A Qualitative Analysis of Adolescent Reactions to Television
Antiviolence Public Service Announcements
Over the past forty years, the problem of television violence has
been studied from a variety of perspectives, using numerous theoretical models
of behavior (Centerwall, 1992; Comstock & Strasburger, 1993). Previous research
has indicated that exposure to television violence may have a variety of
potentially detrimental effects on at least some TV audiences--by shaping norms
and attitudes regarding violence, offering models for violent behavior and
cultivating unrealistic, exaggerated views of the levels of violence in the real
world (Comstock & Strasburger, 1993).
Recently escalating public and political pressure on the television
industry to act more responsibly with regard to depictions of violent behavior
has led to a concerted effort on the part of some television executives to
search for ways to counteract the possible effects of violent portrayals (NCTI,
1994). One byproduct of the television industry's renewed commitment to
addressing the problem has been the creation of a series of public service
announcements, produced by various members of the broadcast and cable television
industry, that use narrative depictions of violent encounters and/or celebrity
testimonials to discourage viewers--particularly younger adolescent audience
members--from engaging in violent or antisocial behavior (NCTA, 1995).
The television industry produced numerous antiviolence PSAs during
1995. These PSAs used a variety of formats, themes, storylines, and celebrity
endorsers, and were periodically aired on cable networks that are commonly
viewed by adolescents (Biocca et al, 1996). It would appear that the airing of
these PSAs represents a worthwhile pro-social contribution by the industry to
the ongoing dilemma of TV violence. However, what remains uncertain is how
successful these PSAs actually are at convincing their target audiences to be
The purpose of the current research is to assess the effectiveness
of the industry's current antiviolence PSAs at reaching their target audience
and affecting adolescent attitudes regarding violent behavior. Qualitative
analyses were conducted of adolescent reactions to a random sample of the
industry's more recent antiviolence PSAs. In two separate studies, in-depth
interviews were used to elicit responses regarding attention to, interest in and
semantic processing of the sample PSAs among a group of incarcerated,
violence-prone adolescents and a group of middle school students.
The causes of violence are multiple and complex (Gilbert, 1994;
Reiss & Roth, 1993). Contributing factors may include poverty, unemployment,
racism, access to firearms, low self-esteem, fatalism (Houk & Warren, 1991;
Novello, 1991), biological (Daly & Wilson, 1994) and/or hormonal drives (Turner,
1994), parenting, geography, social capital (Reiss & Roth, 1993), and exposure
to media violence (Jo & Berkowitz, 1994; Comstock & Strasburger, 1993;
Violence worldwide is largely a male province (Archer, 1994) and
males constitute more than 89% of arrests for violent crimes. Most violent acts
are committed by young males between the ages of 15 and 30 (Reiss & Roth, 1993,
p. 72, 73). This pattern is found worldwide and historically. The consistency
suggests that biological factors play a role in determining which demographic
groups are more inclined to engage in violent activity. Social factors also
influence the likelihood of violence in young males. The United States is a
violent nation. It has the third highest homicide rate in the world (Reiss &
Roth, 1993, p. 52), the highest among developed countries, and more than four
times the homicide rate of most European and Commonwealth countries. Within the
U.S., the specific community in which an individual lives may also influence the
likelihood that the individual will be either a perpetrator or victim of
violence. Unemployed young males in economically distressed areas are
statistically more likely to be both perpetrators and victims of violence (Reiss
& Roth, 1993).
Antiviolence educational programs and PSAs are designed to
counteract the growing problem of violence among young American males. They
attempt to capitalize on the persuasiveness of the television medium to present
influential violence prevention messages to target audiences. Television can be
a powerfully persuasive medium in influencing the attitudes and behaviors of
younger audiences (Comstock & Strasburger, 1993). However, previous research on
antiviolence interventions suggests that television programs and PSAs are likely
to only moderately affect viewers (Reiss & Roth, 1993). Changing pre-existing
attitudes, norms, and risk perceptions about violence may therefore be a lot to
expect from antiviolence PSAs and programs. Nevertheless, moderate levels of
success are more likely to be achieved if some basic principles of persuasive
communication campaigns are considered and incorporated into message designs
For the current studies, an integrated model of communication
campaign message processing was developed to guide the testing of antiviolence
messages (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. A Theoretical model for the evaluation of antiviolence
To understand how antiviolence messages work, it is important to
recognize the full communication context within which audiences receive them.
This model concentrates on how communication messages are designed and
processed, and how these messages may influence attitudes about violence and
indirectly contribute to either increasing or decreasing violence in society.
The model is a synthesis of work on persuasion and mass communication (Ajzen,
1985; Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980; Biocca, 1991; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975; McGuire,
1989), and other work on communication campaigns.
For the current qualitative study, research focused on evaluating
reactions to the communication variables of source and message form, and on the
message cognitions of attention, interest and semantic processing. Outcome
beliefs, outcome evaluation and attitudes were also assessed in reviewing
adolescent responses to sample PSAs.
McGuire (1989) has outlined the basic components of persuasive
communication in an input and output matrix. According to the McGuire model,
persuasive communication occurs through the manipulation of attributes or
"inputs" of the communication process. The principal inputs are sources,
messages, channels and receivers. These communication variables will affect the
"output," or dependent variables--what McGuire called the "response steps
mediating persuasion." McGuire identified 12 steps in the response process,
beginning with exposure to the communication, then moving to attention,
interest, comprehension ,skill acquisition and finally attitude change and
behavior. The number and complexity of the steps alone suggest the difficulty
of affecting behavior exclusively through communication campaigns. Not all
media messages will compel viewers to complete each of the steps in the
Appropriate manipulation of the input variables will increase the
probability that messages will have the desired effect. McGuire identifies some
basic guidelines and principles that if adhered to will guide assessment and
increase the probability that messages and campaigns are successful. The target
audience is the most important piece of the puzzle, and choices about source,
message and channel must be made in the context of these receivers.
Audience. Effective campaigns engage in extensive formative
evaluation with target audiences so that the most appropriate messages, sources
and media channels for reaching the intended audience are adopted (Flay &
Burton, 1990). Target audiences should be selected and defined as narrowly as
possible by demographic characteristics (age, gender, race/ethnicity, geography,
education), and, if possible, by other kinds of indicators, such as
psychographics, or risk factors like prior episodes of violent behavior.
Source. The source of a message is the perceived communicator of
the message. In these studies, two different communicators might be
perceived--the producing source (MTV, HBO, etc.) and the speaking source (such
as celebrities in endorsement PSAs or primary actors in the narrative PSAs).
Most previous studies have focused on speaking sources and perceived
credibility. The research suggests two basic dimensions of source credibility:
competence and trustworthiness (O'Keefe, 1990). Competence is the extent to
which the source is seen as having expertise and the qualifications for speaking
about the subject. Trustworthiness is based on perceptions of sources as having
personal integrity and character, and as being considered honest, just, fair,
and unselfish. In general, the most successful sources will be those who are
perceived as both competent and trustworthy.
The degree of liking of the source can also contribute to success at
the earliest stages in the process, but may be a less significant overall
factor. Some handbooks on message design also indicate that sources will be
more effective when they are similar to the receiver (Making PSAs Work, 1984),
but research suggests that dissimilar sources may be judged as more competent in
Celebrities as sources may initially help attract attention,
especially when the target audience is initially not very involved with the
topic (Atkin, 1979). Celebrities are also, however, sometimes problematic
because few retain such status for long, especially among the young, and they
may be considered hypocritical or untrustworthy if they themselves have engaged
in antisocial behavior.
_Message. According to Petty and Caccioppo's (1986) model of
persuasive communication, messages should be constructed differently depending
on the audience's level of involvement in the topic. Involved audiences who
perceive that an issue is personally relevant and bears directly on their own
lives should receive rational appeals that include logical arguments and
information. Uninvolved audiences who do not perceive the issue as affecting
their own lives should receive emotional appeals (fear, humor, sadness,
excitement) that may then lead to involvement and a willingness to engage with
messages more cognitively.
Fear is the most typically used emotional appeal in health-related
messages. In general, the more fear generated in the audience by the message,
the more effective the message (Boster & Mongeau, 1984). While too much
gruesome material in a message may contribute to audience distraction or
disbelief and thus, may become less persuasive, if anxiety and fear are
generated in the audience, the message will be more effective than if fear is
not generated. Research also suggests that messages including a fear appeal are
more effective behaviorally if the audience is provided with some reasonable way
to offset the fear (like "talking it out") rather than being simply left with
the fear (Job, 1988).
How a message is structured may effect how persuasive it is.
Messages will be more persuasive if explicit conclusions are drawn and
recommendations for action are clear (O'Keefe, 1990). Research also shows that
messages that present both sides of an issue or relevant opposing arguments are
more effective than messages that include only supporting arguments.
Information in messages will be more effective when presented in case history
form or as an example that describes some event or object in detail rather than
as a statistical summary of a large number of events or objects (Taylor &
In general, the key outcome variables of attention, acceptance and
change can be maximized if messages: 1) discuss the potential risks and
benefits of the desired behavior, particularly those that are most immediate and
most probable; 2) present an opportunity to act and guidelines for action; and
3) demonstrate that the action is feasible (Flay & Burton, 1990).
Channels. In the current study the selection of channels is not a
central issue because the messages are all designed for television. However,
within television as a channel, selection of more specific channels is
important. The most appropriate channels are those the target audience watches.
Unfortunately, public communication campaigns frequently rely on donated media
time and messages are shown at times when few members of the target audience are
watching (Flay & Burton, 1990).
The effectiveness of a message begins on contact with the receiver
as the viewer immediately begins to construct the meaning of the message
(semantic processing). The antiviolence PSAs tested in this study are part of a
multi-million dollar battle over meaning. Antiviolence PSAs struggle to realign
the meanings of violence, male identity, handgun use, gangs and numerous other
interrelated concepts in the mind of the violence-prone adolescent. The ability
of antiviolence messages to influence beliefs about violence and violent
behavior largely will be decided by how receivers construct the meaning of the
messages and how that relates to the meanings the receivers assign to
themselves, people around them such as peers and family, certain behaviors such
as gang membership, and certain artifacts such as guns.
A communication message is not simply "received," it is extracted,
inferred, worked on, and constructed in the minds of different target audiences.
The viewer's internal representation of the imagery of the antiviolence
commercials, with its depictions of gangs, guns, and risk-taking youths, can be
mapped. The meaning can be represented by networks of semantic nodes and
markers. The audience member always "reads into" the message. Using the
literature on schema use, Biocca (1991) postulates a set of schematic frames
where various components of the meaning of a television message are calculated.
These include the possible world frame, agent frame, narrative frame, discursive
frame, point-of-view frame, ideological frame, and self-schematic frame.
Schematic Processing of PSAs
The vast majority of antiviolence PSAs are designed to appeal to a
target audience of young, violence-prone (or high risk) adolescent males. To
successfully reach this target audience and potentially influence attitudes and
subsequent behavior patterns, PSAs must be designed to appeal to the intended
audience members within the basic "frames" represented in the Biocca model of
how schematic processing of mass communication messages may occur within
individual audience members:
1. Use of appropriate setting (or "possible world" frames) -
involves the selection of a physical environment or location that target
audiences will relate to or identify with as being familiar or consistent with
their own environment.
2. Use of appropriate actors/characters (or "actantial" frames) -
includes selecting cast members, roles for the cast members, and behavior
patterns for the cast members that are consistent with the typical demographic
composition, occupations/interests, and actions of target audience members.
The selection of celebrity spokespersons should also follow similar general
3. Use of appropriate themes (or "discursive" frames) - involves the
presentation of pertinent messages and information within themes that convey
messages effectively and are readily recognized and clearly interpreted by
target audience members.
4. Use of appropriate viewpoints (or "point(s) of view") - involves
representing each character (perpetrator, victim, observer, etc.) and the
audience members from a particular vantage point (1st, 2nd, 3rd person, etc.) in
order to maximize the impact and effectiveness of the messages being delivered.
5. Use of appropriate events (or "narrative" frames) - involves
selecting and portraying specific types of events, with specific outcomes or
consequences, that will most readily lend themselves to accurately and
effectively expressing pertinent messages for target audience members.
6. Use of appropriate overall world view (or "ideological" frames) -
involves selecting a general statement about the world that best supports or
reinforces the message that is being conveyed to the target audience members.
7. Use of appropriate means for audience identification with message
(or "self-schematic" frames) - involves selecting attributes or elements to
incorporate within the PSA that will allow for individual audience members to
personally relate to or identify with the images and messages being depicted.
Successful persuasive messages will incorporate content elements
that appeal to target audiences within several or all of these frames. For the
qualitative studies, this model served as a supplemental guide to the McGuire
approach for assessing communication campaign effectiveness.
The Qualitative Studies
In these particular studies, a qualitative approach was adopted to
examine reactions that the antiviolence PSAs triggered in various adolescent
audiences. Two separate studies were conducted to assess responses to varying
sources and messages in a sample of PSAs. Responses were evaluated primarily in
terms of attention to, interest in, and semantic processing of the PSAs. In
Study 1, students from a central North Carolina training school were shown a
randomly selected set of 12 PSAs and were interviewed one-on-one to learn how
each PSA was interpreted and how sources were perceived. In Study 2, students
from a middle school in the same region of North Carolina were shown the same
PSAs and also were interviewed one-on-one.
In addition to the one-on-one interviews, responses were also drawn
from group interviews conducted with students from each of the two schools. The
comments from the group interviews are included in the analysis.
The basic research questions addressed in the current study involved
the issue of semantic processing of each antiviolence PSA, and more specifically
how processing of the messages took place among individual audience members
within two distinct groups of adolescents. The principal research questions
1. How are the PSAs received and understood by "target" audiences?
2. Are the sources used in the antiviolence PSAs perceived as
competent and trustworthy by adolescent viewers?
3. Does the form of the PSA affect interest and comprehension?
4. Do audiences' interpretations and comprehension serve or
undermine the attitudinal goals of the campaigns?
Both studies (1 & 2) used the same methodology. They are described
together here, although the analyses were conducted separately.
Study 1 Participants: Training School Students. Antiviolence
messages will have the greatest social value if they can interest and influence
young viewers who have a history of violence or who, as a group, have an above
average probability of committing violence. Eight students from a Durham, North
Carolina training school (a high security correctional facility designed for
incarcerating and educating adolescents who are convicted of violent crimes or
other felonious offenses) participated in Study 1. Of this group, 70% have
been committed to the training school for violent crimes (murder, non-negligent
manslaughter, forcible rape, armed robbery, aggravated assault), 49% have been
adjudicated for other person offenses (negligent manslaughter, simple assault,
sexual assault), and 30% for property crimes (burglary, arson, larceny, forgery,
counterfeiting). The students interviewed in Study 1 were all male, with an
average age of 15.3 years old, who had spent an average of 11.5 months in the
Study 2 Participants: Middle School Students. Middle school
students are also an important part of the target population for the
antiviolence messages, as many of them fall into the demographic category most
likely to commit violence. In Study 2, 14 students from a public middle or
"intermediate" school in central North Carolina (Githens Middle School, Durham
NC) participated. Nine male and 5 female middle school students were
interviewed. They were generally younger (average age 12.9 years old) than the
Apparatus: Stimulus materials: Antiviolence PSAs. The studies were
conducted using a randomly drawn sample of television antiviolence PSAs. The
PSAs were selected from a stratified pool of 89 PSAs collected from various
media-related organizations, including several cable television networks.
Students at the two schools were shown a tape containing the random sample. For
the one-on-one interviews, the middle school students viewed six PSAs selected
from 12 random orders, and the training school students viewed 12 PSAs at a time
out of six random orders. The number of PSAs viewed at the training school was
increased because the middle-school students (who completed the study before the
training school students) had shown no sign of fatigue when responding to six
PSAs. For the group interviews, the students at both schools viewed a total of
15 PSAs in two random orders. A description of each of the PSAs used in the
studies can be found in Appendix 1, along with a sampling of individual
adolescent responses to them.
The first five PSAs featured a "narrative" approach or
format--delivering their central message through depicting a specific story.
The remaining 10 PSAs incorporated a "testimonial" format--enlisting celebrities
or other noteworthy figures to deliver antiviolence messages.
Other apparatus. Students viewed the antiviolence PSAs on a 19-inch
video monitor. During the one-on-one interviews, a camcorder was used to record
each viewer's reactions to and explanations of the PSAs. Back-lighting and
silhouettes were used to preserve the anonymity of the respondents. Students'
reactions also were recorded on audio-cassette tapes.
Procedure. More than three days before the studies, students
completed a questionnaire that measured demographics, media use, probability
assessment of risk, beliefs about aggression, and past violent behavior. Each
student and his/her parent and/or guardian had previously provided informed
Students entered the interview room on the day of the study and were
greeted by the interviewer, who provided verbal instructions about the study.
After the student viewed each antiviolence PSA, the interviewer paused the tape.
Participants were then asked open-ended questions about the PSAs' characters and
sources, the sequence of actions, and their interpretation of the PSA. Where
appropriate, the interviewer added additional questions to clarify or probe the
viewer's responses. All responses were audio- and videotaped. In both school
settings, an assistant was also in the room during the interview to help the
interviewer with equipment and taping.
_Qualitative analysis. A total of 350 pages of transcripts of the
one-on-one and group interviews were reviewed. Comments on the PSAs were
organized by PSA and respondent ID number. In the analyses reported here,
direct quotes from the interview participants are identified by randomly
selected names assigned to each student. The names were adopted strictly as an
aid in distinguishing between respondents, and have no relationship to the
respondents' real names.
Study 1: Training School Students
The training school students, although initially somewhat reticent
given their currently restricted and closely monitored lives, were remarkably
candid in their assessments of the PSAs. An evaluation of their responses was
conducted by examining reactions to the celebrities and/or central figures in
the testimonial PSAs, and then analyzing how the form of the messages and other
factors affected response and comprehension.
Sources. Some sources were perceived as more credible than others
by the training school viewers. Several of the celebrity sources, such as
Gloria Estefan and Derrick Coleman, weren't even recognized by most of the
viewers. Other sources, like Samuel Jackson, were considered untrustworthy
because they have either portrayed violent characters or have participated in
The most credible sources, in general, were perceived as similar in
age and interests/activities to the training school audience. Sources were also
considered trustworthy if they had either always been for peace, or could be
trusted to speak against violence out of personal conviction rather than
financial gain. Trustworthy sources included Chuck D and Redman:
(group response) "Well he (Chuck D) is (credible) 'cause he has
always been about 'stop the violence' from day one."
(group) "He (Redman) is legit, man."
Demographic similarity. The age and gender of the sources did make a
difference in both recognition and attention to the messages' sources. The
training school viewers were most likely to recognize and relate to testimonials
by younger (e.g., Chuck D, Redman) rather than older (e.g., President Clinton,
Samuel Jackson) celebrities. The gender of the sources also made a difference.
Probably because they live in an all-male environment, the training school
viewers especially liked hearing from and looking at female celebrities (e.g.,
Salt & Pepa, Brownstone), as two of the respondents noted:
(Tom) "Yea (I would watch)...for one it had some females on there
and they were kind of cute."
(Jim) "Anyone would pay attention to that right there...that is Salt
n' Pepa right there."
But the physical appeal of certain female spokespersons may also
have had a negative effect on attention to the message itself:
(Tom) "They were females--I would look at (it) just to look at
them--I didn't really pay any attention to what they were saying."
Music as a professional role. Celebrities who engaged in respected
musical genres attracted more attention than those who did not. For example,
rap artists scored high on both interest and arousal among training school
students, who frequently indicated a preference for rap music. When asked how to
make an effective PSA, the students responded with:
(group) "I'll...make a rap out of it man."
(group) "I'd put a little video together, and a couple of rappers
together...like a rap song."
But not just any rap will draw attention or be judged as credible.
Although well-known rap artists (Chuck D, Redman) earned high scores among
respondents who liked rap music, lesser-known (and perhaps less talented) rap
artists (as in "Somewhere in America") were not as well received:
(group) "No, he can't rap."
(Adam) "He ain't nobody I'd look up to or nothin' like that."
(Tom) "The way he was doing it was just whack [poorly done]."
(group) "He thinking that just because everyone listen to rap,
they'll listen to what he's saying."
The athlete and politician celebrities were not well-received. Few
of the respondents recognized basketball star Derrick Coleman, and those who did
suggested that he might not be an appropriate antiviolence spokesperson--because
of his desire for financial gain and his overall attitude and behavior:
(Bill) "He got the money, he got the shoes, he got so much money
(Mike) "He seemed like the type of person that's out there doing
violence by himself."
President Clinton was sometimes laughed at by the training school
students, who saw him as hypocritical and doing too little to solve problems:
(group) "He fake man. He fake...He just doing this 'cause he the
president. He lied to get in the president spot."
(group) "I believe he probably doing some of the same stuff we used
to do in the crib [at home]..."
(group [sarcastically]) "I smoked pot, but I didn't inhale it."
(group) "Besides killing, all the stuff we used to do at the crib, I
believe he do the same thing, man."
(group) "He don't know what's going on. I believe he can do more
than what he's supposed to be doing, anyway."
Celebrity actors who have portrayed violent characters were also
suspect. Many of the respondents appreciated Samuel Jackson's message, but
suggested that actors who play violent roles in television and film are being
hypocritical when they offer antiviolence messages:
(Mike) "In the movies I see...he out there...with guns and
everything. Regardless if it's fake or not, they're still broadcasting
violence...to me he out there demonstrating violence and at the same time...he
telling people to stop the violence...he's confusing people that's watching
these movies and these commercials or whatever."
Actors also were considered hypocrites because they are frequently
involved in behaviors in their personal lives that run contrary to the messages
they are trying to convey:
(group) "...trying to stress a point to us saying no to drugs, then
the next thing you know, you hear about them in the news...they caught selling
In sum, the celebrity sources got mixed reviews. The celebrities
who were similar demographically and shared musical tastes with the respondents
were more readily recognized and listened to. Even favorite celebrities were
not credible, however, if they had portrayed or participated in violence or
related activities, or were suspected of being paid for saying the right thing.
Message form and comprehension. Both the testimonial and narrative
PSAs had positive and negative characteristics, depending on specific content
elements and audience variables. In general, narratives were more likely to be
well-received, but also were more vulnerable to misinterpretation. Testimonials,
on the other hand, were not as interesting, but their messages appeared to be
more clearly understood and recalled.
Narrative PSAs. Narrative PSAs attracted and engaged the training
school viewers. The viewers were aroused by the action taking place, and often
recounted the individual stories and recalled specific details. The respondents
frequently related the narrative stories to experiences in their own lives and
referred to real-life violence that paralleled the narrative images. Students
from the training school reacted to the narrative PSAs Stray Bullet and Et Tu
Brutus with the following comments:
(Joe) "I can relate to that, I can picture one of my family members
that...young getting shot."
(group) "I know an incident that happened and the baby got killed--I
can relate to that."
(group) "We were all out playing having fun. And it went off, and
went through the van, and shot a little girl in the back."
(Mike) "I know a few people...I have a few friends and family
members shot...in my family, I have two that were shot and killed ... I have
about four or five that were shot at..."
Although the narratives maintained the attention of viewers and the
stories were often recalled, the relative "openness" of the narrative form
allowed frequent misinterpretation by the target audiences. The individual
interviews revealed several cases where training school respondents had
extracted different or "unintended" meanings from the PSAs, or had decoded pro-
rather than antiviolence messages. For example, a number of viewers of Brutus
didn't see that the perpetrator was the same person as the victim until it was
pointed out during a second viewing.
Viewers of Stray Bullet didn't agree on whose gun the boy was
playing with or whether anyone was killed in the end, and some viewers thought
the message was that parents should keep their guns out of reach of their
children, while fewer thought the message was they shouldn't have guns in the
(group) "Don't leave gun around kids. If you gonna have it, don't
leave your gun around kids."
Some other respondents thought the message was simply that "a bullet
has no name" and that even innocent children can get killed.
The training school viewers also drew on their personal experience
to critique the PSAs' depictions of guns and/or violent confrontations. A
number of the training school students who viewed Stray Bullet were skeptical
that a bullet could do what that particular bullet did:
(Mike) "I doubt if it would ricochet and go that far."
(group) "I don't think a bullet can travel that far."
They also thought the depiction of a boy walking away from a fight
in the school hall in the Locker Slam PSA was unrealistic:
(Chris) "If somebody come bumps against me when I'm in school...I'm
gonna do something about it."
(Tom) "It ain't in my nature to walk away--I've been used to
fighting. That's all I know to do is fight. If I want to fight, I'm going to
Training school respondents frequently focused on peripheral rather
than central themes. For example, comments from the students after seeing the
Stray Bullet and These Walls PSAs included:
(Ted) "They want us to put the gun down--but they were showing how
to load it up."
(Mike) "That's a fine .38...I ain't never had a .38...Yeah, I might
use...I want to check out...something like that when I get out."
The two PSAs with the clearest storylines (Stray Bullet and Et Tu
Brutus) may also have been misinterpreted because they incorporated the same
production techniques and styles as full-length programs and films. The
sophisticated narrative structure and production techniques appeared to have
reminded viewers of action adventure movies designed purely for entertainment;
thus, they did not process what they viewed as information. One training school
student, commenting on Et Tu Brutus, said:
(Chris) "...maybe if you was just seeing it, you'd think they got a
new movie out...they could have taken it as kinda like a new gangsta movie."
Testimonial PSAs. Despite the varying interest in specific sources
discussed previously, the messages of the celebrities were frequently and
clearly recalled by the training school respondents. This was true even in
cases where the respondents were disinterested in or even critical of individual
celebrities. In contrast to the narrative PSAs, the straight-forward,
informative approach of the testimonials left a more precise impression on the
respondents--much less subject to misinterpretation. However, the viewers were
typically less involved or moved by the messages.
The training school students did appear to be especially sensitive
to depictions and discussion about families. They appreciated celebrities like
Salt & Pepa noting that families are often hurt by violence:
(Tom) "We need to think about our mother...and all that will come
down on her...or the next man's mother."
(Chris) "I liked the idea that families getting close."
In contrast, however, the same viewers were matter-of-fact about the
violent crime statistics presented in the celebrity spots, and often were
skeptical that such messages could be expected to reduce violence:
(Tom) "I don't really get no message--it's just like the rest of
them...Stop the violence."
(Chris) "No man, that ain't effective. I ain't gonna try and hear
it, you know what I'm saying."
Effectiveness of production methods. Production techniques appeared
to help emphasize mood and character of some of the antiviolence messages. The
use of quick edits, for example, appealed to the younger "music video"
generation. But over-editing sometimes resulted in poor understanding of
message themes, as can be seen by these reactions to the Derrick Coleman PSA:
(group) "Too quick times two...can't get any of it."
(Bill) "He said it so quick, I didn't understand it."
(Chris) "I don't know man...the thing went by so fast."
Others took little notice of the production techniques, and simply
dismissed television's role as neither part of the problem:
(Tom) "Hey-- teenagers ain't at home. They out in somebody's
neighborhood at a party or something-- trying to have fun. They ain't at home
looking at no TV."
(group) "Yeah, most of them don't even look at the TV...not that
(group) "Violence--some people get it off television. Some people
are just violent."
...nor the solution:
(group) "They can make commercials, regardless, people still going
to do what they want to do." (group) "Cause people going to do what they want to
do regardless of what somebody say. People see the commercials all day and go
out and shoot somebody, it don't make no difference."
Study 2: Middle School Students
Middle school students in general were both interested in and often
frightened by what they viewed in the PSAs. Frequently they noted little
similarity between themselves and the sources or the situations depicted, and
suggested that most of the portrayals were inconsistent with their own personal
Sources. The middle school students responded most favorably to
celebrity spokespersons who were similar to them in age or interests/activities.
They also appeared to be rather receptive to messages from celebrities who were
involved in professional endeavors (such as performing rap music) that the
viewers were not necessarily interested in or familiar with. Some spokespersons
were viewed by the students as being sincere but inappropriate for the messages
they were delivering, while others were perceived as hypocritical or
Demographic similarity. The middle school viewers tended to favor
the testimonials by younger rather than older celebrities:
(Susan [commenting on Zlata]) "...I think she touched us, because
she's like...I think she's a teenager. Since she's a very young person giving
us the message, we would probably understand it better."
Music and roles. Musical acts generally were well received by the
middle school viewers, even though few of the respondents indicated being
familiar with or interested in rap or R&B music during the interviews:
(Diane) "I don't particularly like rap. But it still did catch my
Unfamiliarity with the genre did, however, occasionally contribute
to difficulty in understanding the message:
(John) "I don't listen to rap music. I'd have to listen to it twice
before I caught all of what he's saying."
Among the other celebrity endorsers, few of the middle school
respondents recognized basketball star Derrick Coleman, and those who did were
not sure that he was a particularly good antiviolence spokesperson:
(group) "Lots of times they do it for money."
(Michelle) "He looks sort of big and violent to me..."
President Clinton was fairly well-respected by the middle school
viewers, but even viewers who felt the President was a credible spokesperson
("He's very dedicated to improving our country. He really wants to make things
change") thought a "real person" would be more effective:
(John) "I mean, sometimes when you think of the president, you don't
think that a real person-- you think that he's just there...you just think that
if it was a common person you could really relate to it like an average
Samuel Jackson , the lone actor in the sample PSAs, was generally
viewed by the middle school viewers as sincere in his message, but some
perceived him as being hypocritical or disinterested: (Cathy) "A person that's
against violence. Good talker, that's all."
(group) "They may be saying don't do drugs, but then they may be
actually involved in it." Message Form and Comprehension. The middle school
students appeared to be generally receptive to both narrative and testimonial
approaches. They often noted that the narrative depictions were both arousing
and frightening, though frequently unfamiliar in terms of setting or situations.
The testimonials were viewed as being perhaps less exciting, but offering useful
and memorable information.
Narrative PSAs. The middle school viewers generally were aroused by
the action taking place, and were often able to discuss specific details of the
narrative PSAs. The respondents also appeared quite interested in the narrative
storylines, but were not likely to draw comparisons between the PSA characters
and their own life experiences. Sometimes they relied on stereotypes to fill in
for lack of experience:
(_Mark [commenting on Et Tu Brutus]) "These people who were playing
basketball they looked like gang members. I'm not trying to stereotype, but by
the way they looked, they were curious."
Although not living in a totally crime-free environment, the
students were unable to identify with the violent scenes or locations depicted
or discussed in the narrative PSAs. Often they relied on their perceptions of
what a crime-ridden area might look like. Comments on the Et Tu Brutus and
These Walls PSAs included:
(Tracy) "I guess there's a pretty big chance (of seeing violence
occurring) in one of the broken down places, or junkier places, like there
where gangs like to hang out."
(Jennifer) "If I maybe go to the wrong neighborhood..."
(John) "The reason I can't relate to any of these is because it
looked like a place like New York."
For some of the middle school students, the fear appeals in
narrative PSAs such as Et Tu Brutus proved to be powerful--and may have even
been a bit overwhelming:
(Michelle) "It's really, actually really scary....it was really,
The narrative form also resulted in different or misinterpretations
by the middle school audience. For example, some of the viewers of Stray Bullet
thought the message was that parents shouldn't have guns around the house in the
first place, while others thought that it just meant parents should keep their
guns out of reach of their children:
(Kim) "That you should take better care of your gun or guns if you
have them, and keep them in a safe place where children can't get a hold of
them." Other misinterpretations of the messages also occurred. One student
inadvertently referred to a narrative PSA as a "movie":
(Mark) "Kids watch these movies and try to do the same thing."
Some of the middle school students were also critical of the themes
depicted in the narratives, as several respondents thought the depiction of the
boy walking away from a fight in the school hall in Locker Slam was unrealistic:
(John) "It's just not realistic...he wouldn't be happy if he was
confronted by a bully that was going to turn his face into mush."
However, several students did agree with the PSA's message:
(Susan) "I wouldn't get in a fight...I would definitely walk
away." Testimonials. Although the middle school students did not relate
personally to many of the celebrity spokespersons, they sometimes recalled the
messages of the celebrities verbatim. Several of the respondents were able to
remember the specific statistical data presented by celebrities, and appeared
genuinely impressed by the violent crime figures cited in some testimonial PSAs:
(Michelle) "The facts are really scary. I mean the fact that there
is a new...gun (manufactured) every 20 seconds is really scary."
(Patricia) "They said that over 900,000 handgun crimes were
committed last year..."
(Diane) "I think it's really startling that every 20 seconds someone
is injured by a handgun..."
Effectiveness of production methods. Several viewers reacted to the
use of certain production techniques in the PSAs. They sometimes appeared to be
affected by the incorporation of such elements as lighting and sound effects,
like those used in the These Walls PSA:
(Susan) "...the background light, very dim, and the sound effects,
make it very effective."
(Diane) "It was a good voice--fairly deep, and deep voices gain more
The use of quick "music video" edits was also appealing to most
middle school students; however, the over-editing of some PSAs--such as the
Derrick Coleman testimonial--resulted in poor reception of message themes:
(Denise) "He's saying the right thing (but) I think it might have
been too short."
The training school responses show that the students are selective
in terms of the sources they respect and the types of PSAs they are more likely
to respond to. Younger male and female musical artists (particularly rap
artists) received the most interest and attention. Several of sources were
considered hypocritical for having financial incentives or having previous
involvement in violent or antisocial activities.
Narratives appeared to be more appealing to the training school
students than testimonials, although message interpretation was clearest for the
testimonials. Many of the students were able to relate to the narrative PSAs
from personal experiences, but most were also pessimistic about the potential
effectiveness of these PSAs--as several respondents indicated that the solutions
being offered were unrealistic, and that the problem of violence comes from
sources other than television portrayals.
The middle school responses indicated that although sources are
important in attracting interest and attention, similarity is not the only
necessary attribute. The students were interested in many of the messages, even
those that featured celebrities involved in activities they were not familiar
with. They were also, however, suspicious of the motives of some spokespersons
who they thought might be speaking for the wrong reasons.
The middle school students were impressed with the severity of the
problem as presented by the statistics in some of the testimonials. Apparently,
however, these PSAs spoke less directly to this audience about themselves and
more about others who they perceive as more likely to be involved in violence.
Only the PSA featuring kids in school, Locker Slam, invoked any projection of
self into the situation--but this PSA was frequently seen as presenting an
unrealistic solution to a real-world dilemma.
The studies reveal that effective construction of persuasive
communication messages requires incorporating content elements that appeal to
audience members' individual frames of reference. For some audience members,
attention to and recall of messages may be heavily influenced by the degree to
which target audience members can relate to the sources used to send selected
prosocial messages, and the storylines that are used to depict potentially
violent situations. There is some evidence that for some specific audience
groups (such as young convicted felons), identification with characters or
message deliverers is more critical to message effectiveness than for other
groups. However, overall it appears that most adolescents relate better to
message sources and situations that are familiar to them.
The results suggest that producers of antiviolence PSAs should
evaluate their target audiences more comprehensively and incorporate sources and
content elements that are similar to the individual characteristics and
reference frames of target audience members. In addition, successful messages
will be designed with clear, straight-forward messages that openly depict the
potential consequences of violent behavior and/or offer realistic alternatives
The effectiveness of the antiviolence PSAs may be improved if they
are submitted to formative evaluation and testing before they are aired.
Qualitative testing clearly detected several uninteresting, ambiguous, and
confusing PSAs and ineffective message sources. These less effective PSAs might
have used valuable airtime that could have been used by more effective ads.
Campaigns should also decrease heavy reliance on celebrity
endorsements. Although some celebrity endorsers caught the attention of the
audience, they were rarely more effective than narrative ads and sometimes their
physical attractiveness or lack of credibility or recognition often distracted
from or undermined the central message. Antiviolence PSAs should also avoid
using celebrities who have been associated with violence in their work or
personal lives, as their image may contradict the antiviolence message.
Communication campaign planners should consider producing more
messages that portray outcomes of violent behavior such as injury, the death of
innocent victims, or negative consequences for members of the perpetrator's
family. These consequences may be more disturbing and effective with adolescent
audiences than the possibility of death of people like themselves.
Messages should also incorporate examples of specific, concrete,
feasible behaviors that adolescents can adopt to reduce their likelihood of
engaging in violence. Appendix 1.
Tables 1.1 -1.15: A Summary of the Individual PSAs and a Sampling of
Table 1.1: Before and After Hospital
A teen gang leader is shown dancing at a party (before) and lying
paralyzed in a hospital bed (after). Captions tell that he was felled by a
single gunshot wound. He whispers, "It's hard. It's hard."
Male; 16-25 years old; victim and perpetrator
Training School: (group) "...If you're paralyzed...you gotta
suffer...he paralyzed...can't do nothing." (group) "Can't get out and do what
you want to do...you just got to be around the house looking stupid."
Table 1.2: Et Tu Brutus
Teens play basketball on a city street. Car drives up, assailant
with handgun jumps out, chases and corners one. Assailant's hood slides off and
teen is staring at himself. James Earl Jones voice-over: "Stop. You're only
Male; 16-25 years old; victim and perpetrator
Fear/ personal danger
Training school: (Chris) "Oh yeah, I've seen a lot of that
man." (Bill) "It affected my attention (because) it reminded me of how me and
some of the guys used to stand on the street."
Middle School: (Michelle) "They made it look really bad...this one I
Table 1.3: Locker Slam
Boy in school hall is deliberately bumped by another. Color turns
neon as imagined fight begins and victim pulls knife. Scene returns to normal as
victim decides to "Pick up my books and walk away."
Male; about 15 years old; victim
(group) "Ain't realistic, somebody bump into you like that, it won't
be that much talking."
(group)"If you let people just walk over you like that, they are
going to try it every day."
(Susan) "I wouldn't get in a fight...I would definitely walk away."
Table 1.4: Stray Bullet
Boy playing with gun fires shot. Camera tracks bullet speeding down
street, smashing car windows and a TV set in a living room and zeroing in on a
babbling baby in a high chair.
Training school: (Joe) "What if that had been me...and my little son
or nephew ...got hit by a stray bullet...don't know what I'd have did."
(Jim) "That one right there make you think right now, the way they
shot that little baby."
Middle school: (Kim) "It was really effective...it got my attention."
(Tracy) "Yeah, it sounds (like) a good message...that it hurts
Table 1.5: These Walls Have No Prejudice
Camera pans over bodies in morgue as Leonard Nimoy (voice-over)
recites statistics on gun violence, notes that guns are "everybody's problem."
Ends with a shadowy figure firing at viewer.
Multiple; all ages; all races; narrator is male, 40-60 years old
Fear/ personal danger
Training school: (Joe) "It affected me a little bit." (Chris) "That's
a fat commercial...I like that."
Middle School: (Jen) "It's scary...I think it's a good piece, very
effective." (Susan) "It looked scary, and that really warned me more than all
the videos I've been seeing."
Table 1.6: Brownstone
Members of musical group tell viewers to "Take control, stop the
violence and give peace a chance." Scene of them sitting alternates with rapid
graphics, statistics on gun violence.
Females; 16-25 years old; celebrity
Training school: (Chris) "Yeah, they well...to me they tough." (Adam)
"You see how many numbers that was...that's a lot of people got killed."
Middle School: (Michelle) "I think they are a rap group, but I'm not
sure." (Tracy) "I'm familiar with them, but I don't listen to them."
Table 1.7: Chuck D
Leader of Public Enemy (rap group) on street corner: "A gun don't
make you hard, bucking the odds make you hard. ... Do this for our community."
Male; 26-40 years old; celebrity
Friendly advice; racial pride
Training school: (group) "Yeah, I believe him...he convincing
anyway." (group) "Yeah, he (is) telling the truth."
Table 1.8: Bill Clinton
Clinton, in office, says federal government is doing its job to try
to stop crime. "You have to do your part too ... our country, our problem. Let's
solve it together." Ends with VAV Week logo.
Male; 40-60 years old; authority figure
Self-help/ reform; affiliation/ community
Training school: (group) "He don't know what's going on." (Chris) "He
(is) just putting on a act. He ain't trying to help nobody." (Joe) "He (is) in
a higher position. I'm in a lower position than you ever want to be in."
Middle School: (John) "Well, the President is just like some person
who is just a figure."
Table 1.9: Derrick Coleman
Basketball player tells viewers, "To increase the peace, start with
yourself. Stay strong."
Male; 26-40; sports celebrity
Training school: (group) "Naw, he said that he was talking 'cause
they paid him to do it." (group) "Too short man...he didn't really say
Middle School: (Cathy) "They (the facts) go by too fast. You can't
even see them because they go by too fast." (Denise) "...Don't think it's as
effective as the others."
Table 1.10: Gloria Estefan
Musician tells viewers to stop the violence. Scene of her sitting in
chair is intercut with rapid graphics, statistics on gun violence.
Female; 26-40 years old; celebrity
Training school: (group) "(It's) more for (a) Latin audience...down
in Miami." (group) "Ain't never heard of it (her music)."
Middle School: (Michelle) "I really don't know anything about
her." (Denise) "I don't know her...I think the message she's spreading is good."
Table 1.11: Samuel Jackson
Jackson (sitting on chair in studio) talks about difference between
movie violence, real violence. "Violence doesn't solve anything. Think about
Male; 30-50 years old; celebrity
Training school: (group) "They might be just doing it for the
money." (Chris) "Yeah, he probably do the same thing (drugs), just a
front." (Ted) "It's good because some people see movies...and try the same
Middle School: (group) "Lots of times they do it for money." (Denise)
"I think he is a good person to say it because he is in a lot of violent
Table 1.12: Redman
Rap artist talks about violence. Shots of him alternate with
fast-moving graphics, statistics on gun violence. "Numbers don't lie." Some
segments appear shot in a jail.
Male; 16-25 years old; celebrity
Training school: (group) "Hey, I'd listen to Redman. I'd rather hear
him talk than anyone else."
(group) "Yeah...he's alright."
Table 1.13: Salt & Pepa
Musicians tell viewers, "Think about the mothers. Brothers, please
stop the violence." Shots of them are intercut with fast-moving graphics,
statistics on gun violence.
Females; 26-40 years old; celebrities
Training school: (group) "The music was alright and the message was
alright, too." (group) "I like them...they look good."
Middle School: (Tracy) "I think they were rap stars. I don't really
listen to rap, but I think I've heard them." (Denise) "I like them. I don't
really like the kind of music they sing...I think it (the message) was pretty
Table 1.14: Somewhere in America (rapper)
Rapper walks down hallway. Excerpt: "Men used to fight like men. Now
everybody owns a Mac 10. Be for peace; take it to the street; gotta look at life
in a whole new light."
Male; 16-25 years old; non-celebrity
Training school: (Tom) "The rapping just caught my attention more
than the rest of them." (Chris) "He shouldn't try to rap to us..."
Middle School: (group) "I don't know (him), he's just a person that
knows how to rap." (Diane) "I think it would (get) the attention of a lot of
people who like rap. I don't particularly like rap, but it still did catch my
Table 1.15: Zlata - America is great
Girl from war-ravaged Sarajevo whose diary was published sits on a
beach and tells viewers to "think before they do things" and "give peace a
Female; 16-25 years old; victim
Training school: (group) "Hey, it don't excite me, man." (group)
"Kind of boring to me." (Jim) "I probably won't listen to it." (Tom) "She was
telling the truth. She was talking about America...we need to stop the
Middle School: (Tracy) "I think it sort of gives the message pretty
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A QUALITATIVE ANALYSIS OF ADOLESCENT REACTIONS TO TELEVISION
ANTIVIOLENCE PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENTS: DO ANTIVIOLENCE PSAS MAKE THE GRADE
WITH YOUNG MURDERERS, RAPISTS, FELONS AND OTHER STUDENTS
A paper submitted to the Mass Communication and Society Division of
the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Annual
Center For Research in Journalism and Mass Communication
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Howell Hall, CB#3365
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3365
(919) 962 - 0218
[log in to unmask]
The purpose of this research is to assess the effectiveness of the
broadcast and cable television industry's current antiviolence PSAs in reaching
their target audiences and affecting attitude changes. Qualitative analyses
were conducted of adolescent reactions to a random sample of the industry's more
recent antiviolence PSAs. In two separate studies, in-depth interviews were
used to elicit responses regarding attention to and interest in various sources
and messages, and to evaluate semantic processing of the sample PSAs among a
group of incarcerated, violence-prone adolescents and a group of middle school
In general, target audiences responded more favorably to narrative
PSAs. However, narrative messages were frequently unfamiliar, unrealistic or
misinterpreted. The respondents found many celebrity testimonials to be
hypocritical, but did favor some younger, musically-inclined spokespersons.