Research Roundup: May 2023

A vibrant and collaborative interdisciplinary research culture at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media creates new knowledge, advances scholarship and helps reinvent media.

This latest roundup includes four publications and a conference presentation by Assistant Professor Lee McGuigan, whose book about digital advertising is set to be published in July. More details on "Selling the American People" are listed below, along with a list of other recently published or presented scholarship by UNC Hussman faculty and students.


Aronczyk, M., Li, X., Luo, R., McGuigan, L., & Timke, E. (2022). Author meets critics: A strategic nature: Public relations and the politics of American environmentalism. Advertising & Society Quarterly, 23(3).

One of two authors of "A Strategic Nature: Public Relations and the Politics of American Environmentalism," Melissa Aronczyk, met with marketing and advertising specialists from various disciplines to discuss the topics covered in the book. The conversation was wide-ranging and some of the included topics were: the relationship between public relations and the environment, comparing approaches to environmentalism in China and the United States, and the role of data in discussions around the environment and actions to address environmental and climate problems. The text summarizes excerpts from the conversation, and a recording of the conversation is available alongside the article.

Asfar, T.,  Jebai, R., Li, W., Olusanya, J. O., Ferdous, T., Gautam, P., Schmidt, M., Noar, S. M., Lindblom, E., Eissenberg, T., Bursac, Z., Vallone, D., &. Maziak, W. (2022). Risk and safety profile of electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS): An umbrella review to inform ENDS health communication strategies. Tobacco Control.

To inform health communication strategies about the health profile of electronic nicotine delivery systems, the researchers in this study conducted an umbrella review. The authors collected 90 systematic reviews from six databases, which they then divided into five evidence categories: toxicity, health effects, role in smoking cessation, role in transition to combustible cigarettes and industry marketing claims. Using narrative summaries and meta-analyses where appropriate, the authors categorized the evidence in the articles according to The Institute of Medicine’s levels of evidence framework. High-level evidence illustrated that ENDS exposes users to toxic substances, increases the risk of respiratory disease, leads to nicotine dependence; causes serious injuries due to explosion or poisoning, and increases combustible cigarette initiation. Additionally, exposure to exposure to ENDS marketing increases its use/intention to use, but in clinical trials—not observational studies—ENDS use did increase smoking cessation. Limited, and not conclusive, evidence suggested an association between ENDS use and cancer; ear, ocular and oral diseases; and pregnancy outcomes. The authors recommend that ENDS communication focus on high-level evidence on ENDS association with toxicity, nicotine addiction, respiratory disease, ENDS-specific harm (explosion, poisoning) and anti-ENDS industry sentiment. Direct comparison between the harm of combustible cigarettes and ENDS should be avoided.

Cornacchione Ross, J., Lazard, A.J., McKenzie, A.H., Collins, M.K.R., & Sutfin, E. (2023) What cigarillo companies are putting on Instagram: A content analysis of Swisher Sweets’ marketing from 2013-2020. Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 25(4), 755-762.

Tobacco marketing includes text and visual content, which conveys important meaning to consumers and influences use. However, since little is known about the marketing tactics used by the popular Swisher Sweets brand of cigarillos on social media to promote their products, including their visual design, the researchers conducted a textual and visual content analysis. Content was analyzed via the following categories: product depictions (e.g., warnings, smoking cues), presence of FDA-prohibited or potentially misleading claims (e.g., lower risk, organic), marketing tactics (e.g. celebrities, selling propositions), flavors, and demographic representation. The researchers found that smoking cues were in 764 posts (54.5%), and a warning appeared in 690 (49.2%) posts but was obscured in 29.4% of those instances (n = 203). No posts included FDA-prohibited claims, but some potentially misleading language was identified, including the use of words or visual depictions of smooth (n = 254, 18.1%) and quality/well-made (n = 239, 17%). Marketing tactics such as scarcity (n = 159, 11.3%), event promotion (n = 586, 41.8%) and alcohol depictions (n = 171, 12.2%) were common, and flavor names appeared in 598 posts (42.7%). People depicted were often young adults (n = 709, 50.6%), Black/African American (n = 549, 39.2%), and in groups (n = 473, 33.7%). Using social images of young adults, especially Black individuals, signals the intended use of the product, and these images of visual-based social media may influence appeal, glamorization, and normalization of cigarillo smoking among vulnerable populations.

Goldenfein, J., & McGuigan, L. (2023). Managed sovereigns: How inconsistent accounts of the human rationalize platform advertising. Journal of Law and Political Economy, 3(3).

Online behavioral advertising drives revenue for companies like Meta, Google and Amazon, with privacy self-management governing the flows of personal data that help platforms dominate advertising markets. In this article, the authors argue that this process is reinforced through a process whereby seemingly incompatible conceptions of human subjects are codified and enacted in law and industrial art. On one hand, a rational consumer agrees to the terms of data extraction set by platforms. On the other hand, inside the platform, algorithmic systems act upon a user. However, to transition from consumer to user, individuals pass through a suite of legal and socio-technical systems that each orient market formations around ideas of human rationality. This article details how these ideas are highly productive for platform businesses, and it discusses the implications of these systems.

Grummon, A., Lazard, A.J., Taille, L. S., & Hall, M. G. (2023) Should messages discourage sugary drinks, encourage water, or both? A randomized experiment with U.S. parents. Preventive Medicine, 167, Article 107417.

Campaigns to improve beverage consumption typically focus on discouraging unhealthy beverages, encouraging healthy beverages or both, but it remains unclear which of these strategies is most effective. To better understand the distinctions, the researchers surveyed U.S. parents. Participants were assigned to randomly view one of four messages that mimicked New York City’s “Pouring on the Pounds” campaign: a soda-discouragement message, a water-encouragement message, both soda-discouragement and water-encouragement messages shown side-by-side in random arrangement, or a control message. Compared to those with no exposure, parents who viewed the soda discouragement only message reported significantly higher perceived discouragement from drinking soda, significantly more negative feelings toward drinking soda and stronger intentions to avoid drinking soda. Additionally, parents who viewed the soda discouragement message also reported significantly greater perceived effectiveness, feelings, and intentions related to water consumption. Exposure to the water-encouragement-only message had beneficial effects on outcomes related to water consumption but limited impact on outcomes related to soda consumption. Since exposure to both soda-discouragement and water-encouragement did not outperform the-soda discouragement only, the authors conclude that messaging campaigns discouraging unhealthy beverages may be more promising for improving beverage consumption than messages only promoting healthier beverages.

Ma, H., Kieu, T., Ribisl, K. M., & Noar, S. M. (2023). Do vaping prevention messages impact adolescents and young adults? A meta-analysis of experimental studies. Health Communication, Advance online publication. 

To understand the effects of vaping prevention messages, which are widely used to communicate the health harms and addiction risks of vaping and discourage vaping among adolescents and young adults, the researchers conducted a meta-analysis. Among 12 studies included in the analysis, a total of 35 different vaping-related outcomes and 14 outcomes assessed in two or more independent samples were included. The results suggested that compared to control messages, exposure to vaping prevention messages led to higher vaping risk perceptions, including perceived likelihood of harm and perceived likelihood of addiction. Also, compared to control messages, exposure to vaping prevention messages led to more vaping knowledge, lower intentions to vape, and higher perceived message effectiveness. These findings indicate that vaping prevention messages have an impact; however, they may operate through different theoretical mechanisms than cigarette pack warnings. Implications for future research and policy are discussed.

McGuigan, L., & Rosa-Salas, M. (2023). Numerical and normative constructions of Hispanic consumers. In E. West & M. P. McAllister (Eds.), The Routledge companion to advertising and promotional culture (2nd ed., pp. 126-134). Routledge.

Advertising and media industries actively construct populations as audiences and market segments. The authors of this chapter look at these audience constructions through two lenses: the formal, mathematical modeling of consumer behavior and the racial theories and normative cultural models that say how good consumer-citizens are supposed to act, particularly in relation to stereotypes and multicultural marketing. By using the theoretical and methodological tools of political economy, the authors argue that advertising is an institution of knowledge production and social sorting, and they connect recent developments in data-driven, discriminatory advertising to historical influences from the management sciences in the mid-twentieth century.

McGuigan, L. (2023). Selling the American people: Advertising, optimization, and the origins of adtech. MIT Press.

Though algorithms, data extraction and digital marketers monetizing eyeballs seem like such recent features of our lives, in this book, McGuigan argues that digital advertising was well underway before the widespread use of the internet. The book traces data-driven surveillance all the way back to the 1950s, when the computerization of the advertising business began to blend science, technology and calculative cultures in an ideology of optimization. With that ideology came adtech, a major infrastructure of digital capitalism. By tracing the advertising industry's efforts to bend information technologies toward its dream of efficiency and rational management, he illustrates how surveillance capitalism has come to be one of the defining experiences of public life.

Palmieri, I. M. & Reid, A. (2023) Copyright and shareability: A contractual solution to embedding via social media. Communication Law and Policy, Advance online publication.

As a change in the judicial interpretation of copyright law emerges that could unsettle expectations about the permissibility of embedding internet content, the authors of this article address how social media platforms may be affected. Primarily, social media platforms may need to alter features that facilitate embedding. This article offers a novel solution that could preserve embedding affordances under this emerging revised interpretation. To do so, the authors argue, social media platforms could adopt the presented contractual language in their user agreements. The development and implications of this proposed model are discussed.

Reid, J., Hino, M., Thie, L., & Gray, K. (2023). Insights from the field: How North Carolina local government climate communications compare to IPCC guidelines. Sustainability and Climate Change, 16(2), 162 - 174.

Many local governments are implementing programs in response to the effect of climate change; the purpose of these programs is to reduce individual communities' contributions to climate change and enhance their resilience to climate impacts. To understand how local governments in North Carolina communicate with residents about their climate change programming, the authors interviewed 12 local government sustainability employees about how they communicated with and received input from residents about such climate-change programs. Using the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommendations as a framework, the results illustrate how participants apply some of the IPCC recommendations, with ample opportunities for greater adoption of IPCC strategies in local government communication about climate programs. Participants described the Covid-19 pandemic as a barrier to communicating about climate programs but also was credited as creating an opportunity for enhanced connections in one community. Additionally, participants described misconceptions about climate change programming expressed by residents, such as initiatives being perceived as impractical when they were in fact feasible. Implications for the future of climate-change communications are discussed.

Sutfin, E., Lazard, A.J., Wagoner, K., King, J., Cornacchione Ross, J., Wiseman, K., Orlan, E., Suerken, C., Reboussin, D., Wolfson, M., Noar, S., & Reboussin, B. (2023) Point-of-sale health communication campaign for cigarillos and waterpipe tobacco: Effects and lessons learned from two randomized cluster trials. Health Communication, 38(6), 1201-1212.

Many adolescents and young adults hold erroneous beliefs that cigarillos and waterpipe tobacco are safer than cigarettes; communication campaigns can correct these misperceptions and increase risk beliefs. The researchers in this study two tested point-of-sale communication campaigns at 20 gas stations with convenience stores in North Carolina between June and November 2017. The campaigns focused on chemical exposure for cigarillos and WT, and, within each trial, stores were randomly assigned to either the intervention (campaign messages displayed) or a no message control condition. The researchers then conducted intercept surveys with repeated cross-sectional samples of 50 adolescents and young adults per store, at baseline and follow-up. Though rates of campaign exposure were low (26% for cigarillos; 24.3% for WT), the campaigns increased knowledge that ammonia is in cigarillo smoke and increased knowledge that arsenic is in in WT smoke. No differences were found in outcome expectancies, product attitudes, worry about chemical exposure, or behavioral intentions in either campaign. The researchers conclude that garnering attention for communication campaigns in saturated POS environments, often dominated by tobacco advertising, is challenging, but the implications—and some recommendations—for future POS campaigns are discussed.


Canadian Communication Association
May 30 – June 2, 2023 | Toronto, Canada

McGuigan, L. (2023). Advertising dreams of optimization: The old-media origins of adtech [Conference presentation]. Toronto, ON, CAN.