When audience-based messaging backfires: from global warming to climate change

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A recent report from the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University demonstrates how the words we use to describe what we do and the issues we try to affect can sometimes get in the way of our work, even when we think we’re being really smart about it.

The center’s case study is about Americans’ reaction to two similar (but different) terms:  global warming and climate change. The study found that the two terms elicit different responses from Democrats and Republicans. From the report (emphasis mine):

“Some issue advocates have argued that the term climate change is more likely to engage Republicans in the issue, however, the evidence from these studies suggests that in general the terms are synonymous for Republicans – i.e., neither term is more engaging than the other, although in several cases, global warming generates stronger feelings of negative affect and stronger perceptions of personal and familial threat among Republicans; they are also more likely to believe that global warming is already affecting weather in the United States.”

“By contrast, the use of the term climate change appears to actually reduce issue engagement by Democrats, Independents, liberals, and moderates, as well as a variety of subgroups within American society, including men, women, minorities, different generations, and across political and partisan lines.”

Translation: A few years ago, many environmentalists began using “climate change” instead of “global warming” because they thought it would help pull Republicans into the issue. It didn’t. But the shift appears to have turned off many Democrats, a group most environmentalists would consider their “base.”

I remember this linguistic shift and the debate it sparked within the environmental community. I also remember that the move toward climate change was supported by Frank Luntz, a brilliant scoundrel who helped Republicans change oil drilling and gambling to energy exploration and gaming. He changed the estate tax, which most Americans support, to the death tax, which most Americans hate. (You can read more here.)

He advised the Republican party that, because it was vulnerable on environmental issues and the voting public was woefully uneducated about the growing scientific certainty about global warming, it should: (1) use the term climate change because it’s less scary than global warming and (2) equate the public’s uncertainty about global warming (which was true) with scientific uncertainty about global warming (which was false). I know. Evil.

So, though Luntz and the environmental community were on different sides of this issue, they ended up cooperating to redefine a global issue to suit the needs of one segment of the message market.

Many groups agonize about the words they use and often try to so carefully parse their messaging for different audiences that the way they describe themselves to one audience is sometimes unrecognizable from how they describe themselves to another. Along the way, they can lose sight of their core values and their core constituents.

I strongly believe in audience-focused language. But your language shouldn’t vary so dramatically that your identity gets muddled. In Texas, we often say that you should “dance with who brung you.” That applies to words, as well. If you’re going to abandon the words, imagery and rhetoric that have helped you grow and inspire your base, be cautious. It doesn’t always go as planned.


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