Let's Talk about Book Covers

Understanding the Framing Effect

What if I tell you that my favourite music band is an East Asian band which has won various awards. The band consists of seven good looking singers and dancers who have not-so-great English speaking skills. 

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If I tell you that my favourite band is a South Korean band with seven very good looking members who have broken all records in the music industry with their dancing, singing, and rapping skills. 

Which description would make you want to try out the band’s music? (Of course, once you hear their music, no description will ever matter.) 

Even though the information provided in both descriptions are nearly the same, the second description will work better for almost all of us. What do you think makes the two descriptions different from each other? 

You are right; the difference is in how I have framed the information. It turns out that we do judge the book by its cover. By definition, book covers are made to grab your attention and to sell the books to you. 

Like buying a book, almost all our decisions are influenced by how information is presented to us. This influence is called the framing effect. The effect suggests that equivalent information can be more or less attractive depending on what features are highlighted.

According to this effect, we focus more on how a piece of information is presented than on the information itself. As a result, the final decision might still be correct, but it won’t be well informed. Additionally, poor information or an inferior product can be framed positively using this effect. Similarly, a better product or a good piece of information can end up ignored or sidelined due to a less favourable presentation. 

For example, One aloe vera shampoo might say - A shampoo with only 5% added preservatives and another one made say - with 90% preservative-free substances. Although the first one has fewer preservatives, some might choose the second one due to the framing effect. 

The framing effect can majorly influence public opinion as well. For example, public affairs or political campaigns can be interpreted very differently based on how they are framed. Sometimes, issues or positions that benefit most people can be seen unfavourably because of negative framing. Likewise, policy stances and behaviour that does not further the public good may become popular because their positive attributes are effectively emphasised.

Why do we give in to the framing effect?

If you have read my previous newsletters, you already know that we tend to avoid losing even at the cost of an equal amount of gain. Our tendency to avoid loss is one of the biggest reasons why the framing effect works. If you can showcase your product as an essential to prevent any kind of loss, your framing will be better than others. For example, while buying a sanitiser, you come across two different brands - One says that it kills 95% of the germs, and the other states that only 5% of the germs will remain after using the sanitiser. So naturally, most people would choose the first one. After all, 95% killed germs sounds so much better than 5% remaining germs. 

Now that we are done with the why let’s look at how you can use the framing effect to your advantage. 

There are various types of frames, five to be precise. The five major categories have been psychologically studied: gain frames, loss frames, temporal frames, value frames, and goal frames. 

Gain Frames - Gain frames are used because people generally like certainty when it comes to gain. Individuals will choose a guaranteed small amount of gain rather than selecting a chance at a considerable gain. A message with gain framing shows the client what they have to gain from following the advertiser’s message. For example, if you advertise dentures or medical implants, you can use a gain frame and focus on everything the client will gain after using the implants. 

Loss Frames - Loss frames focus on what the customer will lose if they don’t comply with the message in the advertisement. This frame is generally used in public service announcements. For example, an anti-drug or pro-vaccination campaign focuses on what the public will lose if they don’t stop using illicit drugs or get vaccinated against covid-19. 

Temporal Frames - This frame focuses on smaller and immediate rewards. Most people have a hard time with delayed gratification; they want it now. Temporal framing is why fiscal responsibility and retirement planning is such a hard sell.

Value Frames - These frames focus on what is valued more by the customers. People may ignore information with no framing but then respond to the same information if it is framed as affecting something they care about. These framings can just be based on interests and hobbies but tend to be political (human rights, gun control, wealth redistribution, etc.) For example, an advertisement for eco-friendly shoes might stand out to an environmentalist even if they aren’t interested in shoes. 

Goal Frames - Similar to value frames, these frames are personal. They focus on information that supports customer’s goals. For example, you can promote both family or individual health goals for your toothpaste brand. 

The best understood and universally used frames are the first three, Gain, Loss and Temporal. Goal and value frames are more personal and can only target a small group at a time. There it should be tailored for the target audience. 

Depending on your product/ service and brand image, you can pick different frames for different advertisements. Just make sure that you consider all the pros and cons that your chosen frame comes with. 

Some quick takeaways -

  • All our decisions are influenced by how information is presented to us. This influence is called the framing effect.

  •  The effect suggests that equivalent information can be more or less attractive depending on what features are highlighted.

  • According to this effect, we focus more on how a piece of information is presented than on the information itself. As a result, the final decision might still be correct, but it won’t be well informed.

  • Five frames can be used in advertising: Gain frame, Loss frame, Temporal frame, Value frame and Goal frame. 

One last thing…

The framing effect is a dangerous one. Can you imagine the same piece of information invoking different kinds of reactions in different people? But, on the other hand, a better understanding of various frames can leave you with the power to manipulate any type of information to get what you want out of it. It almost sounds like a superpower, doesn’t it?