How Severe is that Message?


“It is estimated that one woman dies from cardiovascular disease every 30 seconds.”

Imagine you are an obese 65-year-old Caucasian woman. Do the image and message make you feel at risk of getting heart disease, let alone die from it? You probably read the statement, see the image and feel the issue’s heaviness. Somehow though, you feel disconnected. It’s unlikely you think, “This could happen to me.” The overall message lacks severity, which is why you can’t relate to it.

The Extended Parallel Processing Model suggests that health risk messages elicit some form of message processing by receivers. The model emphasizes the relationships among threat, efficacy and fear in terms of the four components in a successful health plan: susceptibility, severity, response efficacy and self efficacy. The success of a health message depends on all four components; however, one’s level of susceptibility and severity determines whether he or she will understand, relate, or even listen to a message. Without a high level of perceived threat or vulnerability, one will see no reason to change his or her behaviors.

According to the EPPM, severity is one’s measurement of a threat and how serious it is in relation to him or her. One will assess a risk, typically in the form of a health-related message, and pose the question, “Could I be significantly harmed by this threat?” If yes, one will be motivated to follow the message and consider the suggested solution for prevention. If no, one will ignore the message and risk entirely.

The Heart Truth, a campaign aimed to inform women of their risk of cardiovascular disease, utilized well-known celebrities (primarily youthful, slim Caucasian women) and high-fashion clothing (including pricey Diane von Furstenberg dresses that cost $500 on average) to catch women’s attention (The fashion show was one of many tactics the campaign used to relay its message). Interestingly, those most at risk of heart disease are women 65 or older, black or Hispanic, obese and with a fixed income. Although this tactic was gaining authority by employing well-known public figures, celebrities typically look far different from those at risk of heart disease. This is not to say the campaign didn’t do well: Statistically, women’s overall awareness of cardiovascular disease as the number one killer of women increased to 57 percent from 34 percent in 2000, making an obvious impact on the target audience.

When evaluating a health-related message, it is important to recognize consistency within the message. Equally valuable is recognizing if the target audience can relate to the message enough to feel at risk. Seeing a thin, youthful actress jetting down a runway probably won’t help an overweight, 65-year-old woman change her lifestyle habits that put her at risk for heart disease. However, a 65-year-old woman in a red dress could.


Keep yourself in the assumed role of a 65-year-old Caucasian woman and look at this image and message.

“It is estimated that one woman dies from cardiovascular disease every 30 seconds.”

How do you perceive your level of threat now?

(Information provided in this blog post is from “Putting It All Together,” chapter three of “Effective Health Risk Messages: A Step-by-Step Guide” by Dennis Martell, Gary Meyer and Kim Witte. Top image provided by entertainment blog, “Hot Celebs Home.” Bottom image provided by the University of Michigan School of Public Health’s Findings Magazine.)



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3 responses to “How Severe is that Message?

  1. Great post Adrienne! This is a great case study to showcase! What will you post next?

  2. Pingback: Is Having an “Awareness” Goal a Cop-Out? « The PR Post

  3. Pingback: Top Student Blog Posts, Fall 2009 « The PR Post

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