Can media narratives lead to persuasion?

Posted by on Jul 31, 2017 in Cover Stories, MEL Notes Blog | 0 comments

Dr. Chung Yang is an assistant professor in the Manship School of Mass Communication.

An episode of the sitcom, Friends, depicted an unexpected pregnancy of a female character due to condom failure. After seeing the episode, the awareness of condom efficacy was found to have increased among teenager viewers (Collins, Elliott, Berry, Kanouse, & Hunter, 2003). After viewing the breast cancer storyline in a Spanish-language telenovela, Ladron de Corazones, male Hispanic audiences were more likely to recommend that women have a mammogram (Wilkin, Valente, Murphy, Cody, Huang, & Beck, 2007). Exposure to episodes of a Dutch television program that portrays the negative consequences of excessive alcohol intake makes young viewers more likely to decrease alcohol use, compared to those who did not watch the show (Van Leeuwen, Renes, & Leeuwis, 2012).

Media narratives are found to be a powerful vehicle to educate individuals about certain issues, and to influence their attitudes and behaviors (e.g., Moyer-Gusé, 2008). However, it is not very clear as to why narratives have such power. Efforts have been made to understand the underlying mechanisms. One direction many researchers take is to investigate narratives’ potential ability of decreasing resistance to persuasion (e.g., Moyer-Gusé, 2008; Moyer-Gusé & Nabi, 2010; Slater & Rouner, 2002). Different types of resistance have been found and studied over the years. Moyer-Gusé (2008) lists several different forms of resistance that are related to narrative persuasion. All of them can potentially be overcome via narrative persuasion.


The first barrier is psychological reactance (Brehm, 1966). It is the idea that individuals tend to reject the persuasive message because they perceive the persuasive intent as a threat to their own freedom. Narratives are believed to be able to overcome reactance because of the unobtrusiveness of persuasive messages they are embedded in (Slater & Rouner, 2002) and the nature of their structure – they are stories (Moyer-Gusé, 2008). In other words, narratives are typically not perceived as overt persuasive messages. Research has identified a negative relationship between perception of persuasive intent and acceptance of the message. Specially, the less overt the persuasive purpose is, the more likely an individual is to adopt the recommendations (McGrane, Toth, & Alley, 1990; Weinstein, Grubb, & Vautier, 1986).





The second type of resistance is counterarguing. Arguing against the positions presented in a persuasive message is an indication of message rejection. When being exposed to narratives, individuals are transported into the story world and establish the identification with the media characters. Thus, they are less motivated to counterargue with the message compared to exposure to explicit persuasive messages (Slater & Rouner, 2002). Also, individuals develop trust of and familiarity with characters in narratives. Therefore, this parasocial interaction makes it harder to argue against the positions presented or illustrated by those characters (Moyer-Gusé, 2008).




Selective avoidance

To resist any persuasive intent, one can also selectively avoid certain content in the message. For instance, a smoker might intentionally avoid any message content that tries to dissuade them from using tobacco. However, when one is absorbed into narratives, they can experience what the characters have been/are going through. This identification with the characters (Cohen, 2001) enables individuals to share feelings, perspectives, and goals with the character, which makes it hard to avert one’s attention selectively.



Perceived invulnerability

This type of resistance is the belief that one is so unique that the negative consequences would not befall them. Thus, it is often considered as an “optimistic bias” (Moyer-Gusé, 2008). This belief poses a challenge for persuasive message designers. For narratives, when individuals identify with a media character, they share the experience with media characters vicariously. Therefore, if a character is depicted as susceptible to certain negative consequences, viewers of the media narrative should experience the emotions and thus perceive themselves also susceptible to the risk (Moyer-Gusé, 2008).






Perceived Norms

The perception of social norms could result in resistance to persuasion. When risky behaviors are considered as normative, persuasion efforts may end up with diminished effects or even boomerang effects (e.g., Page, Hammermeister, & Scanlan, 2000). Although being criticized as a source of normalizing risky behaviors (Ward, 2002), the media have the potential to instigate opposite effects. If a parasocial interaction relationship is established between an individual and a media character, the individual might change his perception about the risky behavior if the suggested norms about the behavior presented by the character contradicts with the viewer’s.

According to Moyer-Gusé (2008) and other researchers (e.g., Slater & Rouner, 2002), persuasion is likely to be enhanced with narrative messages because all the above mentioned forms of resistance can be overcome. Do you agree? If yes, can you find some evidence that narratives work from empirical studies? If you disagree, come to our lab, conduct a study, and test it!





Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York: Academic Press.

Cohen, J. (2001). Defining identification: A theoretical look at the identification of audiences with media characters. Mass Communication & Society, 4, 245–264.

Collins, R. L., Elliott, M. N., Berry, S. H., Kanouse, E. E., & Hunter, S. B. (2003). Entertainment television as a healthy sex educator: The impact of condom efficacy information in an episode of Friends. Pediatrics, 112, 1115–1121. doi:10.1542/peds.112.5.1115

McGrane, W. L., Toth, F. J., & Alley, E. B. (1990). The use of interactive media for HIV/AIDS prevention in the military community. Military Medicine, 155, 235–240.

Moyer-Gusé, E. (2008). Toward a theory of entertainment persuasion: Explaining the persuasive effects of entertainment-education messages. Communication Theory, 18, 407-425.

Moyer-Gusé, E., & Nabi, R. L. (2010). Explaining the effects of narrative in an entertainment television program: Overcoming resistance to persuasion. Human Communication Research, 36 (1), 26–52.

Page, R., Hammermeister, J. J., & Scanlan, A. (2000). Everybody’s not doing it: Misperceptions of college students’ sexual activity. American Journal of Health Behavior, 24, 387–394.

Slater, M. D., & Rouner, D. (2002). Entertainment—education and elaboration likelihood: Understanding the processing of narrative persuasion. Communication Theory, 12, 173–191.

Van Leeuwen, L., Renes, R. J., & Leeuwis, C. (2012). Televised entertainment-education to prevent adolescent alcohol use: Perceived realism, enjoyment, and impact. Health Education & Behavior, 6, 1–13.

Ward, M. (2002). Does television exposure affect emerging adults’ attitudes and assumptions about sexual relationships? Correlational and experimental confirmation. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 31, 1–15.

Weinstein, N. D., Grubb, P. D., & Vautier, J. S. (1986). Increasing automobile seat belt use: An intervention emphasizing risk susceptibility. Journal of Applied Psychology, 71, 285–290.

Wilkin, H. A., Valente, T. W., Murphy, S., Cody, M. J., Huang, G., & Beck, V. (2007). Does entertainment-education work with Latinos in the United States? Identification and the effects of a telenovela breast cancer storyline. Journal of Health Communication, 12, 455–469. doi:10.10 80/10810730701438690