By Benjamin Haslem
Your choice of words and the emotional response it elicits in the reader can either make your message highly effective or a disaster.
The meme at left was posted by a friend on Facebook.
It was originally posted by a group called Young Mums.
I am the father of a boy who is severely allergic to peanuts. He has to carry an epipen with him. One peanut consumed, without a shot of adrenaline from the epipen, could kill him. Thankfully, we have never had to use the epipen.
So I came to the meme with a certain lack of objectivity.
I am also a passionate opponent of the anti-vaccination movement, which poses a grave risk to public health.
My initial take on the meme was one of anger. To my eyes it was cheapening the risk posed to some children by peanuts.
The words "because someone might be allergic" smacks of condescension or a sense that people are being put out or inconvenienced, especially when contrasted with the message below.
It also suggests the danger posed by peanuts is not very high or even exaggerated.
However, my friend argued that he read it as along the lines of (to paraphrase) "why is it that as a school community we can organise to ensure our playgrounds are safe for kids with peanut allergies but we can't make parents vaccinate their kids?".
That's a reasonable interpretation for someone who doesn't have a child with a peanut allergy.
But the problem with the meme is that the choice of language doesn't convey that message.
Another problem, which I'll discuss shortly, is that it uses analogy as a communication tool and fails dismally.
If the meme was trying to convey what my friend interpreted as the message, it should have said something like "my
child can't bring a peanut to school so we can make it safe for kids with peanut allergies? BUT... your unvaccinated child can bring: ..."
That choice of language offers empathy to parents of children with allergies and will make them more receptive to your point. It also acknowledges the reality of the danger posed by peanut allergies.
The other problem with the meme is that it uses a false analogy and tries to compare the personal costs involved in both acts (not putting a peanut or peanut product in the kid's lunch box versus choosing to vaccinate your child).
Asking parents to keep peanut products out of their children's lunch box carries a small cost to the parent: a minor inconvenience to check the ingredients on snacks and avoid peanut butter etc.
But asking a parent who may hold a deep-seated fear of the harm their child will suffer from vaccines (however illogical and unscientific) to vaccinate that child, carries a massive cost in the mind of that parent - the serious long-term injury to a child.
Suggesting that because you can influence one form of behaviour you can therefore influence another in a similar way is misguided.
If you're going to use analogy or comparison to try and sway opinions or attitudes make sure the examples aren't
And please, mind your language.
1. Is Social Media Stifling Political Debate?