|Abstract:||Public service announcements and health promotion ads frequently ask viewers to imagine the consequences that may occur if the viewer does not engage in the recommended health behavior (e.g., regular exercise, quitting smoking). Sometimes these messages are designed to emphasize negative outcomes associated with inaction (i.e., loss-framed messages), while other messages emphasize positive outcomes associated with behavior change (i.e., gain-framed messages). Message designers also choose whether to create messages that refer directly to the audience (i.e., uses second person) or that refer to other people in general (i.e., uses third person). Understanding how the combination of imagination, potential future losses or gains, and direct or indirect references to the viewer influence how viewers respond to these messages has important theoretical and practical implications about their effectiveness.
This thesis presents the results of a 2 x 2 x 2 between-subjects experiment that tested the effect of imagination (imagination, non-imagination), message framing (gain, loss) and reference-level (self, other) on outcomes of interest to health communication practitioners (e.g., attitude, self-efficacy, behavioral intention). Participants (N = 275) read a message about the importance of regular exercise and physical activity. Imagination was operationalized by telling participants to imagine themselves in the future experiencing the benefits or consequences of exercising or not exercising regularly. Message framing was operationalized using gain-framed messages that emphasized potential benefits of exercise (e.g., living longer, avoiding heart disease) or loss-framed messages that emphasized potential consequences of inactivity (e.g., dying prematurely, suffering from heart disease). Reference-level was manipulated by using second-person pronouns (e.g., you, your) that referred directly to the participant or third-person pronouns (e.g., they, their) that referred to people in general.
Results of inferential statistical analyses revealed that when participants were asked to imagine the future, loss-framed other-referencing messages and gain-frame self-referencing messages produced significantly more favorable attitudes, and higher ratings of perceived behavioral control and self-efficacy. When participants were not asked to imagine the future, self-referencing messages produced more favorable attitudes, and higher ratings of perceived behavioral control than other-referencing messages regardless of message frame. One important implication of the findings is that when health communication practitioners attempt to strengthen messages by asking viewers to imagine themselves experiencing future outcomes, they might unintentionally cause viewers to have lower evaluations of key variables associated with performing health behaviors. Additional theoretical and practical implications, study limitations, and future research avenues are discussed.