Abstract: Effects of Parasocial Relationships and Breakups with Reality TV Characters on Health-Relevant Outcomes

◆ Perina Siegenthaler, University of Fribourg
◆ Tanja Aegerter, University of Fribourg
◆ Alexander Ort, University of Fribourg
◆ Andreas Fahr, University of Fribourg

Previous research and theorizing in the area of entertainment-education (EE; Singhal & Rogers, 1999) and narrative persuasion suggest that EE formats are a promising means for health communication as they can promote healthy attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors (e.g., Nabi & Thomas, 2013; Tian & Yoo, 2015; for an overview see Tukachinsky & Tokunaga, 2016). In this respect, audience members’ feelings towards and the involvement with the depicted media characters play an important role for their effectiveness (Moyer-Gusé, 2008). Particularly, (health-related) reality TV shows allow viewers to emotionally connect with the displayed char-acters (Tian & Yoo, 2015), which—over time—potentially fosters the formation of parasocial relationships (PSR; R. B. Rubin & McHugh, 1987). Such relationships enhance attention to and retention of the provided information (A. M. Rubin & Perse, 1987) and eventually promote persuasive outcomes (Tukachinsky & O'Connor, 2017). Notwithstanding such positive effects, the termination of parasocial relationships—due to changes of the plot, discontinuation of the program etc.—can cause emotional distress or a sense of loss comparable to real break-ups (Cohen, 2004; Eyal & Cohen, 2006), which might oppress persuasive outcomes. However, little is known about the effects of these parasocial break-ups on health-relevant behaviors. Consequently, this study aims to investigate the development and impact of PSRs well as the consequences of parasocial break-ups on health-relevant outcomes. Therefore, a quasi-experimental longitudinal field study was conducted. Participants (N=172; Mage=36.56, SDage=8.84; 35% female; wave 7 not included yet) were exposed to five modified and short-ened episodes of The Biggest Loser—a health-related reality TV-show—on a weekly basis. In the first four episodes, the focus of the story was on two characters in order to allow recipients to form parasocial relationships with either of them. At the end of the fourth episode, both characters had to leave the show. The last episode depicted the remaining participants of the show without focus on a specific character. Questionnaires assessed, i.a., the intensity of par-asocial relationships (Hartmann et al., 2008; A. M. Rubin & Perse, 1987), identification with characters (Cohen, 2001), empathy (Shen, 2010), self-efficacy, exercise behavior (Courneya et al., 2006; Godin, Jobin, & Boullion, 1986; Godin & Shepard, 1985). In addition, parasocial break-up distress (Cohen, 2003; Eyal & Cohen, 2006) was measured after the fifth episode. All items were measured on a five-point Likert-type scales.
Preliminary results show that there was no significant general increase of PSRs over time and repeated exposure. However, participants with stronger PSRs showed greater parasocial break-up distress (M=2.81, SD=.94) than participants with weaker PSRs (M=1.72, SD=.56; t(96)=-7.02, p=.000).
Due to the extensive amount of data and the required effort with regard to preprocessing and analysis, further results are still pending. In-depth analyses of the effects of PSR and break-ups on central factors in connection with health information, i.e., perceptions of threat and effi-cacy, as well as on health-relevant outcomes, i.e., attitudes, exercise behavior, and information seeking, will be presented at the conference. Moreover, these analyses will also include data from the last (7th) wave.