A “Clear and Conspicuous” Distraction: Coping with Incongruent Audiovisual Content in Direct-to-Consumer Advertisements

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Direct-to-consumer television advertisements for pharmaceutical medications must include a major statement disclosing the drug's most important risks and side effects. However, advertisers often pair incongruent positive visual imagery with risk information presented auditorily. Incongruence violates a principle of effective communication because it distracts from information processing. Across three studies, the authors consider how audiovisual incongruity biases perceptions of an advertised drug's risks and benefits. Using moment-to-moment measurement, Study 1 reveals that the rate of change in risk perceptions increases (i.e., accelerates) immediately after the flow of positive imagery is interrupted by a scene change during the major statement, but no such effect is observed for the advertisement in its entirety. Using post hoc measures, the latter two studies support these results. Studies 2 and 3 demonstrate that auditory risk disclosures may be enhanced by replacing distracting imagery with congruent, reinforcing text (Study 2) or by educating consumers about how distracting imagery is used as a distraction tactic (Study 3). Implications for advertising theory and recommendations for policy makers are discussed.