Visiting lecturer presents research on negative advertising’s effect on memory

Joan Vinson

The unintended messages portrayed by the media play a larger role in an audience member’s memory than the intended ones, according to a Cornell University assistant professor.

The Department of Radio-Television-Film Colloquium Series presented a discussion Thursday led by Cornell University assistant professor Sahara Byrne called “The Boomerang Effect.” Byrne’s research shows that people resist persuasive arguments that intend to change attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. She focuses on the way messages are perceived based on the conditions under which they are presented.

Byrne said her first recognition of the boomerang effect was during a lecture when she was in middle school. She said the lecture focused on a beautiful 16-year-old girl named Vanessa who had been addicted to heroin. After leaving the talk, Byrne said despite Vanessa’s addiction to heroin, her friends were attracted to her physical appearance and wanted to be like her.

“I started to wonder what kinds of effects did sexual messages have on society and what kind of psychological effects would the way women are seen over time have on individuals,” Byrne said. “So I decided to get a Ph.D. to answer some of these questions.”

Byrne’s study on the boomerang effect began with an experiment aiming to prevent negative effects of violent media on children by conducting an intervention to help children use less aggression after watching violent films, she said. Byrne said she concluded that the only children able to avoid aggression were children with a high cognitive ability who also received a media lesson helping to instill morals. Byrne said the children at risk are those with a low cognitive ability, and steps need to be taken to help these children avoid the boomerang effect.

“We need to think about how to help people focus on resisting the negative effects of advertising,” Byrne said.

Byrne derived an experiment using a mobile device to test the boomerang effect. She said she distributed cell phones to a group of younger students, who used the phone to take pictures of their breakfasts each morning. The pictures were sent to virtual pets who would either approve or disapprove of the meal based on nutritional value, Bryne said. She said there are major advantages of using the mobile study, because it allowed her to tailor the experiment by giving the students a device to connect to the study.

Communications studies graduate student Ashley Muddiman said she thinks the boomerang effect applies to everyday life because of the prevalence of advertising.

“The boomerang effect is important because advertisements are everywhere,” Muddiman said. “I question if I resist something being advertised because of the messages being thrown at me.”

Radio-television-film graduate student Rui Wu said she has experienced an urge to buy something regardless of the negative advertisements presented.

“I have seen the boomerang effect in action many times,” Wu said. “I have been out with my boyfriend, and he will see an advertisement that warns the public about the negative effects of smoking and then he will proceed to buy a pack of cigarettes.”