Communication Currents

Individual and Message Level Characteristics of Effective Public Service Announcements

October 1, 2013
Health Communication

Health messages are effective because characteristics of the message are well-suited to particular individuals in the audience. Although stronger arguments in public service announcements generally increase audience members’ perceptions of message effectiveness, our evidence shows that specific sub-groups of the audience react differently to strong arguments in anti-marijuana messages. Notably, high drug risk audience members tend to counter-argue and react defensively to persuasion health messages.

There are several ways to study the effectiveness of public service announcements. On the one hand, characteristics of the public service announcements make the health message more persuasive. These include how sensational the message is, as well as the strength of the message’s argument. On the other hand, some audience members possess certain traits that make them more or less persuadable by health messages. Some of these traits include the degree to which audience members are personally involved with the health message and whether they seek heightened sensations. Some researchers have developed practical guidelines to target those audience members who tend to be both at risk for negative health behaviors (personally involved with risky health behaviors) and enjoy stimulating and sensational messages. But the reasons why exciting health messages are more persuasive are unknown and the reactions of high risk individuals have been difficult to predict.

Results from our lab (The Media Neuroscience Lab) showed that those who are at a high risk for marijuana consumption and high ‘sensation seekers’ are difficult to persuade. Public service announcements with stronger messages and high sensation value (i.e., flashy) were less effective for individuals who are at high-risk for marijuana consumption. High-risk individuals hold strong initial opinions and they seem to selectively discount and counter-argue information that conflicts with their initial attitudes. Even when messages are sensational and designed to attract one’s attention, high-risk individuals are impervious to anti-marijuana messages. Increased intent to attract attention does not translate to increased persuasion, and in fact may translate into decreased persuasion.

Individuals who are classified as low-risk and low ‘sensation seekers,’ on the other hand, dislike over-stimulation. Our results found that low sensation seekers dislike messages that are sensational with strong arguments (messages that are both audio-visually and rhetorically complex) because there is a mismatch between the individual’s preferred level of sensation seeking and a message’s sensational value. In sum, reduced or negative reactions to an anti-marijuana message seems to be due to, 1) an informational overload for those who are low marijuana risk, and 2) biased processing of strong messages among those who are at high risk for marijuana consumption. 
It is not enough to design highly sensational messages with strong arguments and expect them to be persuasive among diverse low- and high-risk audiences. It appears that various kinds of public service announcements are relatively more or less effective depending on particular audiences.

Our findings provide some clues about how NOT to design public service announcements in the future. Do not design public service announcements that are complex and flashy. Little attention is paid to messages when audience members experience informational overload because of a mismatch between their sensation seeking trait and a message’s sensation value. Therefore, public service announcements that are informationally complex and too flashy are distracting and therefore not persuasive, particularly among low-risk audience members. In addition, audience members do not increase their attention when they experience an optimum match between their sensation seeking trait and a message’s sensation value.

Also do not design public service announcements that contain arguments that are too strong when trying to persuade audience members at risk of already committing the unhealthy behaviors. These individuals already hold strong initial opinions that justify their unhealthy behaviors, and they selectively discount arguments that too strongly conflict with their initial attitudes. Although we do not recommend that weak arguments are persuasive to those at-risk, we do question the utility in the strong targeting methods for risky health behaviors previously used in public service announcements. At-risk populations are particularly difficult to persuade and therefore we suggest that public service announcements be used as an intervention in at-risk populations before beliefs have cemented.

Using the findings and data of this study, the Media Neuroscience Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara (Department of Communication) is currently investigating what occurs in the brains of those high risk audience members who counter-argue health messages. Results of this research show promise to improve the design of health messages.

About the author (s)

René Weber

University of California, Santa Barbara

Associate Professor

Amber Westcott-Baker

University of Maryland, College Park

Assistant Professor

Grace L. Anderson

Samford University

Assistant Professor