When Moonlight won the Oscar for best picture this year, an outpouring of praise enunciated the wide support for diverse cultural representation in Hollywood. Even before the ceremony, when the speculative race was on between La La Land and Moonlight, there was a feeling that a win for the latter would send a more profound message. It was almost a form of cause marketing, giving marginalized groups a long overdue voice on one of the biggest stages in the world.
Image attribution: Disney | ABC Television Group
But the significance of the win wasn’t just about the fact that marginalized groups were represented; it was that they were represented in complicated, real ways.
Cultural Diversity Goes beyond Demographic Quotas
As corporate social responsibility becomes an increasingly visible piece of many companies’ business activities and public and private sector organizations partner to tackle big issues, the need for a better understanding of effective communication and action on important topics with large, culturally diverse audiences is growing. One of those big issues is public health.
International companies are recognizing the importance of corporate social responsibility, and not just from a public relations perspective. They recognize that taking care of their own future demands taking care of their future markets. NGOs like JSI and PSI are partnering with such companies to increase the reach and effectiveness of cause marketing campaigns for public health across the world. These activities are bringing to the fore the challenges and necessity of creative thinking for effective cross-cultural communication.
A recent study from the University of Southern California on public health campaigns found that cultural relevance in communication materials has a real impact on the success of public health initiatives. The study involved 900 women from Los Angeles and a culturally relevant narrative video featuring Mexican-American actors, encouraging women to get screened for cervical cancer. Researchers found that the culturally relevant video helped Mexican Americans go from the least-screened demographic group to the most-screened within six months. The key was not simply that the video featured Mexican Americans but that it dug into a more in-depth cultural narrative.
Building Cultural Factors into Communication Strategies
Additionally, in a paper published in the Annual Review of Public Health, researchers identify three main aspects of public health communication where cultural factors play an important role in a campaign’s success: the message source, the message format and content, and the message channel. They argue that for all these factors, cultural considerations are an important variable (just as important as any traditional demographic variable) that ought to shape our creative thinking and strategy when it comes to audience segmentation, targeting, and delivery.
1. Message Source
The credibility of a message source has a big impact on the effectiveness of public health communication campaigns. A source’s credibility comes from how the audience perceives the source’s expertise and trustworthiness. People tend to be more persuaded by those who are similar to them, not just demographically but attitudinally (sharing the same interests, values, and beliefs). It’s this complex interplay of factors that makes up cultural similarity. Using trusted members of a cultural community has been shown to be an effective message source strategy for a number of public health-related campaigns within African American and Native American communities in the United States.
“One needs people from the communities you’re trying to reach to help convey the messages you want to get out,” says Penelope Riseborough, the director of communications at JSI. “And it’s not just about using a pretty face of a youth to represent all teenagers. It’s about finding someone who lives the issue you’re trying to address.” This reinforces what you already know: diverse consultants and staff are vital.
2. Message Format and Content
The way in which your message is packaged also affects your communication effectiveness. Researchers found that communications that visually reflect the social and cultural worlds of the audience are more likely to be perceived as familiar and comfortable, and that demonstrating evidence of the impact of a health issue on a particular cultural group has been shown to affect thinking and planning preventative action by that group. Riseborough explains that some of their health communication campaigns are “designed broadly enough to speak to people across an entire state, but most often they’re tailored to very specific population groups.”
She adds, “In all cases, to have an impact, it’s critical to deeply understand the demographic makeup of who we’re trying to reach.” Language and accent also play an important role in establishing a connection to a specific cultural group, and appropriate sociocultural scenarios are important for establishing an effective context for message delivery.
3. Message Channel
Deciding which channels you want to use to deliver a message goes well beyond identifying which channels your audience has access to. When it comes to cultural influences, some groups view different channels in different lights. “It’s critical to have an understanding of people’s knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about the public health issues they face. I think every ad agency and communication firm knows the platforms to use to get messages out, but if those messages aren’t culturally relevant or don’t address people’s actual health concerns, then they will miss their mark,” says Riseborough. “That’s why human-centered program design is so critical. You have to start with where people are, think about what motivates or prevents them from achieving a health-seeking goal, and design from there.”
Image attribution: Positive Spin
Positive Spin was one such culturally relevant campaign that JSI developed for AIDS.gov that featured five HIV-positive African American men sharing real life stories with people who needed hope and direction after a positive diagnosis. “Health communication must be tailored and responsive to each community’s needs, and creative enough to catch people’s attention and resonate. In fact, we know from the various work we do that often public health messages are difficult to understand, so we work with people from communities to craft relevant, relatable messages for campaigns targeting those communities. It’s an approach that’s working for us, and we’re seeing an impact on the health of the communities we serve.”
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Featured image attribution: William Stitt
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