Wireless Carrier Sponsored Anti-Texting Campaigns Targeted at the Teenage Population – Daniella M Wodnicki
Motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of death in the United States for persons 3-34 years old, and the leading cause of death among teenagers (1). Each year, approximately 6,000 teenagers are killed in a motor vehicle accident (2). Among all drivers, teenagers exhibit the riskiest of driving behaviors including low usage of seatbelts, increased likelihood to speed over their adult counterparts and allowing shorter headways (3). Therefore, focusing on teenagers is a legitimate and relevant target population (4).
With the dramatic growth of cell phone use over the past 15 years, “distracted driving,” the use of digital devices while “on the go,” has become more prevalent among all age populations, especially teenagers. Of the 90% of teenagers who admit to doing multiple tasks while driving, 75% admit to texting while driving, also known as DWT (2). Texting, or “sending a text message,” refers to the exchange of brief written messages between mobile devices and is typically used as a substitute for voice calls in situations where voice communication is impossible or undesirable.
Today, the most dangerous distraction on the highway is the cell phone. DWT delays a driver’s reaction as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of 0.08% and makes an individual 4 times more likely to cause a crash resulting in bodily injury (2). Using a simulator, David Strayer, a professor at the University of Utah and a leading researcher on distracted driving, found that texting while driving caused teenagers to slow down, weave in and out of lanes and in some cases run over pedestrians (5). Despite understanding the risks of texting behind the wheel the desire and intense social pressures to stay connected is so strong for teenagers and their parents that safety sometimes takes a back seat to staying in touch with family and friends (6).
The current programs that I am analyzing are wireless carrier sponsored anti-texting while driving campaigns that are targeted towards the teenage population. More specifically, I have chosen to look at those campaigns created and disseminated by two of the nation’s largest wireless carriers, AT&T and Sprint. Both of these nation-wide anti-texting while driving campaigns are no older than 2 months and their main intent is to keep teenagers from DWT using the Health Belief Model.
In Sprint’s “Thumb Wars” campaign, the company, along with dosomething.org – a non-profit group that promotes volunteerism by teenagers – allows teenagers to join the “war on thumbs” by ordering thumb socks online. Within 6 weeks, teenagers receive their thumb socks as well as two additional pairs to share with friends and classmates. The website encourages teenagers to wear the socks through a “witty” celebrity public service announcement, a photo album of peers wearing said socks and ominous statistics on teen driving and distracted driving. The intent of the thumb socks are to render one’s thumbs from being able to properly text and to serve as a constant reminder that texting while driving is a dangerous act.
In AT&T’s “Txting and Drivng…It Can Wait” campaign, AT&T uses celebrity television spots and public service announcements to disseminate their “don’t drive while texting” message to teenagers. Through graphic stories of motor vehicle accidents combined with “last word” text messages, AT&T is attempting to drive home how insignificant a text message such as “where u at?” is, compared to the potentially dire consequences of reading or responding to a text while driving.
Critique of Current Intervention
Wireless carrier sponsored anti-texting while driving campaigns such as “Thumb Wars” and “Txting and Drivng…It Can Wait” are misguided and ineffective at curbing DWT among teenagers. They rely heavily on simple individual-level models such as the Health Belief Model and Theory of Reasoned Action. The campaigns are threat-based appeals featuring serious overtones and authoritative messengers and the very content of AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign argues against the basic function of the text message, failing to measure the psychological reactance of its target population.
Critique 1: Fear and Efficacy
The content of a public health campaign is very important. Campaign messages alert audiences to a particular issue and through various persuasive strategies, attempt to influence, and even modify behavior. Many campaigns use fear as their main strategy to persuade their target population into producing these specific changes in attitude, intentions and/or behavior (7). According to researchers at Queensland University, road safety campaigns are particularly renowned for its use of graphic, threat-based appeals which aim to “evoke a negative emotional response” in the audience, namely fear (7). Threats illustrate undesirable consequences from certain behaviors and fear is a potential emotional response to these threats (4). In turn, this fear is expected to “motivate compliance” with a message’s recommendations (8).
“Thumb Wars” and “It Can Wait” both utilize threat-based appeals to evoke a negative emotional response from teenagers in an attempt to keep them from DWT. Sprint’s “Thumb Wars” campaign focuses on disseminating statistics on DWT and uses the thumb sock to serve as constant reminder of the dangers associated with the risk. In AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign, the wireless carrier provides a consistent somber tone throughout all of its messages. Featured in the campaign are real life stories about DWT – including the text messages sent or received moments before someone was seriously injured or killed due to the risky behavior. At the beginning of every public service announcement (PSA), the campaign features a “last-words” text that is meant to appear insignificant, even meaningless. Examples of such texts include “where u at” and “yeah t.” At the end of every “It Can Wait” PSA, a threat-based appeal such as “no text is worth permanent brain damage” and “no text is worth losing a loved one on” flashes across the screen (9).
In brief, the Health Belief Model is an individual level model based on a rational decision making process. It is a basic cost/benefit analysis, which takes into account how perceived susceptibility and severity affect the perceived benefits and barriers that lead to intention and eventually behavior. The Health Belief Model draws on the idea that people rely on fear to influence their decision making process and eventual behavior. Were teenagers to view these campaigns, perceive a high severity and susceptibility to risk from driving while texting - they would then modify their intent and behavior. What this model and campaign fail to consider is that teenagers do not think rationally, and a high-perceived severity does not always correlate with increased efficacy and positive behavior.
In a study conducted among undergraduate students at a Belgian University, two threat appeal messages were created starting from an existing anti-speeding PSA (4). Both messages show young people leaving a party, getting into a car and driving into a tunnel having fun (4). In both campaigns, the car does not emerge from the tunnel, implying that the driver had experienced an accident – however, in the second PSA, added is the sound of a car crashing as well as an ambulance and images of an injured individual. Researchers used a 3-item 7-point Likert scale to measure evoked fear and cognition among students (4). They measured perceived severity of threat (‘a car accident is severe’), probability of occurrence (‘I run the risk of getting involved in a car accident’), response efficacy (‘driving more slowly is an effective way to avoid car accidents’) and self-efficacy (‘I can drive more slowly and in that way reduce the chances of getting an accident’) (4). While the messages studied appeared to have a significant effect on evoked fear, it had hardly any effect on perceived threat and efficacy. This study implies that there is “no support for the idea that evoked fear enhances threat perception” (4). One possibility is the “ceiling effect,” the idea that most people are convinced of the threats of a risky behavior and that more emphasis on these threats does not really increase the perceived threat level (4).
Critique 2: A Rated-R Approach to a PG-13 Problem
Alongside content, the tone and messenger are very important components of a public health campaign. Sprint’s “Thumb Wars” takes on a light, witty tone to communicate its threat-based appeal. Their public service announcement features two popular adult actors and comedians most known for their appearances in rated-R films and television shows intended for mature audiences only. In the PSA, Ken Jeong, 41, advocates against DWT while playfully criticizing his colleague, Joel McHale, 39, for texting throughout their PSA. Standing against a bare backdrop, the two go back and forth between comedic and serious tones as they read off harrowing statistics on teenage DWT and promoting thumb socks in the style of an infomercial.
More recently, AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign has added a celebrity PSA similar to that of Sprint. In their celebrity spot, two actors from the popular adult drama, Melrose Place, stand against a bare backdrop with their cell phones in hand. For the next minute, the actors discuss a character on the show that practiced DWT and the dangerous statistics of the risky behavior using fear to evoke a negative emotional response among viewers.
The introduction of “parasocial interaction” occurred in 1956 and suggested that communication media can provide viewers with “an apparently intimate, face-to-face association with a performer” (10). Because “the human brain processes media experiences similar to how it processes ‘direct experience,’ people typically react to televised characters as they would real people (11). Part of the Parasocial Contact Hypothesis is that viewers formulate impressions of televised characters to reduce uncertainty about social behavior (10). In optimal conditions, participants must feel of equal status, share common goals, have sustained non-superficial contact and not be opposed to salient authority (12).
In exploring whether mediated forms of contact could influence attitudes about minority groups, researchers observed the parasocial interaction among undergraduate students at a major Midwestern university. In several studies, students were exposed to various television shows and comedy specials with identifiable characters of the social behavior they are trying to appeal. This social interaction is measured along the Likert scale. While there are several limitations to this study, the hypothesis has significant theoretical and social implications and results exhibit a relationship between mediated performers and viewers’ beliefs and behavior (10).
The Theory of Reasoned Action also draws upon the importance of opinions of others on social norms and behavior. According to this theory, attitude of other people, combined with the importance of their opinions is intended to influence social norms and in turn intention and behavior. Spring and AT&T assume that teenagers value the opinions of older actors and that their opinion on DWT will influence their behavior in a positive manner.
In both of the wireless carrier sponsored anti-texting campaigns, the celebrity messengers are un-relatable. In “Thumb Wars,” both actors are decades older than their target audience, and have collectively appeared in over 10 rated-R films (13). The actors featured in the AT&T PSA appear on a television drama targeted toward the 18-34 demographic, a range that does not include the target population that the very issue of their campaign is attempting to address (13). While teenager viewers have experienced sincere contact with the actors through viewing the PSAs, under this theory, it is unlikely that the messengers and viewers share common goals. Their unfamiliarity with the adult actors gives them the appearance of a salient authority figure and in turn has the opposite intended effect of psychological reactance.
Critique 3: It Can’t Wait
The “It Can Wait” message that AT&T has made popular through its campaign goes against the very purpose of the cell phone and text message. Text messages are meant to be brief and are typically used as a substitute for voice calls in situations where voice communication is impossible or undesirable. Many phones today come standard with preset “click and send” texts, and with the creation of the text message, wireless users have come to expect immediacy. According to LG, teens use more than 2,000 unknown words in their texts (14). The use of acronyms is extremely popular in texting among teenagers and it is not uncommon for texts simply to inquire about the location of another. The “It Can Wait” message therefore does not reframe the device, but argues against its very purpose. By simply telling users to abstain from the behavior, AT&T is again using the Health Belief Model in assuming that teenagers are rational individuals and are eliciting psychological reactance.
In Brehm’s Psychological Reactance Theory, messages that are perceived to reduce or threaten personal freedoms arouse a motivational state or reactance, which directs individuals toward re-establishing the lost or threatened freedom (15). This reactance effect is illustrated in a study that compared different types of alcohol prevention advertisements. In the study, undergraduate students rated high threat and low threat ads. High threat messages included phrases such as “conclusive evidence” and were looked upon more negatively and prompted greater intentions to consume alcohol than low threat messages that suggested to viewers that they “may wish to consider these conclusions” (16). In a follow up study, more students consumed alcoholic beverages in a taste test after exposure to high threat ads than to low threat ones (16). According to this theory, behaviors and/or objects that are perceived to be off limits for certain audiences are more attractive to members to whom the restriction applies. In the alcohol study among undergraduates, exposure to alcohol prevention ads actually increased alcohol consumption (15).
Integrated into everyday life are driving and sending text messages. Teenagers text friends and parents to inquire about their location, obtain directions, even flirt. Overtime, teenagers have been conditioned to believe that text messages require an immediate response and sometimes, as when driving, it is hard to ignore the phone (17). For teenagers, the death of freedom is far worse than the risk of DWT (17). AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign does a poor job at measuring psychological reactance as their message is coming from un-relatable and dominant figures who are attempting to take away a device of great value to them.
To create a more successful campaign, it is essential to first change the overall tone of the message. The campaign needs to take on a unified tone and move away from threat-based appeals and towards successfully changing social norms. Instead of a messenger that teenagers are unable to relate to, it would be more effective if other teens were to deliver the anti-DWT message. Moreover, a better way to go about addressing this public health issue is to use a combination of the Psychological Reactance Theory, Optimistic Bias and Social Expectations Theory. The message of both campaigns should move from adult scorn to social scorn, from being told to wait by authority figures to being told that it is ok to wait by friends. After the 3rd defense are several PSA examples utilizing the proposed changes and theories.
Defense 1: The Optimistic Bias
The first critique of Sprint and AT&T’s campaigns cited the ineffectiveness of fear on perceived threat and efficacy. In a survey conducted by the AAA Foundation, 83% of respondents said drivers using cell phones is an “extremely serious” problem - more so than speeding and running red lights (1). Despite this admission, more than half of the same survey respondents reported using their cell phones while driving and half of these respondents admitted to doing this behavior “often” (1). These studies demonstrate that it is not enough simply to convince teenagers how bad these risks are but that they themselves are at risk.
The Health Belief Model predicts that those who perceive less threat to their health will be less likely to take precautions to reduce that threat (18). Despite the fact that many teenagers are generally aware of the health risks associated with DWT, this knowledge does not necessarily alter teenager’s perceived susceptibility of a motor vehicle accident and/or injury. Optimistic Bias is the theory that people tend to underestimate risks that apply to them. In a study on smokers and perceived susceptibility, smokers acknowledged a greater susceptibility to related illnesses but tended to predict a lower likelihood of contracting one disease (18).
In order to convey to teenagers that they should refrain from DWT, campaigns must focus on personal stories from peers and other teenagers. Campaigns should not attempt to alter behavior by distributing statistics through salient authority figures. The tone of the campaigns should be casual and the message should focus on empowerment and behavior rather than fear and threats.
Defense 2: Social Scorn v. Adult Scorn
The second critique evaluated parasocial interactions and the theory of reasoned action in the Sprint and AT&T campaigns. It observed that the messengers in both campaigns are inappropriate for delivering the anti-DWT message to teenagers. In constructing a new intervention, the Social Expectations Theory is a more effective approach to changing social norms and behavior.
The Social Expectations Theory is concerned with how socially received expectations motivate behavior. The theory focuses heavily on normative behavior and states that in order to change behavior one must change norms. In media, actors and their characters influence people’s expectations of behavior and as an effect, people alter their behaviors to meet the expectations that those norms provide (19). In a campaign promoting tobacco-free school policies, experts agreed that youth would be the best people to appear in ads (19). Their belief aligned with the social expectations theory in that they understood that it was important for any person appearing in their campaigns to have some personal connection and experience with the issue (19).
To make this a more effective campaign, it would be best to change the messenger. As in the tobacco-free school policies campaign, it is important to have a teenager convey the anti-DWT message to other teenagers. An actor 20 years their senior is hard for a teenager to relate. Often time, teenagers perceive older unfamiliar adults as talking down to them. This perceived adult scorn creates a psychological reactance – which is important to measure before conducting any public health campaign especially those that are targeting adolescents and vulnerable populations. Adult scorn should be replaced with social scorn, a teenager telling his/her friend that DWT is stupid. The person delivering the message becomes part of the peer group, releasing the targeted individual from social responsibility and promoting social change. By making the act of DWT seem un-cool, the campaign is changing the normative beliefs and in turn behavior.
Defense 3: I Can Wait
In the third and final critique, AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign is criticized for telling users only to abstain from texting. Telling users that it can wait is arguing against the very purpose of the device and act. No alternative behavior or social norm is provided and therefore the campaign is ineffective at changing the current behavior or teenagers who DWT.
When people have something, they value it very highly. Ownership is not limited to material things and can apply to ideas and behavior as well (20). Behavior can be considered a form of ownership; therefore, if one wants to change behavior they must either reframe it or offer an alternative. Overtime, the constant use of cell phones conditions teenagers to believe that text messages require an immediate response. Prohibiting this behavior can cause a psychological reactance as seen in the study comparing different types of alcohol prevention advertisements. In order to reframe and control for psychological reactance, the message should not be “Txting and Drivng…it can wait,” but a friend saying “I can wait” or “we can wait.” This change in tone takes texting from being an immediate need to something that is not so pressing. Having a friend tell another that they can wait, rather than a parent of a distracted driving victim telling a teenager that they can wait has a much larger effect on perceived social norms and behavior.
In the improved intervention, a series of PSAs would feature a group of typical teenagers. One ad would include a group of teenagers standing around in a school parking lot discussing plans to hang out this upcoming weekend. As one of the teenage boys breaks off and enters his car, he yells to his friends “just text me when you figure out what the plans are.” His friends scoff at him and yell back, “Dude, it can wait.” An alternative to this scenario is the teen, while entering his car, tells his friends that he will text them tonight’s plans on his way home. The leader of the group responds, “Don’t be stupid, we can wait.” One more version of this campaign features a teen pulling up to a red light. At the stop, the teen begins reading a text message when all of a sudden a car filled with playful teens pulls up alongside to the “texter.” When the teens notice that the other driver is texting while driving, they become quiet and then begin to heckle the teenager. The safe teen driver looks over at the texter and says, “Hey, it can wait.” The light then turns green, and the teenage texter, flushed with embarrassment places their cell phone in the glove compartment of their vehicle as the other car drives away.
Texting while driving is a risky behavior for all persons, especially teenagers. With the dramatic growth of cell phone use of the past decade, wireless carriers have begun to develop public health campaigns to address the negative effects of driving while texting. Sprint and AT&T have attempted to appeal to teenagers and alter their behavior by using the Health Belief Model and Theory of Reasoned Action. Through threat-appeals and unidentifiable role models, their campaigns have been ineffective at curbing this behavior. In the proposed alternative campaign, it is suggested that wireless carriers abandon their fear tactics in favor of an effective teen-driven campaign focusing on promoting social change and normative beliefs.
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