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Marketing Viewpoint by Ruth Winett

Why Facts Don't Convince Prospects:
Lessons from the Vaccine Controversy


Why do one-third of US parents still believe the myth that the measles vaccine causes autism? How should you respond to myths about your company or your products, e.g., that your company produces batteries that cause fires? In Why Debunking Myths About Vaccines Hasn't Convinced Dubious Parents, Christopher Graves, CEO of Ogilvy Public Relations, offers useful strategies for countering stubborn rumors and myths that affect both your business and your personal life.


The measles controversy began with a 1998 UK article by Dr. Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield had studied twelve autistic children and found a correlation between receiving the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine and becoming autistic. Soon Wakefield's findings were disproved. Nonetheless, many educated parents still refuse to have their children vaccinated even though the MMR vaccine is about ninety-eight percent effective.


Presenting facts to correct misperceptions often backfires. In fact, many people become defensive and more doubtful. People "'only accept the evidence that fits their pre-existing views,'" claims Charles Lord. "Lord called this effect 'confirmation bias.'"


Maybe you have tried "repeating the myth... while trying to debunk it, [if so, you may have conveyed] the myth to people who may never have heard it" and reinforce[d] the myth if they have heard of it.


What to Do When Facts Fail


Make your audience feel good about themselves before correcting their views and their facts, say Nyhan and Reifler. Don't attack them. Tell the vaccine doubters that they obviously love their children, but continue to move them away from their misperceptions.


Exploit narratives. Humans crave stories. In her letters Abigail Adams describes smallpox's toll on citizens of colonial Braintree. Her wrenching decision to vaccinate her family directly from the oozing sores of smallpox patients carted around in a wagon is a more powerful than a page full of statistics. Narratives are so powerful that in the absence of a story, people will create one, says Fritz Heider, a psychologist.


When prospects seem resistant to cold facts because of deeply held beliefs or rumors, avoid repeating - and reinforcing - false rumors. Provide alternative narratives about customers with similar problems. Present narratives respectfully, being careful not to belittle your prospects for believing rumors or myths. Your prospects will recommend you and your company to others regardless of whether they buy from you.


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Copyright © 4/15 Ruth Winett. All rights reserved.


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