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Relatable Characters Make Stories About Vaccines Relevant

By Kaylis Baxter

Don’t let the story you tell lead to a campaign fail. Tell a vaccine story relevant to your audience’s life and they will listen.

Researchers have found that storytelling can encourage women to get vaccinated against Human Papillomavirus (HPV) — but only if the audience can relate to at least one character in the story.

For their study, Lauren B. Frank, communications scholar, and her team recruited 353 women to explore the effectiveness of storytelling in encouraging women to get vaccinated against HPV.

In a phone interview, the women were each given a pre-test to assess their knowledge and attitudes toward cervical cancer. Participants were then mailed an 11-minute educational film about cervical cancer prevention, Tamale Lesson. Because Mexican-American women have a higher risk of cervical cancer, in both incidence rates and mortality rates, the film targeted Mexican-American women. Participants were surveyed again two weeks after seeing the film and then six months later.

The follow-up surveys asked women how effective they perceived the HPV vaccine to be in preventing cervical cancer, how the participants’ believed the virus would impact their lives should they contract it, and how susceptible they believed they were to HPV.

The survey given at the two-week mark also included questions about the participants’ levels of identification with the film characters. The women were asked questions about the relevance of the characters such as, “How much would you like to be like [the characters]?” and “How similar are you to [the characters]?” The participants were also asked to rank the film’s relevance and the degree to which they felt immersed in it.

The survey given at the 6-month mark also asked the women if they had discussed the HPV vaccine with their health care provider.

“The more relevant women found the narrative to their own lives at two weeks, the higher they perceived the severity of the virus and the perceived response efficacy of the vaccine,” Lauren B. Frank said.

The researchers found that, “[t]he more relevant women found the narrative to their own lives at two weeks, the higher they perceived the severity of the virus and the perceived response efficacy of the vaccine.”

However, the perceived relevance of the storyline in Tamale Lesson varied greatly, in part due to the participants not being to identify with any of the characters. The researchers contend that in order for narrative health messages to be effective, they have to be relevant to targeted populations, especially if the narratives are directed toward significant health disparities.

Communication Faculty Publications and Presentations

Kaylis Baxter is a writer for frankology. She is an undergraduate student at the University of Florida, studying Sociology and African-American Studies.

Posted: November 11, 2015
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