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How to lose audiences and frustrate people: Why avoiding toxic positivity is crucial

24 February 2022 at 7:00 am
Lex La Sala
Lex La Sala warns communicators on the dangers of opting for toxic positivity in their campaigns. In a world of socio-political unrest and extreme exhaustion, she says it’s important to avoid frustrating audiences with “good vibes”. 

Lex La Sala | 24 February 2022 at 7:00 am


How to lose audiences and frustrate people: Why avoiding toxic positivity is crucial
24 February 2022 at 7:00 am

Lex La Sala warns communicators on the dangers of opting for toxic positivity in their campaigns. In a world of socio-political unrest and extreme exhaustion, she says it’s important to avoid frustrating audiences with “good vibes”. 

Across the world, COVID-19 is having a ravaging ripple effect. People from all careers and walks of life are experiencing a never-before-seen level of burnout and mental exhaustion.

It’s everywhere you go. A polite conversation at the supermarket will turn into a bonding session over shared frustration and fatigue. A quick scan of the daily news will reveal that a growing list of industries are experiencing extreme shortages and exhaustion. Small talk continues to wrap up Zoom meetings in a familiar way: “I just can’t wait for it to be over.”

In 2022, audiences aren’t only engaged, intuitive, and savvy digital natives. They’re tired. Tired of the same communications tactics, tired of being bombarded with neoliberal positive thinking ideologies, and tired of being told that things “will be okay” in a time of raging socio-political unrest. 

In recent months, people have started to pay closer attention to the concept of toxic positivity – the idea that overemphasising the importance of a positive attitude can actually just lead to further unhappiness. It’s unavoidable and it’s relentless. COVID-19 has quickly turned social media into a breeding ground for empowering platitudes and motivational phrases. 

But, importantly, toxic positivity exists outside the realms of social media influencers and Instagram pages adorned with aesthetically pleasing quotes; it has nestled its way into communication campaigns across the not-for-profit and social impact land. 

As an account director for a full-service communications agency, I’ve noticed that hopeful sentiments like “this, too, shall pass” haven’t left communications strategies, despite COVID-19 roaring on two years later. More than that, communicators are still opting for harmfully optimistic campaign messages despite an exhausted audience looking back at them. 

In turn, audiences are disengaging with content in a way that is reflective of how people started to avoid the news to protect their well-being in the early days of lockdown. 

So, how do we avoid toxic positivity in our communications efforts? How do we ensure that audiences aren’t sighing with frustration when engaging with our content – or worse, avoiding it completely?

Apply a human lens

It can be easy for communicators to forget that they are talking to real people when they’re planning campaigns. When you’re deep in a communications strategy, target audiences start to become mere segments and are quickly commodified into numbers on a screen. Pull yourself out of this mindset and remind yourself: you are not talking to robots. 

You’re talking to real individuals, with real emotions, experiencing their own real-life problems. Failing to truly acknowledge these emotions – and the turbulent feelings that come with the stress of the pandemic – will risk invalidating people’s feelings, or placing guilt or shame on those feeling deflated. 

Before you publish any communications, apply a human lens: How would it feel to be on the receiving end of this message? How would I feel stumbling across this message on my own social media feed? Is this message invalidating certain emotions or feelings? 

Connect through genuine empathy 

Humans have always bonded through shared experiences. Although the global pandemic hasn’t impacted everyone in the same way, we are still connected by a common thread. We’ve all entered another year of uncertainty, where our political leaders continue to tussle, and where we’re bracing ourselves for the next piece in a very confusing puzzle. 

By showing genuine empathy through your communications, you’re asking audiences to connect with you in a meaningful way. You are showing them that your organisation is authentic and, better yet, that there are people experiencing all of the same things behind the curtains of your campaigns. 

Emotional intelligence has always been key to good communications campaigns, and audiences are only going to resonate with messages that feel truly relatable. In this sense, avoid oversight by trialling your key messages with people who aren’t as attached to your PR projects. How would audiences feel seeing this content? What kind of feeling are they left with after seeing the content? 

Learn from the pandemic 

If nothing else, the pandemic showed us some obvious dos and don’ts of marketing. On a global scale, we watched on as inconsistent health messaging campaigns faced serious backlash for stripping audiences of their confidence, while closer to home, our government’s lack of clear guidelines led to serious pandemic fatigue. 

The pandemic has pushed communicators to be better than the years before it, and as we continue to live through unprecedented global hurdles, audiences aren’t as susceptible to constant happiness and words of encouragement as they used to be. 

This provides us all with a real opportunity to be more transparent, to meaningfully respect the emotions of our audiences, to develop key messages that don’t add to the anxiety of our communities, and, most of all, to produce better, smarter, and more effective campaigns.


If you need help with your pre-budget submission, government engagement, assistance with a strategic communications strategy or PR outreach, get in touch with Fifty Acres on 02 6281 7350 or visit 

Lex La Sala  |  @ProBonoNews

Lex La Sala is an account director at Fifty Acres.

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