The idea that people can chart a new course in life regardless of their circumstances is deeply ingrained in American culture. A research team from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville has investigated how messages about this “fresh start mindset” (FSM) might improve public attitudes toward certain stigmatized groups.
The fresh start concept is based on the belief that people have free will to create new beginnings for themselves. The researchers set out to learn whether messaging campaigns with this theme could be beneficial for drug addicts and ex-offenders — two groups that often have difficulty finding employment due to negative public perception — as well as for brands that sponsor such campaigns.
To test their theories, Tyler Milfeld, marketing Ph.D. student at the university’s Haslam College of Business; Eric Haley, DeForrest Jackson Professor in the university’s College of Communication and Information, and Dan Flint, Regal Professor of Marketing at Haslam, partnered with Dave’s Killer Bread.
The emerging brand has been hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds but not advertising that fact. Company co-founder Dave Dahl is one of an estimated 65 million U.S. adults with a criminal record. Prior to starting Dave’s Killer Bread in 2005, Dahl had served more than 15 years in prison for a range of offenses, including assault, armed robbery, drug distribution and burglary.
Framing Messages to Change Public Attitudes
Knowing from prior research that the U.S. perspective often associates drug addiction with blemished character, the UT team posited that framing a messaging campaign in terms of the fresh start mindset might counteract the blaming attitude that can make people feel less inclined to help addicts and ex-offenders. The study used veterans as a comparison group because favorable public opinion toward veterans has been well documented and multiple brands have featured veterans’ “fresh start” stories (transition to civilian life) in past ads.
The researchers use the term cultural identity mindset framing (CIMF) to reference communication of beliefs that are so culturally embedded that they appear to be common sense. In U.S. culture, the FSM is an example of such a frame. Their study showed that combining CIMF with explicit references to a stigmatized group not only made consumers more receptive to supporting the group, but also improved consumers’ opinion and purchase intent toward the sponsoring brand.
The team concluded that the FSM offers an effective communications strategy for brands, non-profits and public policy organizations that want to aid stigmatized populations.
“Influencing attitudes toward these stigmatized groups is extraordinarily challenging, even in an experimental setting,” Milfeld said. “Our findings showed the power of activating the fresh start mindset and associating it with this group.”
Using Research to Provide Opportunities
Based on the team’s findings, Dave’s Killer Bread launched a marketing campaign to raise awareness of their hiring practices as well as the Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation’s Second Chance Employment initiative, which helps other firms create employment opportunities for individuals with criminal backgrounds. The company reported that the campaign exceeded expectations across all metrics.
“Our research provided them with a way to advertise support for ex-offenders and generate more positive brand attitudes,” Milfeld said. “We are very proud of this study and the core finding of how to improve public receptivity to a highly stigmatized group.”
“A Fresh Start for Stigmatized Groups: The Effect of Cultural Identity Mindset Framing in Brand Advertising,” published in the Journal of Advertising in May 2021, is available online.
Stacy Estep, writer/publicist, firstname.lastname@example.org