The marketers of processed food and beverages, as well as alcohol and tobacco, have understood the framing challenge very well. Minimizing the health threats of their products, they reframed the issue as a defense of the public’s “right” to smoke and drink…and to feed junk food to their kids. “Don’t tell me what I can’t do,” is the common refrain. It’s a matter of choice, freedom and responsibility.
According to a new book by Nicholas Freudenberg, “Lethal but Legal: Corporations, Consumption, and Protecting Public Health,” the health advocate’s side has learned how to reframe, too, in order to bring about change. The turning point in the tobacco wars came when the question changed from “Do people have the right to smoke?” to “Do people have the right to breathe clean air?”
Both questions are legitimate, but if we addressed the first without asking the second, society would have missed an opportunity that has seen smoking rates cut in half and significant restrictions on smoking in public.
Similarly, advocates have been changing the discussion from “Do junk food companies have the right to market to children?” to “Don’t children have the right to a healthy diet?” As a result, food companies have had to respond to massive changes in consumer demands – so much so that they’re going “healthy” with a vengeance.
Clearly, reframing such key questions is powerful and changes our society over time. Even individual words represent a new kind of framing. The now antiquated term “housewife,” for example, has become “stay-at-home mom,” which reflects new societal priorities – less pressure about running the household, more pressure about raising children and a more equal parental division of labor.
Managers can also use framing to increase their effectiveness. Let’s say your department has to improve organizational efficiencies to reduce costs. While the situation is challenging, even threatening, the focus should be on the benefits of the effort and its importance to the business, and how each person can contribute specifically to the positive effort. Discussing necessary courses of action as a potential gain can significantly affect decisions and outcomes, and bring the team together.
Frame this: context and tone can mean the difference in how your message is interpreted and accepted by your audience. Emphasize the potential gain for everyone and you’re more likely to generate the positive results you want.