Public service advertisers may benefit from using narrative storytelling to elicit a sense of empathy among their audience, a study published in the Journal of Advertising Research (JAR) has found.

Eunjin (Anna) Kim (University of Southern California) and Sidharth Muralidharan (Southern Methodist University) discussed this subject in a paper entitled, The role of empathy and efficacy in public service announcements: Using narratives to induce bystander intervention in domestic violence.

And, they wrote, to achieve “more favorable public service announcement attitudes and stronger reporting intentions to occur, advertisers would benefit from using empathy-laden narrative formats”.

Their study involved a panel of 107 adults – of which 51% were female, and 49% male – who responded to two ads for a fictitious non-profit that helped domestic violence victims.

“Given that domestic violence is a sensitive issue, embedding personal accounts of abuse (transformational) in public service announcements would be far more impactful on bystanders than hard facts (informational),” the authors proposed, based on the results.

In reaching this conclusion, their study created two public service announcements to test the strength of different types of appeals.

One of the ads used a non-narrative approach, and informed participants about the definition of intimate partner violence, the impact on the victim, and statistics pertaining to this problem in the US.

The narrative ad, by contrast, told the fictional story of a character named “Susan”, who was 28-years-old, living in Seattle, and was abused by her husband.

Alongside being identical in layout and spacing, both ads were said to promote a made up non-profit – called “Enough” – that supported victims of domestic violence.

The research offered some insights regarding why narrative messages are more impactful than their non-narrative counterparts, as they “elicited greater empathy in the viewer”.

Among the creative recommendations for narrative public service messages were that “advertisers first should elicit empathy for the victim and at the very beginning of the public service announcement”.

“Once a heightened level of empathy has been attained, bystanders will develop strong beliefs that they have the ability to help the abused individuals.”

Then, to “translate efficacy into positive reporting intentions, solutions that aid bystanders in executing a successful intervention (e.g, helpline numbers to call) can be provided toward the end of the public service announcement”.

Sourced from Journal of Advertising Research; additional content by WARC staff