Message effects fall into at least three categories: behavioral (actions caused by a message), cognitive (thoughts caused by a message), and emotional (feelings caused by a message). By message, we mean any kind of symbol perceived by an individual to have some sort of meaning, be it through the printed, spoken, or felt word via intrapersonal, interpersonal, mass media, or other means. A message can affect behavioral, cognitive, or emotional outcomes separately or simultaneously. The large body of research on fear appeals, for example, shows that a message produces thoughts about a threat, feelings of emotional arousal, and behavioral actions (Witte & Allen 2000).
A message contains (1) content, (2) stylistic, and (3) extra-message features. The content of a message refers to the words and/or symbols used in the message. For example, message content can focus on anecdotal versus statistical evidence, or loss versus gain frames. Often, the content of message research focuses on latent constructs, such as susceptibility, severity, response efficacy, self-efficacy, barriers, norms, social capital, and so forth. Latent constructs cannot be directly measured and thus must be clearly defined and operationalized before being used in a message.
Stylistic features of a message refer to the elements within a message that can be manipulated to determine the strength of its words or symbols. Stylistic features include such variables as language intensity, vividness, personalization, color, size of font, volume, etc.
Extra-message features have the capacity to influence outcomes but are outside the actual content or symbols used in the message. That is, those things that can be separated from the message content itself and can include features about the source of the message (credibility, dynamism), construction of a message (one versus two-sidedness, primacy/ recentness effects, order of constructs in a message), medium of message, message repetitions, and length/duration of a message.
Typically, if people are motivated and able to process a message, they process the content features of a message thoughtfully and in depth (i.e., systematic or central processing). Extramessage and stylistic features act as cues about how to respond to a message (i.e., heuristic or peripheral processing). For example, if an important person gives a message (high source credibility), this is a cue that what she or he says is true and to be trusted. Petty et al. (1981) found that when people were motivated to process a message (a high-consequence condition), strong arguments produced more attitude change than weak arguments, and source expertise had no effect on attitudes. In contrast, when people were not motivated to process a message (a lowconsequence condition), the opposite occurred – source expertise (a cue) produced attitude change while the quality of the arguments (strong or weak) had no influence on attitudes.
In message effects research, typically message content or extra-message features are manipulated to assess effects on behaviors, cognitions, or emotions, and the stylistic features are used to strengthen or weaken the manipulations. It is fairly clear how to manipulate extra-message features (e.g., one versus three repetitions), but researchers need to clearly define and operationalize the content of message constructs (e.g., susceptibility or self-efficacy) in order to represent them as strong or weak in a message. Further, to prevent confusion, one must make sure that messages have similar styles, content/constructs, and extra-message features before manipulating key variables of interest.
Content, stylistic, and extra-message features all were addressed in a multimedia gun safety program in Michigan. The content of the message focused on the extended parallel process model’s (EPPM’s) latent variables of susceptibility, severity, response efficacy, and self-efficacy. Stylistic variables such as vividness and personalization were focused on in the susceptibility and severity messages in order to increase the strength of these messages. For example, Michigan residents who had personally experienced traumatic gun accidents showed their serious injuries. Extra-message features also were addressed by presenting the threat message first, followed by the efficacy message (order effects), as well as offering multiple repetitions of the message by highly credible sources. The campaign successfully influenced behaviors, attitudes, and intentions toward using trigger locks to prevent gun accidents and won multiple awards (Roberto et al. 2000).
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