A multidisciplinary research team from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, investigated how messages about a fresh start might improve public attitudes toward individuals with a criminal background.
Knowing from prior research that the US perspective often associates drug addiction with a blemished character, the team of UT researchers hypothesized 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.
To test their theories, the team—marketing doctoral student Tyler Milfeld of Wichita, Kansas, and Dan Flint, Regal Professor of Marketing in UT’s Haslam College of Business, and Eric Haley, DeForrest Jackson Professor in the College of Communication and Information—partnered with Dave’s Killer Bread.
The growing 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 US adults with a criminal record. Before starting Dave’s Killer Bread in 2005, Dahl served more than 15 years in prison for offenses that included assault, armed robbery, drug distribution, and burglary.
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.
Framing Messages to Change Public Attitudes
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 (showing their transition to civilian life) in 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 US culture, the fresh start mindset is an example of such a frame. The 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 fresh start mindset offers an effective communication strategy for brands, nonprofits, 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.
“This research was valuable for two reasons: first, it confirmed that people are in fact familiar with Second Chance Employment and, second, that how this concept is communicated by a brand like Dave’s Killer Bread has a significant impact on the viewer’s feeling toward both the practice and the brand. It sounds simple, but it was very illuminating for us,” said Cristina Watson, brand manager for Dave’s Killer Bread.
“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, is available online.
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