A study tested the hypothesis that distressing imagery may inhibit health communications by inducing audiences to reduce distress by avoiding attention to persuasive messages. The study used eye-tracking methods to compare gaze time allocated to a persuasive textual message, accompanied by either distressing high-resolution colour images or less distressing two-colour images with degraded outline and detail.
Participants in the distressing images condition showed lower intentions to reduce drinking in the following 3 months, which may have been mediated by lower gaze time to textual elements of the message. The effect was stronger in participants who both scored lower on dispositional mental disengagement and were more vulnerable to alcohol-related problems.
The authors conclude that distressing imagery may inhibit persuasion by reducing audience attention to message components. Implications for message design are discussed.
Source: The effect of distressing imagery on attention to and persuasiveness of an anti-alcohol message: a gaze-tracking approach Brown SL; Richardson M Health Education and Behavior, Vol 39, No 1, 2012, pp8-17