Saleem Alhabash recognizes that when it comes to advertising, some people love it and some people don't. The assistant professor of Public Relations and Social Media also admits he's so fascinated by the advertising discipline that he's committed to studying its persuasive effects.
As Co-Director of ComArtSci's Media and Advertising Psychology (MAP) Lab, Alhabash oversees research and analysis driven by the psychophysiological changes and eye movements that occur when people view mediated communication. And while that sounds a bit abstract, the overarching mission of the lab is simple.
"We're trying to understand how advertising is effective by studying it as a process," Alhabash said. "We want see the kinds of effects it has on people, and then address questions about those effects within an ethical and legal context."
Since the MAP Lab opened in 2014, Alhabash has been the principal investigator of several studies that have collected data via high-tech devices to measure physical responses like heart rate, respiration, facial expressions, skin conductance and eye movement.
In his most recent research, social networking sites and other social media platforms are being put under the MAP Lab "microscope" as Alhabash leads teams of faculty collaborators and students to unlock how new communication technologies influence attitudes and behaviors.
In one study, Alhabash seeks to understand how particular responses to alcohol advertisements can predict drinking behavior among students college age and younger. Findings show that exposure to alcohol ads on sites like Facebook and Instagram, as well as the number of likes, shares and comments an ad receives, affects drinking behaviors and perceptions.
"The moment people want to like, share and comment, the likelihood of them drinking increases significantly," Alhabash said. "We found that the marketing effects are more pronounced on students in low- to moderate-risk groups, which has great implications for regulations."
Currently, alcohol advertising on social media isn't regulated like it is through traditional media and is left to the discretion of the advertiser and social media venue.
"You have all these messages coming to underage people, showing them how cool it is to drink, which might quicken the onset of drinking," Alhabash said. "This doesn't just apply to alcohol, but to other harmful behaviors like drug use, unprotected sex or cigarette smoking. It can form an expectation of what the social norm is."
A targeted outcome of the study is to discover the strategies and tactics used to create effective, behavior-changing ads, and then to use those methods to create counter messages.
"Think about how easily messages are accessed on mobile phones," Alhabash said. "We want to find out what advertisers do that works, how those messages prime memories and create expectations, and then apply those tactics to convince underage people not to drink."
In addition to this research, Alhabash is collaborating on a MAP Lab study that examines impulsive or deviant behaviors on social media. Part of the research will focus on cyberbullying among college-age populations, another on more general causes of digital aggression across the life span.
"Is it the problem of the system of social media that makes people feel less restrained and more inclined to be aggressive? Or is it a certain type of person?" Alhabash asks. "We're trying to come to a level of understanding about the precursors of digital aggression and why it happens."