MU Study Shows Adolescents More Affected Emotionally, Intellectually by Fear-Based Commercials Than Adults

Researchers Hope Findings Lead to Changes in Substance Abuse, Anti-Smoking Commercials

MU News Bureau

Columbia, Mo. (March 8, 2006) — A common strategy used in commercials to promote healthy behavior is fear. For example, anti-smoking campaigns have used vivid images depicting damage to the lungs caused by smoking. Now, a new study by a Missouri School of Journalism professor finds that adolescents react more intensely and emotionally to these commercials than young adults. The researchers believe these findings may lead to recommendations for the design of more effective messages promoting healthy behavior.

PRIME Lab Facility
Electrodes placed on facial muscles measure negative emotional responses. Above, Bolls ensures the electrodes on a test subject’s face are providing adequate connections to monitoring equipment.

Paul Bolls, co-director of the Psychological Research on Information and Media Effects (PRIME) Lab, divided participants into two groups: adults 22 to 24 years old and adolescents 12 to 14 years old. Each participant viewed six 30-second substance abuse commercials. Commercials, which were in random order, portrayed different severity levels of health threats. Electrodes were placed on facial muscles to measure negative emotional responses. Attention, which was defined as the amount of mental effort participants expended to decipher the messages, was measured by taking participants’ heart rates.

Bolls found the adolescents had a greater emotional response to threatening messages than the young adults. Bolls said the emotional response was particularly noticeable during seconds 9 to 27 of the commercial. During that time frame in the commercial, concrete consequences of substance abuse were depicted.

“These more intense emotional reactions by adolescents can be due to less developed pathways in their brain for regulating emotional response,” Bolls said. “Less ability to regulate the emotional response evoked by a threat means adolescents must increase the amount of work their brain must do to understand the threat.”

In terms of heart rate, which decelerates as attention to a message increases, adolescents experienced greater cardiac deceleration during messages in comparison to adults. Bolls said the biological reason for the deceleration is because of an increase in parasympathetic nervous system activity that quiets or slows the heart, allowing it to take in information from an environment. He said this increased level of attention is due to the high threat level.

“Adolescents allocated more mental effort than adults to understand the messages but employed more effort for messages that were of very high threat,” Bolls said.

The data Bolls collected in this experiment is being used to launch a series of experiments on how to design effective substance abuse prevention messages for different age groups.

Updated: April 8, 2020

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