USF studying public impact of media's coronavirus messaging

Public health messages share important information, and a group of University of South Florida researchers are looking into how people react to them during the pandemic.

A new study at USF is using facial recognition and eye-tracking technology to analyze how effective COVID-19 related messages are from medical providers.

"What we’re focused on specifically for this project is that people are just afraid to come in and see their doctor in person because they’re afraid of catching COVID when they go to the health clinic," Claudia Parvanta, a professor at the USF College of Public Health and director of the Florida Prevention Research Center.

Doctors said they’re concerned patients are skipping appointments and emergency care, so USF is testing how people react to COVID-19 ads from BayCare and other local providers about the steps they are taking to ensure a safe environment.

"They want to know where are people bored in their video, and we’re talking only about a little 15 or 30-second video message or print ad. But they want us to be able to tell them this works better than this," said Parvanta. "We’re using the same technology that they use to test the commercials for the Super Bowl."

Parvanta said this is a collaborative effort within USF with the business and mass communication departments. Researchers are using the biometric technology to get real-time, unfiltered reactions along with opinions about the messaging, and it’s all being done remotely through video recordings.

"Your eyebrows raise and it might be a surprise. Or a frown and it might be unhappy. Or it might just be confusing that you’re squinting your eyes and turning your head to the side," said Rob Hammond, the director of the Center for Marketing and Sales Innovation at the USF Muma College of Business. "We get very good indications of engagement and attention as well as their emotional reactions."

The goal is to give providers a better sense of what matters to people, so they can know what drives their health decisions for the future. Hammond said it can work with any public health message.

"In the end it’s about finding these research topics that have broad impact and can actually have a substantial impact and change how we approach the market," said Hammond.

Researchers are wrapping up their work soon, so doctors can make those changes.

Hammond and Parvanta will also use what they learn in this research for a collaborative study with Morehouse College on COVID messaging in minority communities. They said the work will look at how different groups respond to ads about masks and vaccines, and they expect the research to start this summer.