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Project 3: Persuading people to have safer sex: the role of peers and personas

Who & When
General Background
Research Questions
Theoretical Embedding
Research Methodology
Work Plan
Expected Outcomes


Who & When

Project co-ordinator: Prof. Dr. M.F. Steehouder (University of Twente)
Researcher: Mr E Saal (PhD)
Supervision: Prof C Jansen (Nijmegen University)
Prof H Hoeken (Nijmegen University)
Prof P H Swanepoel (Unisa, Pretoria)
Co-researchers Students from participating universities
Advisors: Prof M.F. Steehouder (University of Twente)
Prof. L. de Stadler (University of Stellenbosch)
Starting date: January 2003
Date of completion: December 2006


up General background

HIV/AIDS messages are often aimed at young, sexually active people. For the kind of behaviour the documents are aimed to modify, peer group pressure plays an important role. The effectiveness of these messages may improve if the arguments are put forward by an influential peer.

Evoking a credible peer may be done by using photographs and qualifications. Another possibility is the kind of language used in the message. This use of language may resemble the style of the target group, thereby creating the feeling that it is "one of ours" who is talking to them.



up Research questions

  • Which kind of sources [ author roles] are used in South African health communication?

  • Which kind of language is used in South African health communication?

  • To what extent do the different target groups consider peers as influential sources with respect to safe sex? (Related to this: Which peers are regarded as influential by the different target groups?)

  • Which language characteristics 'create' attractive credible peer-authors in written documents?

  • Which kind of reader personas are used in South African health communication?

  • How effective is it when readers are addressed as peers?

  • How important is it to create a reader persona that corresponds with , i.e. is highly similar to, the real target group of the documents?

  • Which linguistic and rhetorical strategies create an attractive reader role for the target group?

  • Do different target groups respond differently to different (peer) sources and different use of language?


up Theoretical embedding

Source credibility has been widely researched especially in the field of communication and social psychology. There is overwhelming support in literature for the premise that the characteristics of the source can have significant persuasive impact on the receiver of the message. Especially research in the context of dual-process models (Heuristic-Systematic Model, Chaiken 1987; Elaboration Likelihood Model, Petty & Cacioppo 1986), has often manipulated source characteristics to study the persuasion process.

However, most of these studies have manipulated the source's credibility by providing information about its qualifications and experience, thereby influencing the source's expertise. Much less research has been directed towards the effect of a source's similarity to the target audience. O'Keefe (1990:151) concludes that the effects of similarity on persuasive outcomes are complex and indirect, and no single easy generalization will encompass those varied effects.

Apart from studying how source similarity may influence the persuasiveness in the context of HIV/AIDS prevention messages for the different target groups, this project also deals with the question how the language use in the messages may influence the perception of source similarity. The accommodation theory (Giles 1973) predicts that a source who adapts his or her language use to that of the receiver, is perceived as "one of us" by those receivers. This theory has been tested almost exclusively in interpersonal communications; in this project we try to extend this theory to document-mediated communication as well. If the target audience expects to be addressed in a certain style, and these expectations are not confirmed, these breaches of expectations may influence the perceived source's credibility and similarity (Bradac, Bowers & Courtright 1980; Burgoon & Miller 1985).



up Research Methodology

  • Literature study

  • Corpus analysis

  • Focus group, using participatory techniques, interviews and questionnaires (to be developed in co-operation with Dr H Boer and Prof A Carstens)

  • Experiments with different text versions


up Work plan

Phase 1
January 2003 - December 2003
Literature review, corpus compilation and analysing of existing HIV/AIDS public information documents to identify the different sources and type of language being used

Phase 2
January 2004- December 2004
Experimental research: designing different text versions on the basis of research and best practices, testing these text versions in different cultural groups

Phase 3
January 2005- December 2006
Research findings and developing of theory-based heuristics for the use of credible sources in HIV/AIDS public information documents



up Expected outcomes

Expected main findings:

Guidelines for the interaction between (adolescent) peers as credible sources and variables in HIV/AIDS public information documents

Expected packaged results
  • PhD

  • Research articles

  • Workshop contributions