Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Monday, February 11, 2013

“SAVE THE  WHALES”: When persuasion turns against you

This advert’s main goal is to convince population to be vegetarian, an end usually treated in terms of avoiding animals ‘cruelty and to promote healthy habits. Even this kind of adverts can turn despicable with certain means of communication.

First, the first focus of the advert turns out to be a criticism of the opposite behaviour instead of highlighting the advantages of the costume or “product” itself.

In this process of persuasion is a huge component of the way audience perceives the message. Here plays a role the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM; Petty and Cacciopo, 1981), focused on the involvement level of the consumer with the product that is being sold. The “elaboration” on the message or attention we pay to it depends highly on the way it is being told, if it uses the Central or the Peripheral Route. In this case, although some kind of benefit of the product is being told (the fact that ig you go vegetarian, you avoid overweight), the peripheral route plays the strongest role using affective cues, the strong slogan “Save the whales”. Also individual differences of the audience influence the perception of the message, turning it ineffective when this audience feels identified with the concept that is being criticized in the advert.  (Giles, 2010; p. 60-61)

Another aspect to point out is language. Based on different theories of perception (Allport, 1935; Petty & Cacciopo, 1981; Petty & Wegener, 1999), Kevin Blankenship, from Ball State University, carried out a research to study the effects of powerless language on influence appeal to audience (Blankenship, 2001). He divided the independent variable in different aspects of language: speed, intensity, rhetorical questions and linguistic power, with respective background researches.  The two main hypotheses of the study focused on the effect tag questions would have on influence via central route, the influence hesitations would have via peripheral route and the effect of hedges on persuasion via central rout. Four hundred and fifty one Psychology students participated in the cross between-subjects design. The procedure was similar to the one used by Petty et al. (1981). The students had to listen to some arguments of Cacciopo and Petty study and then answer some questions, where some variables were controlled: personal relevance, argument quality and linguistic power. The results demonstrated variability across the independent variables, having hesitations and hedges less persuasive effect, and an inconclusive effect of tag questions. The interpretation of this is that the influence language has on population cannot be account just by manipulating language aspects, but audience personal context and internalization plays a major role.  

The advert tries to reach people through humor, using the strong fat people- whale’s comparison. As Kathleen K. Reardon mentions in Power, Influence and Persuasion guide (2005) of Harvard Business School, the intention of use of humor has to be effectively measured, taking in account the audience which is receiving the message and its way of transmission. She remains the joke Benjamin Franklin said once, “Fish and visitors start to smell in three days”. In this case also, the way humor is used can turn into rejection. (Reardon, K. K., 2005; p. 86)

Finally, as Reardon also reminds us, in persuasion we cannot ever forget audience’s hearts, and the smart use of emotional level is important. With the intention of making the advert funny, the offensive aspect of it has been forgotten, what makes the message of “Go vegetarian” much less powerful than if just “protection of animals” or “a healthy way of life” aspects would have been used.


Giles, D. (2010) Psychology of the Media. University of Winchester, UK. (pp. 54- 63).

Blankenship, K. (2001) Linguistic Power and Persuasion: An Analysis of Various Language Style Components. Ball State University.

Reardon, K. K. (2005) Power, Influence and Persuasion Guide. Harvard Bussiness School Publishing Corporation. Boston, MA. US. (pp. 46-73; 82-90)

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