Overview of Media Priming Theory

Priming is a theory that takes its roots from psychology. Media priming is enhancing the effects of media by implanting an earlier stimulus to influence later communication. In essence, priming says that the media can control the interpretation of new information we receive, because of previous information we have learned before. This previous information generates a prior context, thus through whose lens all new information will be perceived. The priming effect works through activation of association in our memory. Case in point, the "say [word] ten times fast" joke is a rudimentary example of priming. For instance, having someone say "coast" ten times, following by "boast" ten times, and then asking the person, "What do you put in a toaster?" The respondent's mind has been repeatedly primed with words ending in "-oast" that they are likely to say "toast" is put in a toaster instead of bread. Furthermore, media messages may help us recall old ideas, knowledge, information, or experiences. This can lead to a substantial effect on judgments, new decisions, and thought processes. The priming effect is an unconscious process and generally involuntary. This means that using media priming, messages in the media can unknowingly affect audiences and influence behaviors without having the person or consumer aware of it. Moreover, media priming businesses are able to implement certain messages and ideas to their audiences indirectly, and without being overtly apparent. For example, if audiences are exposed to concepts that are say sexual or violent, there is a possibility they may act out in behaviors likewise. Media priming is used as a psychological tool for many advertisers globally. It is safe to say that all media consumers have experienced effects of media priming in some degree without even knowing it.

Derren Brown applies the psychology of memory: This video exemplifies how powerful the effects of priming are. Brown enlists two creative advertising designers to make an ad. Unbeknownst to the designers, they have been primed unconsciously which greatly affected their end product. It's a bit of an ironic twist of advertising to fool the advertisers; nobody is insusceptible to media priming.

Important concepts & the History of Media Priming Theory: Past, Present, and Future

In the late 1970s, social psychologists began to use priming procedures to analyze a person's perception, stereotyping, and attitude activation. These social psychological experiments were structured to expose participants to a priming stimulus followed by measuring whether the priming caused biases when commentating on ambiguous information (Bryant & Oliver, 2009).

In the 1980s, research of media priming concentrated on people's thoughts, belief systems, judgments, and behavior. Since then, investigations have shifted to theories with psychological foundations. Research of this theory has shifted from whether it exists to how it works; currently, the focus is on how widespread media priming is (Bryant & Oliver, 2009).

Throughout the years, media priming has been used to investigate media, politics, and stereotypes. Currently, media priming research delves further into specific contexts, such as how political comedy TV series can result in political priming of presidential evaluations. Unfortunately, there are few explanations of the mechanizations of media priming and they often vary in each domain, therefore no single theory is available. Nevertheless, current research finds common ground through psychological bases, however, these bases limit the understanding of media priming (Bryant & Oliver, 2009).

As of now, there are two models that can explain cognitive processes consequential from media priming: the general affective aggression model (GAAM) and network models of political priming (Bryant & Oliver, 2009). Investigations of the validity of these models is currently underway, such as whether violent media prime violent attitudes.

Subliminal Messages: "Hidden" messages in media used to "prime" our unconscious in efforts to get us to act or feel a certain way.

Case Studies & Summaries

Using Ambient Media to Promote HIV/AIDS Protective Behavior Change
Study by Michael Ewing, Fiona Newton, Tahir Turk
Article summary by Julie Bell

Purpose of the Study:
The priming theory explains that when people witness, read, or hear of an event via the mass media, ideas having similar meaning are activated in them for a short time after wards, and that these thoughts in turn can activate other semantically related ideas and action tendencies. In this study, Ambient Media is used to asses the possible effects messages can have on individuals behaviors and thoughts. The focus of this study is to improve perceptions on the personal risk of HIV/AIDS among message receivers in order to promote prevention and proactively change behaviors among young adults in areas that are at high risk of disease. This study assess ambient media and it’s effectiveness in influencing the intentions and behaviors of young adults to participate in HIV/AIDS prevention and protective strategies.

Theoretical Background:
Although the media have been construed as important for influencing beliefs and behavior, consistent messages from a variety of sources are necessary to effect actual behavior change (Duncan & Moriarty 1997; Low 2000; Cornelissen 2001). In order to develop more effective interventions in HIV/AIDS communication and behavior change strategies, the foundation information about a number of different behavior change theories were used. Theses theories include: Diffusion Theory, Fear Drive Model Health Belief Model, Protection Motivation Theory, Stages of Change Model, Social Cognitive theory. Additionally, the study focuses on the importance of message delivery channels for effective results. Interpersonal communications (IPC) were emphasized as important components to reach high-risk communities in rural areas and developing countries. Especially for young adults, it is important for community planners to use relevant message delivery and to conform to socio-cultural norms. In the case of HIV/AIDS, ambient media, generally in the form of washroom posters in bars and clubs, was a significant channel used to reach the target audiences.

What is ambient media?
Ambient media, a common channel of communication for advertisers, includes toilet posters, messages on airline lunch trays, supermarket trolley posters, floor graphics, advertisements in subways and metros etc. Ambient media, as a medium, best fulfills the requirements needed to reach 18-35 year old at high risk of HIV/AIDS in developing countries.

The study proposes that if ambient messages are placed in the washrooms of facilities (like bars and clubs) that are prevalent social settings for drug taking and sexual transactions and also frequently visited by target groups at high risk of HIV/ AIDs, then message delivery on HIV/ AIDS prevention will be more efficacious and therefore result in an increase in protective behavior.

What was studied? How was it conducted?
A community-based intervention is used in this study to analyze the extent that ambient media effectively promotes HIV/AIDS protective behaviors. The type of intervention used was based on feedback from community resources including stakeholder surveys and focus group discussions.

Four key research objectives that related to respondents were used in the research design:
  1. Knowledge of HIV/ AIDS transmission vectors
  2. Perception of the target audience of prevention messages
  3. Personal perception of HIV/AIDS risk
  4. Behavioral intent with respect to AIDS prevention

The relevant feedback lead to the development of a creative campaign following a persuasive format that was launched in the medium of washroom posters. The campaign, which possessed both personal and emotional appeal, emphasized that HIV/AIDS infection is an issue among the whole community, not just individuals and “high-risk” groups. For personalization, a mirror-like surface was applied to the poster so that the image of the reader was actually reflected in the message.

In Phase 1 of the study the objective was to examine whether the poster encourages respondents to personalize the risk of HIV. Variables examined included creative execution, message delivery, personalizing aspects appeal, informational aspects of the appeal, and spontaneous emotional responses. Results indicated that the message was strong, creative, and innovative to individuals exposed to it. In Phase 2 of the study, voluntary Face-to face interviews and questionnaires with respondents (166 intervention male and females, and 166 control group respondents) were conducted inside and outside cafés and bars where washroom posters were affixed above urinals and to toilet doors and walls. 50% of each focus group were comprised of people with “high risk” HIV/AIDS attitudes and behaviors. Those considered at ‘High risk’ included males and females who met any one of the following criteria: multiple sexual partners; clients of commercial sex workers; men who have sex with men; and/or individuals positively predisposed to drug use. Before beginning the interviews, respondents were asked if they had visited the washrooms. The questionnaires focused on awareness, sources of transmission, perceptions of personal risk, personal relevance of prevention messages, attitudes towards prevention messages, behavioral intentions, and perceptions of government action with respect to the issue.

Results and Further Development:
As for the first objective, knowledge about transmission vectors, intervention cases displayed higher levels of awareness that unprotected sex was very common and risky. On the other hand, breast feeding overall was not as acknowledged as a transmission vector among other transmission vectors. These results justify that perhaps there is a greater need for public education for women at child-rearing ages on this subject. In examination of the second objective, Perception of the target audience of prevention messages, only 1 and 3 subjects perceived that the messages were directed at themselves. This issue reflects the common denial of risk to disease in the Indonesian community. In future research, cognitive barriers such as denial and defense mechanisms could be further investigated. Additionally, to further develope research on this subject other creative methods in messages, appealing to different emotions, could be tested and measure the perception of advertisements. For example, while an emotional appeal is the most appropriate appeal, observing the effects a perhaps funny or harsh message may lead to differing results and effectiveness. Pursuing the results further, while 4 in 10 said they were becoming irritated by HIV/ AIDS prevention, ironically, the majority of respondents felt that the government was not doing enough to prevent the spread of AIDS. This also made me think further about creative strategy behind advertisements. Often, the most obnoxious repetitive advertisements are the ones that work the best. Irritability could be used a measure of message awareness. Other important results found that generally those exposed to the interventions were more likely to use condoms as a main preventive method. It seems that sex is generally the most understood transmission vector. In further research, researchers could design a campaign around the most-unknown transmission vectors to later examine awareness in different categories relating to HIV/AIDs. Furthermore and importantly, results showed that the messages had a strong impact on subjects exposed to the messages to the extent of taking action to change lifestyle behaviors. The personal mirror-like messages assist in the efforts to alter personal perceptions of risk, and that they did. Overall, results supported the hypothesis that suggested that if ambient messages are placed in the washrooms of facilities (like bars and clubs) that are prevalent social settings for drug taking and sexual transactions and also frequently visited by target groups at high risk of HIV/ AIDs, then message delivery on HIV/ AIDS prevention will be more efficacious and therefore result in an increase in protective behavior.

Turk, T., Newton, F. J., & Ewing, M. T. (2006). Using ambient media to promote HIV/AIDS protective behaviour change. International Journal of Advertising, 25(3), 333-359. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

A Test of Competing Cognitive Explanations for the Boomerang Effect inResponse to the Deliberate Disruption of Media-Induced Aggression
Study by Sahara Byrne (Department of Communication, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA), Daniel Linz, and W. James Potter (Department of Communication, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, California, USA)
Article summary by Jade Elam

"Boomerang effects" were found in response to various messages intended to boost positive behaviors and attitudes. For example, campaigns designed to impart healthy actions have produced contrasting results; such as, audiences exposed to these health campaigns become less likely to take part in a balanced diet or practice safe sex. Media violence can prime aggressive cognitions in viewer's minds. In brief, the human mind contains connecting links and nodes that activate when responding to a stimulus. Correspondingly, a process called "spreading activation" occurs when exposure to media activates semantically-related thoughts which can lead to related behaviors. This study analyses media literacy interventions, which exposes violent media to children followed by discussion. Although due to priming, violent media exposure can lead to antisocial effects instead of intended prosocial effects.

Media literacy interventions are intended to prevent aggression by exposing children to characters that participate in antisocial behavior. These images are paired with discussions about “real-world” consequences to promote critical thinking. It is assumed that when exposed to these antisocial media elements, children should activate defensive mental constructs, thereupon decreasing the chances of media-induced aggression. Unfortunately, these strategies can be vulnerable to unintended cognitions if participants choose to focus on the violent media rather than the instructional elements. The main goal of the study was to test various explanations for the boomerang effect observed in intervention conditions.

Priming hypotheses were the following:
  • Priming H1: Children exposed to the intervention lesson with violent clips as examples will report an increase in willingness to use aggression, whereas children exposed to the same intervention without clips will not.
  • Priming H2: Children exposed to violent clips will report an increase in willingness to use aggression, regardless of lesson type.
  • Priming H3: Children will report the violent clips as being more salient than the instructional elements of the lesson.

One hundred twenty-eight children participated in the study, with ages ranging from 5 to 12 years old. The participants were then assigned randomly to one of four conditions (32 students per group) in a fully crossed experimental design: 2 (lesson: intervention/placebo) x 2 (violent clips: present/absent). Half of the students (64) were instructed about the difference between violence portrayed in media and how it differs from violence in the real world as well has consequences.

Video clips containing violence were taken from the following PG-rated films:
  1. The Princess Bride (1987), showed the lead character in a hand-to-hand combat with an ogre;
  2. The Goonies (1985), presented two adult brothers fight over a pizza, resulting in stones and other objects being thrown and gun threatening;
  3. The Karate Kid (1984), displayed the lead character getting beaten up by several bullies;
  4. Home Alone (1990), featured a man being hit numerous times with a crowbar.

Intervention lessons following the clips concentrated on how media characters are rewarded for antisocial conduct and are not reprimanded for their violent behaviors; the adverse consequences of watching violent material and how to avoid those effects; and how to assess characters’ behaviors in a critical style. The other half of students received a placebo lesson about media careers, such as directing, acting, sound designing, or costume making. The dependent variable measurement involved all students viewing a clip from Agent Cody Banks (2003), which involved the main character, Cody, beating up numerous school bullies while his friends cheered for him. After the stimulus clip, students in the placebo condition were given the intervention lesson. To complete the experiment, all students in the study were assigned to write a paragraph describing “one bad thing about media violence and why it is bad” and were required to read their statements in front of the class, negating aggressive attitudes that may have been caused by the intervention.

The results indicated that showing violent media as illustrative examples opens room for a boomerang effect. Priming Hypotheses 1 and 2 were both supported, by conforming that the violent clips increased the children's willingness to use aggression more than the groups of students that were not shown the clips. Priming Hypothesis 3 correctly predicted that children would judge the violent video clips as more salient than the instruction. The violent imagery primes children's minds for aggressive thoughts that it overrides the positive effects of the critical thinking lesson.

This study was formed to analyze a paradoxical occurrence that has long perturbed creators of antiviolence campaigns. Although media priming has been found to support the boomerang effect found in media violence interventions, it does not broadly cover why the effect is also found in other positive behavior and health campaigns. Such as, a "Think. Don't smoke" advertisement may be perceived as patronizing, thus the response could lead to resistance of persuasion of the positive message. Further research should be done to prevent the boomerang effect while still preserving the violent images in the intervention. Having children engage in a writing and presentation activity after viewing the clips may direct participants to think according to the positive intentions of the lesson. Finding effective strategies to counteract boomerang effects is of upmost concern for developers of prosocial programs, especially those rooted in media exposure due to powerful cognitive priming.

BYRNE, S. , LINZ, D. , & POTTER, W. (2009). A test of competing cognitive explanations for the boomerang effect in response to the deliberate disruption of media-induced aggression. Media Psychology, 12(3), 227-248.

Reconsidering the Media Priming Effect on Audiences' Prosocial Behavior: The Effect of Empathy as a Mediating Variable
Study by Youjeong Kim and Nam Young Kim
Article Summary by Hojun Kang

Purpose of the Study:
To observe how media priming in events portrayed in the media, such as Hurricane Katrina, affect people’s empathetic behavior such as volunteering and donating money.

Theoretical Background:
Empathy is known as an emotion for one to feel what someone else is feeling. The author would like to investigate how successful media priming is when it comes to empathetic behavior. To measure real behavior intention, the author used an indirect method by asking the sample what they would spend on between donating and purchasing a product, rather than just donating.
The hypothesis is that the Red-Cross PSA that portrays volunteers in a natural disaster will elicit more empathy than no PSA.
The secondary hypothesis is that people who are exposed to the Red-Cross PSA as well as images on television or other medias will elicit more empathy than any one source alone.
The third hypothesis is that empathy elicited by volunteers in natural disasters will increase donations in money and decrease in product purchases.

The Study:
The sample size was 132 Communication, Psychology, and Info. Science and Tech. students. The participants were exposed to one of six versions of a video clip that contained any combination of a Red-Cross PSA, CNN news, and commercials. The clips also varied in how visual or textual they were, as well as the natural disaster content. Following, participants filled out a questionnaire detailing their empathy, intention to partake in philanthropic activity, and intention to purchase a product (ipod head phones).
To measure empathy, the questions on the survey were scaled 1 to 10. Questions ranged from availability to volunteer, percentage of savings they could donate, and likelihood to recommend to friends as well as desire to purchase ipod headphones and accessories.

The first hypothesis was supported in that the Red-Cross PSA elicited more empathy than without a PSA.
The secondary hypothesis was partially supported. There was no difference shown between those who watched CNN news clips and those that didn't, but for those that only watched the PSA (without the CNN clip) empathy was higher.
The third hypothesis was unsupported. Through awareness of volunteers in natural disasters, people were willing to donate more money, but against the hypothesis, people were also willing to purchase more ipod accessories.
Though the experiment, the author was realized that those exposed to the textual Red-Cross PSA were more likely to donate money while those exposed to the visual PSA were more likely to feel empathetic.

Implications of the study for development of the theory and for application to real-life situations:
The author found that media exposure motivated empathetic behavior. Although scores for empathy were high, an issue is that when dealing with volunteering, participant answers tend to be inflated. It is also to be noted that textual advertisements are more prone to garner individual personal involvement while visual advertisements are better for creating emotion and spread by word of mouth.

KIM, N. , KIM, Y. (2005). Reconsidering the Media Priming Effect on Audiences’ Prodocial Behavior: The Effect of Empathy as a Mediating Variable. National Communication Association, 2008, p1, 0p

Contextual Priming Effects in Print Advertisements:The Moderating Role of Prior Knowledge
Study by Youjae Yi (Assistant Professor of Business Administration, School of Business Administration, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI)
Article Summary by Nicole Langston

The purpose of the study is to investigate prior knowledge as a moderating influence on the degree to which contextual priming influences consumer’s evaluations of products.

The study is heavily based on the theory that product attributes primed by ad context may result in the formation or change of beliefs about advertised brand, thereby affecting consumers evaluation of the brand. Such effects of the ad context are called “contextual priming effects”. It is also stated that the impact of contextual priming may be strong or weak depending on audience characteristics. Since product knowledge is the variable to be examined, it is also noted that “contextual priming” deals with knowledge structures stored in memory.

This study hypothesizes that contextual priming effects on brand attitudes and purchase intentions will be pronounced among consumers with moderate product class knowledge and sharply diminish among consumers with high or low knowledge.

The experiment consisted of exposing 120 students at a business school in a major college to print ads and asked to indicate reactions to the product. The product needed to have interrelated attributes so several interpretations were possible, so automobiles were chosen as the focal point of the study. There was an article preceding the ad that was manipulated to investigate priming effects of ad context.

The results found was that contextual priming effects were significant for subjects with moderate knowledge and little contextual priming effects occurred for subjects with little or high knowledge. Contextual priming effects are an inverted U shape function of prior knowledge. It is argued that influence of ad context could be cognitive, influencing processing information. It can also be affective, influencing mood states and feelings.

The study implies to advertisers that ad context can either inhibit or facilitate effects of an ad on brand evaluations. Ad context is not just background it has influence on ad effectiveness. It also builds on the research linking ad content and information accessibility. Advertisements emphasizing a certain product feature could benefit by having an adjacent article that can prime target benefit.

Yi, Y. (1993). Contextual Priming Effects in Print Advertisements: The Moderating Role of Prior Knowledge. Journal of Advertising, 22(1), 1-10. Retrieved from EBSCOhost

Exploring the Priming Effect of Violent Video Games on Subsequent Media Content Selectionexternal image images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSIR3MayaI2zlHfoZXWhlbEw_wEdVF6GTtrsVfkqRvjMsPbEVr83Js7Mmh1external image gtaiv_logo.preview.jpgexternal image violent-games-hb3004-bill.jpg
Study by Youngrak Park and Arthur Raney
Article summary by Deidre Weight

Purpose of the Study:
The purpose of this study is to determine the relationship between exposures to violent media and the trigger of aggressive and hostile behaviors of its viewers. Exposure to traditional forms of media, particularly television and film, can influence people to alter their perceptions, attitudes and behaviors. Researchers applied the media priming theory to their research to measure the effectiveness of media exposure and aggression. Ironically, people who tend to deny the relationship between their hostility and their exposure to violent media are often oblivious to what is causing them to behave that way. This study can prove this relationship to the ones unaware of it.

Earlier studies have been conducted measuring the effects of video game exposure on school-aged children and their cognition, behavior and attitude changes. Children who played the violent video games were noticed as having more aggression and becoming more assertive. High school students were also examined and researchers found that exposure to violent media caused these students to become more aggressive, cause arguments and do poorly in school. The media priming theory can be associated with this primary research when studying the effects of gaming. The media priming theory focuses on the behavioral effects of those participating in some form of violent media and their subsequent actions towards others. The decision making process is affected towards imitating the media when the media is manipulating.

H1: Participants are more likely to choose a violent movie clip to view if they have been exposed to violent media content
H2: Participants are more likely to choose an extremely violent movie clip if they have played the violent video game

The Study:
All participants completed a pretest questionnaire for individualized research. The selected participants were asked questions relating to their basic media consumption patterns and trait aggression. Each participant was randomly assigned one of four experiments including: playing a violent video game, viewing a clip from a nonviolent film, viewing a clip from a violent film, or playing a nonviolent video game. While participants were given the choice of the three films or games they were given to view, they were able to feel a sense of control in order to put them in a more comfortable setting. After 15-18 minutes per clip, the volunteers are given another questionnaire, this time with questions regarding exposure to the material, enjoyment, and reactions towards material. Finally, participants are asked to choose from a selection of film posters according to which looks most intriguing to them. The observer is able to evaluate how the participant chooses a violent film to view after playing a violent video game, etc.

Researchers found that participants were more likely to choose violent clips to watch immediately after viewing violent content. Participants who physically played violent video games were more likely to choose extremely violent clips to watch. Also, results indicated that men who are naturally aggressive are likely to always choose violent clips to watch no matter what they have been exposed to.

Park, Y., & Raney, A. (2006). Exploring the priming effect of violent video games on subsequent media content selection. Conference Papers -- International Communication Association, 1-6.

Analysis of the Studies

These studies have exemplified why media priming needs to become a part of common knowledge. Anyone who engages in media has their subsequent cognitions and decisions affected by priming, which can be detrimental or beneficial. We see how trying to educate children through media literacy interventions can be troublesome and limiting due to priming. In terms of violent media, a study showed that viewing violence primed minds to choose to continue viewing hostile images. Positively, we see how media priming can influence prosocial behavior, such as donating and volunteering in times of natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina. As it is an unconscious activity, deep in the constructs of human associate memory, it is no wonder why many are in denial of the power of media.

Group 7

This project was completed by Julie Bell, Jade Elam, Hojun Kang, Nicole Langston, and Deidre Weight. JMS408-01 Summer 2011.

Media priming. (2009). In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed., pp. 74-88). New York, NY: Routledge. (Original work published 1994)