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“The ocean does something to your spirit,” an African-American woman from Charlotte, North Carolina volunteered during a focus group.

“It is about the only time that I am at peace, or if I am at church,” added a white man from Kansas City.

Challenge

Communicating about ocean conservation can be extremely challenging given the vastness of the ocean and because the problems and solutions facing the ocean often involve complicated scientific processes and policy prescriptions. As a result, communications frequently portray ocean issues as abstract processes. In addition, they often fail to elicit a sense of awe or wonder or include emotionally compelling human stories.

In 2016, with support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Wonder: Strategies for Good and Goodwin Simon Strategic Research embarked on a broad, three-year audience research project. We saw the opportunity to build a stronger conservation movement that reflects the values, identities, lived experiences, and needs of all people.

Heartwired Insight and Strategy

In our research, we identified six heartwired ocean mindsets that describe how people experience and relate to the ocean in different ways. A person’s mindset is established over time based on how they are heartwired—their values, their beliefs, their lived experiences, and their identity.

For example, we identified the ‘All Senses’ mindset. For those with this pre-existing mindset, being in or near the ocean activates all the senses—their sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. The sight of the ocean takes their breath away. The sound of the waves calms them, helping them leave their worries behind. They tug off their shoes to feel their bare feet on the warm (or cool) sand. As they inch closer to the water, they breathe deeply to take in the smells of the ocean air. They may even be drawn to touch their hands to the water to taste the salt against their lips.

Having a deeper understanding of these mindsets will help advocates craft more effective messaging and storytelling strategies to persuade and activate audiences to take action. For instance, people with the ‘All Senses’ mindset will be motivated by messaging that vividly activates each of their senses—to remind them how they feel when they are in or near the ocean.

In our research, we developed and tested successful messaging strategies. One messaging strategy that proved to be successful is the use of the redemption frame. You may be familiar with moral frames, which more people have learned about thanks, in part, to cognitive linguist George Lakoff. According to Lakoff, “a frame is a conceptual structure used to think with.” Frames are pre-existing in people’s minds based on how they are heartwired and these frames help lead people to particular conclusions.

The redemption frame emphasizes that while people make mistakes, they are also capable of acknowledging and working to successfully overcome those mistakes. In the stories we tested, we described how people came together (including policymakers in a bipartisan manner) to forge effective solutions to ocean problems that humans had created—and how efforts by politicians, corporations, and others to undermine those solutions threaten the important progress that has been made.  

A useful example of the redemption frame can be found in a local news story about humpback whales returning to New York harbor. Importantly, this story highlights how polluted these waters became in the 1960s and 1970s, and the critical importance of the Clean Water Act to clean up those waters and bring back a fish called menhaden, which humpback whales feed on.

Results

Advocates, who have begun putting the recommendations into action, are seeing early signs of success. In 2018, The Ocean Project, in collaboration with Mystic Aquarium, Seattle Aquarium, and the Texas State Aquarium, as part of an initiative supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, wanted to engage those visiting aquariums about overfishing. The research team wanted to see if aquarium visitors would be willing to communicate with members of Congress about national fisheries policy, which Congress would soon be considering.

Mystic Aquarium created and showed a short video PSA before each sea lion show. The PSA incorporated many of the recommendations outlined in Heartwired to Love the Ocean.

According to project leader Douglas Meyer, Strategic Advisor to The Ocean Project, prior research “had shown that visitors struggle to relate to the idea of the ocean being in trouble.” To solve for this, they used the redemption frame.

Following the sea lion show, 12 percent of those who watched the PSA completed a comment card asking Congress to maintain a strong national fisheries policy.

Other effective elements included emotionally powerful video content of beloved wildlife, like sea turtles and dolphins, as well as video background footage of a barefoot youngster touching his feet to the ocean’s incoming waves. Altogether, the one and a half minute PSA connected with many of the heartwired ocean mindsets described in the guide, including the ‘All Senses” mindset.

Wonder and Goodwin Simon Strategic Research are now offering Heartwired Ocean Messaging Grants to give nonprofit organizations the opportunity to put these messaging recommendations to work in support of their mission. 

Get your free copy of Heartwired to Love the Ocean.

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