Processing of Anti-Heroin PSAs with Sensation Seeking as a Moderator


Through a campaign plan called SENTAR, the Anti-drug media campaigns have altered the drug-consumption behaviors of high sensation seekers. This approach relies principally on high sensation value messages, which contain structural and content features that elicit sensory, affective, and arousal responses. To learn more about the persuasiveness of high sensation value ads, this investigation focused on the processing of anti-heroin PSAs by 200 young adults. Of specific interest was the influence of perceived message sensation value on three types of processing (argument-based, narrative, and sensory), two affect variables (sympathetic distress and stimulated excitation), and anti-heroin attitudes. Additionally, high sensation seekers' anti-heroin attitudes were largely influenced by narrative and sensory processing, while low sensation seekers' anti-heroin attitudes were relatively unaffected by the anti-heroin ads.

Sensation seeking, an individual difference trait that is psychobiological in nature, characterizes individuals seeking to satisfy their drive for novel, exciting, and stimulating life experiences (Zuckerman, 1994). Sensation seekers savor the experience of riding a new roller coaster or diving from a bungee platform, often describing their psychobiological reaction as a "rush" (Bardo, Donohew, & Harrington, 1995). From a health perspective, this appetency for novelty and stimulation may also be manifest in binge drinking, drug use, or risky sex. Simply stated, sensation seekers have the proclivity to engage in riskier behaviors because such actions sustain and fulfill their thirst for excitement. As a result, health researchers have found sensation seeking a valuable targeting variable for health media campaigns (Donohew et al., 2000; Palmgreen, Donohew, Lorch, Hoyle, & Stephenson, 2001; Stephenson et al., 1999).

Through a campaign plan called SENTAR, the Anti-drug media campaigns have altered the drug-consumption behaviors of high sensation seekers.

Although the literature on anti-drug media campaigns and sensation seeking is rich with strategy and application (Donohew, Lorch, & Palmgreen, 1991, 1998; Donohew et al., 2000), far less is known about the psychological processes through which this targeting strategy works (Stephenson & Palmgreen, 2001). For example, if high sensation seekers use more drugs and begin using them at an earlier age than low sensation seekers (Donohew, 1988, 1990), then why are high sensation seekers influenced by televised anti-drug ads that are potentially discrepant with their values and behaviors? The primary goal of this study was to investigate the processing of anti-heroin public service announcements. This inquiry focused on sensation seeking as the primary moderating variable in the processing and persuasiveness of these ads. More important, how does sensation seeking magnify or depress the effects of anti-drug ads that vary in perceived message sensation value. Through the lens of sensation seeking, the influence of perceived message sensation value on young adults' processing of anti-heroin ads was examined.

This research is potentially useful for several reasons. First, the study examines the processes associated with the potential effects of these ads. Although Stephenson and Palmgreen (2001) offered a glimpse into these processes, the models in this study are more detailed than those examined previously. Additionally, prior research focused on anti-marijuana ads, whereas anti-heroin ads differ substantively in their formal features (i.e., pace, vividness) and their content (i.e., the consequences being more severe with heroin use than marijuana use). Hence, the processes through which high sensation seekers (hereafter, HSS) and low sensation seekers (hereafter, LSS) view and may be ultimately persuaded by anti-heroin messages are likely different from those associated with anti-marijuana messages. Further, heroin use among young adults has increased while the percentage of 10h and 12th grade adolescents using heroin has nearly tripled since 1993 Johnston, O'Malley, & Bachman, 2001). Finally, without an understanding as to why individuals are (or are not) influenced by anti-heroin ads, we will not fully comprehend the most effective and efficient way to prevent heroin use.


HSS desire novelty, complexity, and intensity. They satisfy their desires by engaging in more social risks (e.g., impulsive behaviors), physical risks (e.g., bungee jumping, driving fast), legal risks (e.g., getting arrested) and financial risks (e.g., impulsive purchases) (Zuckerman, 1979, 1994). LSS are significantly less likely to engage in these behaviors. HSS' affinity for risk and stimulation is evident in healthrelated behaviors as well (Barnea, Teichman, & Rahav, 1992; Clayton, Cattarello, & Walden, 1991; Newcomb & McGee, 1991), including drug use (Donohew, 1990) and sexual activity (Donohew et al., 2000).

HSS' thirst for novelty and stimulation is also reflected in clear, distinct media preferences. In the pursuit of learning what media styles appealed to HSS, researchers coined the concept message sensation value. Message sensation value is formally defined as the degree to which formal and content audiovisual features of a message elicit sensory, affective, and arousal responses (Everett & Palmgreen, 1995). High sensation value messages typically reflect some combination of the following characteristics: novel, unusual format, unusual uses of formal features such as more extreme-close ups and more sound effects, a greater frequency of editing, faster and more frequent movement, more intense music, and higher levels of suspense and drama. LSS generally have a preference of messages with lower levels and fewer of these features whereas HSS prefer ads that contain these characteristics.