When rationalism isn’t enough

Emotional connections drive behaviour.  Ads which make you cry will make you do something about them – engage with the brand, share the work on or rewind to have another good bawl.

So when designing specifically social-good work, it’s always wise to consider what emotional levers exist to nudge the required behaviour from the audience.  This is especially true when a campaign asks for engagement (money, time, other) to affect the lives of people many thousands of miles away, the effects of which aren’t likely to be seen locally (thus removing immediate salience potential).

In this short-case study, I’m going to share recent adverts from World Literacy Canada (WLC) and explore why the work isn’t going to be as behaviourally effective (or affective) as they might like using the concepts of emotional salience, specificity and personal connection, before using my experience to suggest a few of the things they might have done to increase the value of the work.

‘Simple but stirring imagery’ is how MarketingMag.ca describes these three short ads from Grey Canada for WLC:


Domestic Abuse


Simple – yes.  Stirring, not so much.

Emotional salience

WLC want you to  get involved, want you to go to the website, to do something.

Perhaps to feel a sense of obligation as you sit there drinking your flat white in your nice, safe office or living room, reading these words and planning what you’ll write in the comments.

Perhaps to feel anger at the fact that sweatshops still exist or that violence against women is endemic in certain parts of the world – and that something as simple as reading or writing is a denied pathway to so many people.

Perhaps to juxtapose your existence with the existence of these women who you’ll probably never meet and feel compelled (and empowered) to do something that will empower them – to give them the tools they need to create their own future full of possibilities.

However, these emotions don’t come over.  The behavioural action imperative is missing.

Rationally, you know that you should help.  Reading, writing, education – better jobs, more income, better lives.  It makes good sense.

But are you moved to do something?  Will the work be emotionally salient for enough people to drive significant interaction?


The ads want to cause you to exhibit a certain behaviour – ‘help them‘.  

One of the key drivers of action is specificity – set an easy to achieve behavioural goal and express it simply.

Swap one sugary treat for a piece of fruit.  Exercise for 15 minutes a day.  Go to work on an egg. (Think SMART objectives or any health promotion program based on behaviourist principles)

The WLC miss this, unfortunately.

‘Help them at Worldlit.ca’ is a fairly non-specific end to the advert, which isn’t backed up with a strong call to action when you reach the website itself (the website continues with the rational approaches – if you dig you can reach the emotion but it’s a long way down).

Help them – how?  With what (time, money, other)? And when?

Personal Connection

Giving motivations increase with additional personal knowledge or connection, yet these ads don’t make any attempt to form an empathetic bond – either between the viewer and the situations portrayed, or with the viewer and the cause being promoted.

As statements, the facts presented are interesting and a bit surprising, but without a personal connection, is there a compulsion to act?

‘Help them’ is an instruction, not an invitation and unless one has prior experience with the cause or issues portrayed, there isn’t a weight of personal connection influencing how the message is received (see the M in the MINDSPACE model).

What I would have recommended…

It’s easy to criticise from the outside, say what’s bad, what’s good, when it’s not your work under the microscope.  And, for the record, I want to say that I think World Literacy Canada are doing a really great thing.  While the work itself is lacking in a contagious truth, I’m sharing it here as a case study for what could be, and because I believe that literacy should be fundamental to a person’s existence.

So, with that in mind and working within the timing restriction of the original adverts…

1) Emotional salience.  I (and many others like me) need to care about a character to be motivated into action.  A name would be a good start.

  • “Being able to read stopped Maya from entering child labor”.
  • “Illicit child laborers prey on illiterate children like Maya”
  • “Maya read her way out of the sweatshop”

2) Specificity. Be clear about what the audience should do.

  • “Donate $5 at worldlit.ca”
  • “Join the fight at worldlit.ca”
  • “Make a difference at worldlit.ca”

3) Personal Connection.  The word ‘You’ could make all the difference here.  Even ‘Please’ would be useful.

  • “You can help them at worldlit.ca”
  • “Please help – at worldlit.ca”
  • “Be involved at worldlit.ca”

4) Community. Presenting an option as a social norm is powerful, and framing action in the context of community is even more so.  Although it would add to the script, something along the following lines would have been a powerful behavioural addition:

  • “Join us to end illiteracy altogether!”
  • “Thousands of people have made their mark – will you?”
  • “We can read, why shouldn’t they?”

5) Comparative framing.  Moving away from the presented scenarios, I would have explored comparative framing which would force the audience into using visualisation and cognitive processes to put themselves in the position of the characters.  This would then promote identification, empathy and potentially lead to action:

  • “Imagine a world where you can’t read or write. Imagine what you’d lose. Now imagine what you’d gain if you learnt those abilities.”
  • “Can you imagine not being able to read a letter asking you for help? Or not being able to write that letter, silently, behind your abuser’s back?  How would you cope?”

There’s a lot more that can be said here, but you will understand where I am coming from.

In conclusion, getting people to do anything which isn’t immediately in their best interests is hard work; and when the social marketer has to appeal to a person’s higher reasoning rather than more immediate emotions (educate women thousands of miles away versus donate to the local hospice or end of life care centre), the task can seem even harder.

Humans aren’t rational creatures, so I think that it’s folly to rely on pure rationalism to sell such a powerfully evocative concept as the empowerment of women through literacy.  Through using a few selected behavioural levels and allowing emotional connections to be made, I think that there’s going to be a more effective way of telling this story – and illustrating the part the audience has in the narrative.

Sometimes, rationalism really isn’t enough.

If you’ve got any great examples of opportunities which have either been missed or capitalised on, please do share them in a comment below!

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