Is it possible to activate the U.S. public toward a nuclear-free future? Many experts and advocates believe that, currently, Americans are disengaged from stories about nuclear weapons, yet what we have found recently is that between 10%-30% of people who watch TV see something about nuclear weapons every day. The lack of engagement in nuclear disarmament despite a heavy volume of exposure to stories about nuclear weapons seems to suggest there is an element missing. Based on our analysis, these stories represent nuclear war as a dangerous, apocalyptic, and unavoidable outcome. What we need, then, is a narrative intervention to make denuclearization a realistic and believable future.
The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) partnered with Harmony Labs to find the existing narratives being told to U.S. audiences about nuclear weapons and identify opportunities to re-represent the nuclear story. In our previous work with NTI, we did qualitative and quantitative research to identify the best way to build narratives that support a nuclear weapons-free future. In this early work, we unearthed a major insight: “Put a future in it.”
In other words, when communications practitioners are selling change of any kind, they should provide an ending that audiences want to “buy into”: a hopeful future we can achieve together. This became a recurring theme of our recent research with NTI where we discovered that the most persuadable audiences, defined below, are currently receiving a hopeless future, but that there are strong opportunities for narrative interventions. We’re excited to share the findings in this new public report.
Harmony Labs tested user responses to media about nukes in randomized controlled trials (RCT) and defined the persuadable audience as the group most likely to change their opinion after receiving a narrative intervention designed to persuade them that a nuclear-free future is attainable. We then used demographic data to “expand” these findings so that we could see who in our opt-in media consumption panel data — covering 300,000 people in the United States — is likely to be similarly persuadable. We used the 4 values-based audiences from our Narrative Observatory to better understand where audiences fall on the “persuadability” spectrum.
This grid-mapping shows who NTI’s target audiences should be. The most persuadable audiences are People Power, If You Say So and Tough Cookies. Don't Tread on Me are considered unpersuadable because they tend to disagree with pursuing a nuclear weapons-free future and narrative interventions tend to not make an impact. Alternatively, there is also an existing group of people who are already bought into a denuclearized future: People Power. These audiences are considered “unpersuadable” because they’re already on board with actively moving toward the target narrative. Therefore, we focus our persuasion efforts on If You Say So and Tough Cookies.
Persuadable audiences aren’t defined by how they engage with denuclearization because they don’t — yet. Instead, these audiences are defined by what they care about now, where they spend their time, and the kinds of stories that already resonate with them — letting us meet them where they’re already at in media.
YouTube is a key opportunity platform. About 1% of YouTube users are consuming nuke content every day, and gaming is the most popular genre for persuadables on YouTube — 3 out of every 1,000 adult YouTube users in the most persuadable group consume nuke-related gaming content every day. The content in this space pointed us toward a widespread, salient narrative about nukes that regularly reaches persuadables:
Nuclear weapons are capable of world-ending destruction, unhinged individuals will cause our downfall — and there is no other future.
This narrative is most often seen by If You Say So in gaming content like Minecraft, Call of Duty, Fallout, even extending itself to entertainment TV featuring nukes. In cartoons targeted for adults, the cartoonish villainy of nuclear attack is reinforced in shows like South Park and Rick and Morty, often combined with non-human or other-worldly encounters.
Persuadable Tough Cookies represent additional cultural spaces in our Opportunity Zone. They spend more time watching TV than the other audiences: sitcoms like black-ish, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Martin, shows that reflect the family focus of this audience. Religiosity is also a key opportunity for them, and faith-based content has significant reach here with sites like Bible Study Tool and Bible Gateway being amongst the most popular.
Persuadable audiences are already bought into the urgency and nature of the threat, but they aren’t convinced yet that denuclearization is possible. Interventions here need to tell a story of a more hopeful future: an avoidable apocalypse.
Moving forward, the next step for NTI and all advocates in the space is to make content that speaks to audiences within the “opportunity zone” and take the existing aware-but-cynical nuclear weapons narrative — currently present in gaming and entertainment — and add an achievable nuclear weapon-free ending.
In an upcoming blog, we will showcase our process of building cultural briefs for creators to help them understand the persuadable audiences’ cultural landscapes. These cultural briefs are intended to be used by artists and media makers to advise on form, style, and notable examples, to begin retelling the story in the right places. Follow this space for the next update, and if you are interested in research like this project, or in the general work of audience and narrative intervention, please get in touch.
For this report, Harmony Labs used opt-in internet and television panel data between January 1, 2020 and October 31, 2021, touching 300,000+ people in the U.S. and offering a minute-by-minute view into the content audiences care about, wherever they consume or create it.
Online news content was from 1/1/21 to 8/31/21. YouTube content was analyzed form 1/1/20 to 9/30/21. Online search content was from 1/1/20 to 10/31/21. TV was from 6/1/21 to 8/31/21. The earlier starts for online search and YouTube compared to online news accounts allowed for more nuclear content, and the different ending dates was due to different windows of complete data. The timeframe of TV data was relatively short because of the large amount of TV transcript data available for any given time period.
Nuclear content is deﬁned as any found media consumed that uses the keywords “nuke” and “nuclear.” We searched for these keywords on YouTube video titles, descriptions, and tags, online news article text, online search text queries, and TV transcripts. We excluded found media when the text surrounding the keyword indicated that the media was unrelated, such as when “nuclear” was followed by “family.”