Who would have thought that the simple of act of covering one’s face would become 2020’s symbol of political polarization? Whether a person views their mask as a marker of community care or a blanket dampening their freedom, you can be sure that the emotions around masking up are running hot and deep.

So what are the emotional hooks we can use to get more people to mask up? This NPR piece unpacks why “mask shaming” doesn’t work. Negative emotions like shame simply don’t people to do the right thing. I’ve said it for years when counseling organizations to think about the role of emotion in their nonprofit’s messaging: “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to join the guilt, fear, and shame club. That’s not where I want to go spend my time volunteering on a Saturday morning! I don’t want to open that email or give my money to that campaign!”

And of course I’m not alone. Public interest and public health communicators have been studying the role of emotion in persuasion for years:

  • Spitfire Strategies’ Activation Point explores the role of emotion in moving people from knowledge to action, to shift from passive supporters to active champions of social change.
  • Wonder for Good’s Heartwired Guide examines how change-makers have leveraged a heartwired understanding of their target audiences to hasten a tipping point on pressing issues of the day.
  • This year’s frank gathering (remember when conferences were a thing?!?) centered on the role of emotions in public health communications.

Lots of smart people are noodling on the communications lessons we can learn from the mask debate. Negative emotions may not motivate, but resetting social norms — through positive peer pressure — CAN move people to take positive steps for their own health and the health of those around them. Like this campaign, which reminds Montanans that they regularly wear face coverings to do the things they enjoy year round.

This episode of Planet Money explores the behavioral economics – think of them as nudges – of mask motivation.  A few tips from behavioral economists on establishing new social norms for masking up: 

  • Make it concrete. Be very literal about the behavior you want people to engage in: Wear a mask. 
  • Make it clear. People have received so many mixed messages about when and where to mask up, so make it crystal clear: Wear a mask whenever you’re outside your home. 
  • Identify key messengers. We’re all more likely to listen to people we know and trust. Which is why the “Mask Up Montana” campaign noted above enlisted the Montana State University head football coach Jeff Choate and his University of Montana counterpart Bobby Hauck to come together to encourage Montanans who wanted to see the big game this fall to wear their masks now to ensure it’s able to happen. 
  • Localize. Rooting people in place signals the social norm right where they are. A mask ad in the Florida Keys featured snorkelers, to remind locals they wear masks all the time to explore the coral reefs in their own backyard. In Dodge City, Kansas, a sign keys off of the town’s legends of the old west. (Hat tip to Forbes for the example.)
  • Motivate with positive emotion. Localizing the message can evoke the emotion of pride of place. The humor in the ads from Montana might help people feel more at ease in the face of the unfamiliar.

How have you used emotion to make your communications more powerful and persuasive?