Toxic chemicals Strategic Messaging Keeping Intruders out of our Homes Revising our Laws on Toxic Chemicals December 9, 2010
Why toxic chemicals, and why now? Toxic chemicals • Good policy and good politics • Americans are anxious and angry, and they want to see their elected representative step up and solve problems • Regardless of party affiliation, people care about the safety of their kids • The major bipartisan legislation that just passed the Senate by 73-25 was the Food Safety Modernization Act • Toxic chemicals provide the President a perfect opportunity for a parallel effort with bipartisan support, with the same goal: protecting our families from hazards in our own homes
The food safety law: A model for change Toxic chemicals • Increase the FDA’s regulatory authority to prevent contamination and food-borne illness outbreaks • Give the FDA new authority to force recalls of food they believe to be contaminated • Require food producers to have plans to address safety risks • Increase inspections of “high risk” food facilities, and require importers to verify safety • Exemption for small businesses that gross less than $500,000 except where the FDA identified contamination
Baseline polling (Lake Research, October 2009) Toxic chemicals • Most people know very little about chemicals, but they think we need more regulations (over 60%) • Large majorities recognize the dangers of chemicals in children’s products and plastics • Voters think the government “has their back” on chemicals until they hear about the state of the law • Given a basic description of proposed changes to TSCA,, over 70% support it • These attitudes hold across the political spectrum • The central question: How would this play out in the current political atmosphere and with active opposition?
Toxic chemicals Strategic Messaging Message Research: What did we learn, and how did we learn it?
Can Americans be moved to get tough on toxic chemicals? What did we find? • We can beat a strong opposition message that emphasizes regulation, cost, and threats to innovation, etc. by 30-40 points • When people hear the dangers in concrete, visceral ways, their responses look like responses to messages on jobs • Effective messages are evocative and value-laden, drawing on a wide range of values (e.g., health and safety, common sense, populism, American innovation) • Effective messages use analogies to map an unfamiliar domain (toxic chemicals) onto a familiar one • Effective messages raise anxiety but resolve it with a clear statement that we can do something to fix the problem. • One message stood out across all demographics: an analogy between intruders in our homes and toxic intruders
Words that resonate and words that don’t What did we find? • Words you can’t say enough: cancer, the right to be safe in our own homes, toxic chemicals, substances known to cause cancer, asbestos, formaldehyde, protecting our children, threatening our safety • Focus on diseases people know are increasing or are worried about already, such as breast cancer, testicular cancer, reproductive abnormalities, birth defects, asthma, asbestos-related illnesses • Avoid jargon, too many numbers or percentages, unfamiliar chemicals • Avoid language that “hedges” on the meaning of the best available science, e.g., “implicated in,” “suspected to cause,” “the consensus of scientists” (which suggests majority rule; try “scientists agree that…”) • Avoid names of laws and the years they were passed • Avoid making people feel helpless
The structure of an effective message What did we find? • Step 1: Connect with voters with an aspirational, values-laden statement or compelling metaphor • Step 2: Describe the dangers of toxic chemicals in a way that is concrete, visual, and evocative • Emotion circuitry in the brain is closely connected with sensory experience • The most important senses that affect “gut reactions” to ingesting substances are taste and smell • Step 3: End with a hopeful solution or a return to the central metaphor, but don’t dwell on policy details
Take the high ground on core values What did we find? • Safety • Health • Science • Common sense • Protecting our children • Populism • Protection from contamination • Transparency • Effective government • Progress • Innovation • Not disrupting nature • Jobs • American leadership • Corporate responsibility
Methodology Study design • Online dial-test survey of stratified random national sample of 900 registered voters selected to match the demographics of the voting population • Conducted August 24-27, 2010 • Tested nine messages supporting tough new legislation against a strong industry message (split sampled) • Tested brief messages (“talking points”)
sample Sample Demographics • Stratified random national sample of 900 registered voters weighted to match the demographics of the voting population • Gender: Male:49% Female:51% • Partisan identification:Strong DemStrong GOPSwing • 18%16%66% • Age: 18-24 25-39 40-54 55+ • 8% 20% 45% 26% • Ethnicity: White African American Hispanic Other • 76%13% 9% 2% • Education: HS or Less Tech/2yr Undergrad Post Grad • 23%43%23%10% • Region: Northeast Midwest South West • 20%25%36%19%
Toxic chemicals Strategic Messaging Bolded statements are strong as standalone statements (talking points, to which to return). Italicized words and phrases are strong language that led the dials to move sharply up, at least among persuadable (swing) and base voters. Messages that Work
How did the messages fare? 1st tier messages
Opposition message Toxic chemicals Chemical safety laws need to protect our families, our jobs, and our freedoms. Based on spotty and conflicting science, environmental activists and Members of Congress want to legislate the use of certain chemicals and ban others, doing nothing but creating confusion for businesses that are trying to keep Americans employed and to produce the quality products we all expect—and that made America the industrial capitol of the world. Chemistry is the driving force of industrial innovation. American-made clothes, automobiles, and computers all rely on the safe use of chemicals in manufacturing. Of course we need to update the laws that have protected Americans for generations from the unsafe use of chemicals, but any changes to those laws should reflect the most accurate and consistent information from the world’s best doctors and scientists, not the agendas of environmental activists. We need balanced laws that protect American jobs and preserve American innovation. The last thing we need is government bureaucrats telling manufacturers which chemical they can or cannot use. Responsible chemical reform isn’t just about protecting our health. It’s about protecting American innovation and our place in the global economy. 57
Opposition message Dial-test results Note: As evident in both overall ratings and the dial-tests, this message, drawn from industry language, was convincing when heard before genuine reform messages, precisely because it pretends reform. Strong GOPs resonated with the anti-regulation themes from start to finish, and even swing voters found the language persuasive at first blush, although they are no longer interested in attacks on regulation or government bureaucrats, which they perceive as code for letting corporations write their own rules.
Top tier messages • Intruders If we can have laws against people breaking into our homes and threatening our safety, we can have laws against chemical intruders that enter our homes without our knowledge, causing birth defects, breast and testicular cancer, or damage to our developing children. It’s been 35 years since Congress passed a law designed to protect our families from toxic chemicals, but the law grandfathered in over 60,000 substances already in use without any evidence of their safety. Since then, over 20,000 more chemicals have entered our homes, which companies aren’t required to test or even disclose. Just this summer, Kellogg recalled 28 million boxes of cereals like Froot Loops and Apple Jacks because consumers reported a strange taste and foul odor, and many were getting sick. It turned out that the foil liners were full of a toxic chemical found in crude oil that’s similar to a substance used in mothballs. The foil had accidentally been heated at too high a temperature in the factory. But if it hadn’t been for that mistake, we’d have had no idea that chemical was lining our kids’ cereal boxes. We deserve to know that what we feed our kids is safe. 75 Note: Best-practice message: revised after testing based on dial-test results.
Intruders Note: This message was strong with every demographic group and across the political spectrum, as can be seen by the minimally divergent lines among self-identified strong Democrats, strong Republicans, and especially swing voters. The message also showed minimal gender or regional differences. Dial-test results
Top tier messages • Safety in our homes We have the right to be safe in our homes. But you can’t protect your family against chemicals you can’t see. Breast cancer used to strike primarily older women. But now it’s killing young mothers, and it strikes one in eight women during their lifetime. Scientists now know that exposure to chemicals in our homes and communities has played a substantial role in the skyrocketing rates of not only breast cancer but diseases like testicular cancer, asthma, and birth defects. The same is true of childhood cancers, which have increased by an alarming 20%. We could substantially reduce the incidence of all of these diseases by taking common-sense steps, like updating a decades-old law regulating toxic chemicals, requiring chemical manufacturers to test chemicals for safety before putting them on the market, and giving the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to step in quickly to protect public safety. Our own homes shouldn’t be hazardous to our health. 75
Safety in our homes Note: As can be seen from the converging lines, this message appealed extremely well to swing voters and across all party lines Dial-test results
Top tier messages • Leads the world America leads the world in scientific research. Scientists have made extraordinary advances in their understanding of diseases like cancer and developmental disorders like learning disabilities and hyperactivity. Yet the laws regulating chemicals associated with the dramatically increased rates of these disorders haven’t even been updated in decades. Today we know that exposure to pesticides like DDT in childhood can unleash the most deadly, aggressive form of breast cancer in women years later. We now know that chemicals commonly found in our homes—and in the umbilical cord blood of most babies born in American cities—can lead not only to learning problems and hyperactivity in children but to Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline years later. Over 80,000 unregulated chemicals can end up in our food, dishwashing detergents, and water. It’s time we lived up to our generational responsibility to our kids and our seniors, and stopped letting chemical companies write their own rules. 73
Leads the world Note: This message was particularly strong with swing voters, who preferred it by 46 points over the opposition message. It was also one of the strongest messages with strong Democrats but did not particularly move strong Republicans. It was, however, equally powerful wit men and women and across regions, and particularly strong with Latinos and African-Americans, perhaps because of their implicit or explicit knowledge of large disparities in exposure to toxic chemicals that lead ethnic minorities to suffer even more than whites. Dial-test results
Top tier messages • Scientists and lobbyists We’ve led the world in scientific innovation for a century. If we can develop chemicals to convert silicon into computer chips or sunlight into electricity, we can lead the world in developing safer, more effective chemicals to use in our clothing, buildings, and household products. The American Cancer Society just placed styrene, which is used in Styrofoam cups, on its top five list—and styrene is found in the urine of 90% of us. How could something so common be potentially so dangerous? Because we have no laws requiring chemical companies to test their products for safety. It’s time we changed that. If a chemical is detected at dangerous levels in newborn babies or mother’s milk, it shouldn’t be on the market. If a chemical builds up in our bloodstreams and causes diseases like breast or testicular cancer, it shouldn’t be on the market. And if a chemical builds up in the food chain, it shouldn’t be on the market. We should encourage innovation by giving incentives to businesses that develop safer alternatives and require companies to pay for research on their products rather than lobbyists to block prevent research that keeps us safe. 75
Scientists and lobbyists Note: This message is extremely strong with swing voters and equally strong among men and women, with its mix of populism and themes of safety. It appeals particularly strongly to Southerners and Westerners. Dial-test results
Strong additional language Words that move the dials up • There are tens of thousands of chemicals used in products in this country, and less than 10 have ever been regulated. • If materials that contain asbestos become old and flake, the fibers get into the air and our lungs, which can lead to chronic lung disease and deadly forms of cancer. • Pregnant women, developing fetuses, and children are especially vulnerable to toxic chemicals. • Substances known to cause cancer are even common in nursing pillows. • No one ever had to conduct a safety study on the plastic in baby bottles and sippy cups or the dishwashing detergent we use to clean our plates. Note: Bolded statements are strong as standalone statements. Italicized words and phrases are strong language that led the dials to shoot up, at least among persuadable and base voters.
Strategic Messaging Brief Statements (If you only have 6 seconds…) Sound bites
How did these brief messages fare? 1st tier messages
How did these brief messages fare? 1st tier messages
Strategic Messaging Conclusions The bottom line
Conclusions Key findings • Taking on toxic chemicals is a natural follow-up to taking on food safety • Language that moves people stays close to experience and far from abstractions (e.g., specific chemicals they already know are toxic, such as asbestos or “cancer-causing chemicals” • Effective messages begin aspirational or with a metaphor that makes both the dangers and the solutions obvious and tangible • Messages that offer one or at most two specific examples, making the threats concrete and sensory, are extremely powerful, but only if they end with a hopeful statement about what can be done • “Going on the attack” too relentlessly (for too long) or too early in a message tends to weaken its appeal • Messages that offer one or at most two specific solutions or a general approach (e.g., testing before marketing chemicals) are most effective • Americans, particularly in the center, are not moved by anti-regulatory messages, and explicitly endorse regulation for the sake of safety
Toxic chemicals Strategic Messaging Keeping Intruders out of our Homes Revising our Laws on Toxic Chemicals Research conducted by Westen Strategies for the NRDC September 1, 2010, Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org