelings toward the web site and its messages. The ultimate result for the study participants? Greater exposure to messages that smoking is unattractive and bad for your health.

There are caveats, of course. The slider encouraged fairly superficial thoughts about the messages, which may mean that the reactions to the web site might be short-lived. The navigational controls elicited deeper thinking, but only seemed to have an attitudinal effect on those who didn’t consider smoking to be a highly important subject.

Nonetheless, these findings suggest several important strategies for the way nonprofit organizations can use the internet:

  • Add interactive features to your web site, such as infographic zoom, image 3-D rotation, location sensitive maps, mouse-overs, and more
  • Allow users to open additional content while staying on the same page (e.g. text boxes that expand and collapse) instead of navigating to separate pages or stacking information into long pages
  • Produce online documents like annual reports in a program such as Acrobat that allows interactive features
  • Provide links to your interactive web features in social media posts
  • Ask questions in your social media posts to start conversations
  • Create a space for conversations on your web site
  • Alert supporters to interactive features in newsletters and emails

I hope the next time I find myself still awake at 3 AM to the glow of my laptop or phone, it will be because I can’t seem to leave the site of a nonprofit that is trying to change the world.

[i] Oh, J., & Sundar, S. S. (2015). How does interactivity persuade? An experimental test of interactivity on cognitive absorption, elaboration, and attitudes. Journal of Communication, 65(2), 213–236. http://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12147

Image source: freeimages.com/len-k-a