Awakening the Voice of Conscience
Can a television ad campaign reshape the abortion debate?
BY Joseph Esposito
July 5-11, 1998 Issue | Posted 7/5/98 at 1:00 PM
Esposito: What is the goal of The Caring Foundation?
Swope: To develop a national pro-life media effort, primarily through television. This effort will create a cultural shift for the restoration of life values and build a compassionate society.
We're currently targeting women of child-bearing age. This is one of the aspects that makes The Caring Foundation so unique. We don't “preach to the converted,” but focus on communicating with women who call themselves “prochoice.”
Can you talk a little about your “right brain” research?
“Right brain” research is a type of marketing that attempts to understand people from their intuitive, emotional, creative (and some even say spiritual) side — characteristics thought to originate from the right side of the brain. Your “left brain” activities tend to be analytic, linguistic, and rational.
Much of the debate over abortion has been just that, a back-and-forth debate, a “left brain” intellectual argument. The Caring Foundation has used right brain research to transcend the level of argumentation to better understand how women really feel about this issue in order to reach them more effectively.
We have worked with Kenny & Associates in Tennessee, which pioneered such research. These studies revolutionize how the pro-life movement presents its message to “pro-choice” women. A key insight is that the choice to abort or carry to term is often settled not by how the woman views the child — she knows it is a human life — but by how she views herself and her future.
Psychologically, abortion is resorted to because the woman sees it as an act of self-preservation. Pro-lifers know that calculation is misguided, but we have to present our case in a way that is persuasive to the women in crisis, not to ourselves, as has often been the case. That's what makes the work of The Caring Foundation so exciting. We're using new research to reach a new audience: women who most need to hear the pro-life message.
What constitutes a typical Caring Foundation commercial?
First, our ads feature women who share their own experience and who are credible to the targeted audience, presenting the issue in terms they will understand. They usually end with a question rather than a dogmatic statement. For example, one ad shows a woman practicing ballet, and it talks, in very poetic terms, about “female intuition.” What we're talking about is God-given conscience, the guidance of natural law that's written in every human heart.
But appealing to “conscience” is likely to confuse and even alarm the very audience we're trying to reach. So this ad ends with the following thought: “Your intuition doesn't always tell you what you want to hear, but when you think about it, when was the last time that voice was wrong?” Of course, an ad such as this isn't likely to change the hardened of heart, but we know that most women aren't in this category. Most women are yearning for just a small voice to tell them what they know to be true inside and to give them encouragement.
So the ad provides that small voice.
It's important to clarify that using a gentler term is not evading the truth. One of the keys to successful communication is knowing your audience and working within the limitations of your medium. In a 30-second ad, you can only say so much. I think sometimes pro-lifers are so intent on the importance of their message, that they can forget to adapt to the means at hand. If a 30-second ad is going to be effective, it has to touch the listener in a way that resonates with something already inside them.
We know, for example, that women struggle with two conflicting voices over this issue: there is the “voice of conscience” and what you might call the “voice of convenience.” Our goal in a TV ad is to gently encourage the former, so that the women will decide from within themselves to choose life.
Don't your ads include a toll-free 800 number?
Yes, nearly all our ads now include an 800 number for women in crisis to call for help. This was a tremendous development because we now connect women who most need help with the agencies created to serve them. Most crisis pregnancy centers don't have the funds to gain visibility via television, and most women don't know where to turn for help.
We fill that critical need, and there's no cost to the centers for the service. Some crisis pregnancy centers have reported an increase in calls to their centers of up to 400% when a campaign of The Caring Foundation is initiated.
You wrote in the April issue of First Things that the pro-life effort, although vigorous and compassionate, has done little to change public attitudes about abortion. Why?
I need to make it clear that the focus of that article, like the overall work of The Caring Foundation, is to reach pro-choice women through the medium of television. I tried to be careful to state that our approach doesn't invalidate the pro-life work done in the classroom, the legislature, or elsewhere.
However, I can speak from my own personal experience within the movement. I notice that we spend the vast majority of our energy and resources in communicating with those who agree with us. We hold dinners, raffles, bake sales, and church meetings. We write newsletters to our members and then contact them for donations. Yet, how often and how effectively are we actually getting our message into the living rooms of the average American? The truth is, when we do get any exposure, it's not done on our terms but through the reporting of a biased news media, which present pro-lifers as anti-woman extremists.
So I have long been concerned about actually getting the pro-life message to those outside our movement. Next, we should look at the messages we don't send out. We tend to view this issue in battle terms, with an “us” against “them” mentality. As a devout Catholic, I passionately believe that this issue is ultimately between the forces of the Devil and the power of Christ, but I don't believe that people or their beliefs can be neatly dropped into one camp or the other.
How can the general public be characterized, then?
Actually, most people are mostly pro-life, in that they only approve of abortion in very limited circumstances. It's a mistake for our movement to encourage polarization, forcing people to either accept the pure “pro-life” label or be cast into the “pro-abortion” camp. The truth is, people dislike being labeled, and they don't wish to be viewed as an extremist on either end of the spectrum.
With the choices being “pro-life” or “pro-choice” in today's terminology, most people will feel more comfortable under the “pro-choice” label, because it sounds more open-minded and reasonable. In short, argumentation leads to polarization, to the taking of sides, which does not encourage people to reexamine their beliefs, and may even erode our base of support.
The Caring Foundation tries to get past the labels and the argumentation and influence the deeper emotional and psychological reactions to this issue. I think this approach is much more likely to create lasting change in public opinion.
A foundation of the pro-life position is that abortion kills a baby. By focusing exclusively on the emotional needs of women in crisis, are you shortchanging the moral issue?
That's a good question, and two thoughts come to mind. First, our focus on the woman doesn't discount the humanity of the unborn child. In fact, our psychological research reveals that even pro-choice women know that abortion takes a human life. This fact is presupposed, not dismissed, in our ads.
Second, we might ask whether our movement is about presenting an argument, or about communicating effectively to help the unborn child a mother is carrying. Women do have the power to take the life of their unborn children, so for us to ignore or downplay their needs would defeat our mission.
Remember, the goal of the ads is to effectively persuade women of childbearing age to choose life for the child inside them, it isn't to present biological facts to school children or lobby for a particular bill. We're simply being smart enough to tailor our message to the audience we're trying to reach and working within the limitations of the television medium.
Polling is an integral part of this program. Can you tell us what have been your polling results?
It's hard to really go into the polling data, as the report on each market often runs 100-200 pages. Basically we hire a professional pollster to carry out a poll before a campaign is initiated to assess existing pro-life sentiment. We then conduct the same poll in the area after the campaign to see if there has been an impact and what themes have been successful.
That our campaigns shift public opinion and move women to choose life is beyond dispute. We have now received over 6,000 calls on the 800 number included with the ad, and polls showing positive movement have been done in over 15 markets. In Indianapolis, for example, the poll showed a shift among the target audience from 33% pro-life in the pre-poll to 44% pro-life in the post-poll. That's an increase of over 30%.
I would encourage anyone who is sincerely interested in our work to request the documentation about our polling and the impact of our ads. The closer one scrutinizes our work, the clearer it becomes that this approach is important and effective.
Is there a danger of placing too much emphasis on a television campaign?
Actually, I think it has been a tragedy that our movement has neglected television for so long. Television is the most powerful medium in the modern age. While The Caring Foundation is not denying the efficacy of other means of communication, it is just filling the critically important gap of reaching the American public through television.
I know many pro-lifers write off television because it seems to be too expensive. I had the same idea until I learned more about it. It's true it takes a large sum of money to saturate a market effectively, but you have to consider the number of people reached and influenced for the dollars spent.
For example, The Caring Foundation insists on a minimum time-buy of about 13 weeks, and it actually comes out to about 10 cents for every person reached with our message. Each person will see our message several times, for several weeks — all for just 10 cents. I've been in the movement a long time, and there is nothing so efficient and effective. It really is a terrific vehicle for the pro-life movement.
I'm sure some people are skeptical that a few 30-second ads can make a difference. What they need to keep in mind is that we're awakening a voice of conscience already inside people, and that's why they are so effective.
Can you talk a little about your journey of faith?
That's quite a long story. I'm a convert to Christianity, and I joined the Catholic Church while a graduate student at Harvard University. Looking back, I can see the patience and persistence of the Holy Spirit, as I passed through phases of rebellion, eastern mysticism, and two years of hitchhiking through 20 countries.
But what the Divine Chiseler used to split my life in two was this issue of abortion. Despite attending Ivy League colleges, I really didn't know much about abortion. Yet, when I read that abortion involved the dismemberment of a tiny person, I instinctively knew that it was horribly wrong. This brought me to question the whole modern view of sexuality, going back to the contraceptive mentality.
Basically, I lost all respect for a society that so enthusiastically embraced such an abominable evil. I saw in the Christian faith the only coherent and complete response to the issues over which I was struggling. In my reading I was deeply moved by the vision, maturity, and power of Catholic teaching. In fact, my exposure to Catholic teaching came from volunteering at a pro-life office, and I had the job of cutting out and filing pro-life articles. That was, by the way, my first exposure to the Register.
I felt called to give my life to the pro-life cause shortly after my conversion to Christianity. It was the pro-life issue that brought me to Christ, to salvation, so my life seems little to give in return.
What is the future of The Caring Foundation, and how can people support your efforts?
Right now The Caring Foundation is working to be on the air in the top 25 television markets in the United States; that will reach almost half the population of the country. In some states we work closely with the local right-to-life group and in some cases we work independently. Where and when we air depends entirely on the enthusiasm and support from people in local television markets, so we need individuals to contact us who would like to see these ads in their region.
The whole effort is beautifully simple, as we only need a few people willing to help spread the word about our work, right from their home or place of work. We don't generally use large events or an administrative team other than one representative of The Caring Foundation. This way the vast majority of every dollar raised goes directly into air time. Once people in a region start to learn about our work, it tends to snowball rather quickly, and the funds, which are tax deductible, can be raised for local campaigns.
Initially, my involvement with The Caring Foundation was only a small part of my pro-life work, but I am now hoping to focus on it full time. As much as I've enjoyed my various pro-life endeavors, it has been a special honor to work with a team of such professionals, helping to promote a pro-life effort that is positive and persuasive, with a proven track record.
It means a lot of travel for me, and being away from my lovely wife and the kids is not easy. But I trust I'm where God wants me to be right now. If loving your work is a sign that you are in the right place, then I have no worries.
Paul Swope is the Northeast director of The Caring Foundation, a nonprofit organization that combines marketing research and television advertising to promote the prolife message. Television commercials, which target women ages 18 to 44, have been seen in more than 30 media markets in the past two years, reaching approximately 40 million adults. Swope, who resides in Derry, N.H., recently spoke with Register correspondent Joseph Esposito.
Paul Swope may be reached at The Caring Foundation: 1-800-705-9497.
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