The Science Behind Making People Care

By Julie Bush

Picture this. You just got home from a day packed full of classes. You are tired, drained and most of all- starving. You open your refrigerator to make a sandwich gathering your ingredients. Then something horrible happens. Your refrigerator is too hot and your mayonnaise has expired. How can this be? You just bought it last week. 

Did you know that millions of fridges are running too warm? When refrigerators reach temperatures above 41 degrees Fahrenheit, food will spoil three days faster than at normal temperatures. As you can imagine, early spoilage leads to a large increase in food waste. In an effort to reduce food waste, in the UK specifically, Hellman’s has introduced “smart jars.” The labels on the jars have thermochromic ink which helps to indicate if consumers’ refrigerators are at optimal temperatures to keep food safe eliminating early food spoilage. Hellman’s identified a specific problem within the public interest, food waste, and took it on with an unwritten call to action. 

Today the public faces countless issues on a day-to-day basis. It is important to connect to the needs of the consumer while keeping up with the growing need for businesses to be able to understand and identify with consumer values. Many consumers today will not purchase from companies or brands that choose not to help the community. With fast-paced technology and social media, it is important for businesses to develop shared values with their publics. 

 How can we as professional communicators do this, and where should we start?

One way is to zero in on an issue that is within the public interest and show consumers we care by utilizing public interest communications techniques. As professional communicators, we can generate wealth, prosperity and opportunities for not only ourselves and our organizations but also our publics and our consumers. We have the platform and ability to help those who cannot help themselves while accomplishing the goals of our organization. 

What is Public Interest Communications? 

To understand Public Interest Communications, we must first define public interest. Public interest does not have an explicit definition because it is constantly evolving. What may be considered within the public interest today may not be in five years due to changes in values. Think of public interest as an established, widespread awareness of an issue that is unjust and affects many people. 

If you consider Hellman’s example, you can recognize food waste as an issue within the public interest. 

Public Interest Communications combines strategic thinking, public interest, research and strategic communication to drive long-term social change. It is a social science deeply rooted in research and collaboration with consumers. The idea is to create lasting change by going beyond just raising awareness to motivating people to effect positive societal change.

Implementation of a public interest communication campaign is executed using five principles: join the community, communicate in images, invoke emotion with intention, create meaningful calls to action and tell better stories. These five principles combined help motivate social change and create an opportunity to make people care. 

How to Find What Makes Your Community Care 

The science behind making people care can be broken down into five overall steps: 

#1 Join the Community

Joining the community begins with finding a group of people whose change in behavior would open up the door for social change. Research from multiple disciplines tells us that people engage and consume information that affirms their identities and aligns with their deeply held values and worldview, and avoid or reject information that challenges or threatens them. Businesses cannot just announce that they will advocate for a particular social issue. They must research their target consumers focusing on their beliefs, motivations and challenges. Once an issue within the public interest is identified, the business can find ways to communicate with images and invoke emotion with intention. 

#2 Communicate in Images

Words are subjective and images communicate concrete ideas. “Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images,” cognitive scientist Steven Pinker writes in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign advertisement (Rogers, 2021). 

Take for example Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign which used women from diverse backgrounds in advertisements to address the issue of underrepresentation in the media. As for evoking emotion with intention, the campaign challenged many stereotypes found in the media while asking women to look at beauty in a different light. Audiences can see this campaign as a call to action that started the widespread use of diversity within advertising and public relations campaigns. 

#3 Invoke Emotion With Intention

Relying on sadness to invoke emotion in audiences does not always work. Think of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals commercials. Though the commercials are meant to gain donations, they can be difficult to watch through. Types of media like this make people feel guilt causing them to want to turn off the TV. The non-profit organization The American National Red Cross evokes emotion with intention through the National Giving Tuesday Campaign. Instead of a jarring video used to evoke guilt in audiences, The American National Red Cross evokes hope. They ask audiences to provide help and hope to families in need no matter how small the emergency in their lives. 

#4 Create Meaningful Calls to Action 

Your job is to tell your audience and community how they can make a difference. This is done with creative, impactful calls to action. Effective calls to action follow three rules: They are specific; the target community sees how the solution will help solve the problem; and they are something the community knows how to do. 

The Real Cost campaigning advertisement (Bessette, 2018).  

Effective calls to action are specific. The Food and Drug Administration originally launched the campaign “The Real Cost” in 2014. The overall goal of the campaign was to educate young adults and teenagers on the harmful effects of vaping and tobacco use. Their most recent call to action is for their customers to know the real cost of smoking cigarettes. There is no beating around the bush with the language in their call to action. The message is specifically telling the audience that they should know the real cost of smoking cigarettes. 

#5 Tell Better Stories 

Effective calls to action show target communities how the solution will help solve the problem. The problem being tackled by Dove US is the bad impression that social media can make on impressionable young minds.  

Cost of Beauty: A Dove Film | Dove Self-Esteem Project

The solution to this problem, as explained by Dove, is to bring awareness to the severity of the situation by telling us Mary’s story in the above video. Dove offers a solution to sign an online petition to pass the Kids Online Safety Act. The Kids Online Safety Act essentially protects kids from seeing content that has been found to be harmful to their mental health. By communicating with images, the call to action evokes emotion with intention and tells a story of a girl who needed protection. 

Effective calls to action are easily understood and can be carried out by the general public with minimal effort. Dove has countless resources listed on their website to help make social media a safer place for kids. 


We all can make a difference in our community even if we are public relations professionals in charge of a large agency. Public Interest Communications starts with

#1 Joining the community

#2 Communicating through images

#3 Evoking emotion with intention

#4 Creating meaningful calls to action

#5 Telling better stories. 

Your business has the ability to reach profit goals while helping your target population by finding shared values. 

Joining your community is the first step to creating positive social change. 

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