Abstract: “This is My Story”: Processing of Narratives and Testimonials About Adolescent E-Cigarette Use

◆ Allison J. Lazard, University of North Carolina
◆ Meredith K. Collins, University of North Carolina

Background. E-cigarette use is on the rise among youth, despite the many harms for this vulnerable population. In 2019, 27% of adolescents in high school report currently (past 30 days) using e-cigarettes. Education strategies are needed to inform youth about the risks of use. One approach to communicating the risks of e-cigarette use is to embed risk information into a narrative format; narratives often persuade readers by increasing transportation, causing them to feel lost in the story, and increasing relevance, causing readers to engage in deeper message processing. A second approach to communicating the risks of e-cigarette use is to embed risk information into a testimonial format; testimonials can persuade readers through the same mechanisms. However, to date, most research has used the narrative and testimonial format interchangeably. We sought to determine if narratives and testimonials do, indeed, perform similarly in communicating e-cigarette risk information to teens.

Methods. A national convenience sample of 928 US adolescents ages 15-18 completed an online experiment in October 2019. We randomized participants to one of four conditions: testimonial, firsthand narrative (the main character is an e-cigarette user), secondhand narrative (the main character’s boyfriend is an e-cigarette user), or informational control (modification of e-cigarette message from the surgeon general). Participants reported perceived message effectiveness, transportation, relevance, and self-appraisal after reading the stimuli. Participants also rated their personal perceptions of risk from e-cigarette use. We conducted a one-way multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) with Bonferroni-adjusted post hoc analyses to examine the impact of reading format on all outcomes.

Results. Participants who read the testimonial reported significantly greater personal relevance (than the secondhand narrative, p = .035, η2 = .02) and self-appraisal (than the firsthand narrative, p = .012, η2 = .02). Participants who read either of the two narratives reported significantly less perceived message effectiveness compared to the informational control (firsthand narrative, p = .013; secondhand narrative, p = .045; η2 = .01); however, there was no difference between the testimonial and the informational control on the perceived message effectiveness measure (p > .05). Both narratives and the testimonial elicited significantly greater levels of transportation compared to the control (all p < .05, η2 = .02).

Conclusion. Sharing e-cigarette risk messages as either narratives or testimonials can engage adolescents. While both formats encourage transportation, participants who read the testimonial reported greater personal relevance and greater self-appraisal, indicating that hearing about someone’s struggle may help them reflect on their lives. Our findings suggest that adolescents processed risk information presented in the narrative differently than information presented in the testimonial. However, our study did not measure the all mechanisms of processing. Future studies should integrate additional processing concepts, such as identification, to determine how adolescents engage with these formats differently. Nonetheless, our results offer evidence that the format of information influences adolescents’ processing of e-cigarette risk information.