Research & Insights

If She Can See Herself, She’ll Do It

If you’re running a campaign designed to get people–such as young girls–to undergo health screenings, your chances of success increase when members of the target audience see themselves properly represented in ads calling on them to take action.

According to Dr. Jennifer Vardeman-Winter, an assistant professor in the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, University of Houston, when that happens, people are more likely to do what they’re being asked.

Vardeman-Winter’s conclusions were based on her examination of the effectiveness of Merck’s “I wanna be one less” campaign that encouraged young girls to undergo screening and get vaccinated to prevent HPV (Human Papillomavirus), a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cancer. For her study, which appears in the July 2010 issue of Public Relations Review, Vardeman-Winter interviewed 39 girls, 13- to 18-years-old who culturally and geographically represented the groups the campaign was targeting.

Over the course of the campaign, commercials (like the one below) featured a diverse mix of girls–meant to represent the target audience–taking part in activities that ranged from soccer to skateboarding to swimming.

Vardeman-Winter’s interview subjects told her the effort succeeded when they felt the ads accurately represented how they see themselves, and not just how they looked physically, but how they were described, including accomplishments in their lives.

As Lisa (a study participant) said: “I consider myself a hard worker and into hobbies and activities. I think they definitely are like my demographic.'”

Vardeman-Winter’s findings are echoed in another study that showed why campaigns designed to encourage African-American women to take preventive measures aimed at slowing the spread of HIV had little effect on reducing infection rates.

In her study, strategic Communications researcher Tiphane P. Turpin of Georgetown University found that the women being targeted didn’t like the fact that they were being singled out or that they were being addressed in ways that made them uncomfortable or that they felt reinforced cultural stereotypes.

Said Turpin: “black American women experienced multiple constraints in seeking and processing information in HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns. Their cultural identity as defined by race and a number of other characteristics (age, gender, socio economic status) (are) a primary constraint defining their experience hearing or seeing HIV/AIDS-prevention messages.”

So, to help your campaign succeed, invest in understanding how your audience sees themselves, and reflect that back to them.

Public Relations Review, July 2010

Jennifer Vardeman-Winter
University Of Houston

Posted: October 17, 2014
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