Advertising as persuasion may be defined as an instrumental and intentional form of commercial communication by which a deliberate attempt is made to convince consumers of the value of the message position, i.e., the product or brand advertised. Advertising as persuasion focuses on the impact of advertising stimuli on cognitive, affective, and behavioral consumer responses (Kardes 2002). Implied in this conceptualization is a focus on the effectiveness of advertising on the individual level, rather than on a more aggregate level. Advertising stimuli can pertain to message elements (e.g., advertising format, the use of fear appeals, humor, sex, music, or number of arguments), source elements (e.g., brand familiarity, endorser characteristics such as fame, attractiveness, or credibility), or channel elements (e.g., visual versus nonvisual means of communication). Cognitive responses include belief and attitude formation and change. Affective responses include the influence of ads on emotions and mood. Behavioral responses pertain to purchase and choice behavior, consumer decision-making, and brand loyalty.
Although this definition suggests a linear process and passive receiver, the body of research paints another picture. That is, any impact advertising may have depends largely on the way the consumer responds to the message, understood as the extent and valence of information processing in response to the message. In this article, we will discuss classic, contemporary, and future approaches to the study of advertising as persuasion.
Founded in the late 1940s, a Yale University team sought to systematically disentangle the persuasion process. Their findings are a generally acknowledged source of reference for explaining the psychological impact of advertising. This program of research was spurred, in part, by the realization of the US army by the end of World War II that persuasion constituted a powerful means by which a nation’s population could be mobilized, as witnessed by the success of the propaganda of the Nazis. As a loose framework, the Yale group arranged their studies around Harold Lasswell’s (1948, 37) classic communication effects formula: “who says what to whom in which channel with what effect.” Hence, the program studied the effects of various source factors (“who says”) such as credibility and expertise, message factors (“what”) such as the use of fear appeals or message sidedness, the role of individual differences of message recipients (“to whom”), and different types of dependent variables (“with what effect”). This line of research featured the so-called message-learning approach to persuasion: Any form of persuasion, including persuasion resulting from exposure to advertising, involves a fourstage process: attention, comprehension, yielding, and retention. Hence, persuasive ads are those that are attention grabbing, easy to comprehend, convincing, and memorable (see Kardes 2002).
In line with the message-learning approach to persuasion, William McGuire (1968, 1989) developed a theory of information processing that acknowledged various basic stages of persuasion. In addition, he stressed the importance of recipient activity. McGuire’s theory holds that persuasion is mediated by at least three main steps that occur hierarchically: attention, comprehension, and yielding. McGuire stipulated that recipient characteristics influence the extent and impact of each of these processes. For instance, a recipient’s self-esteem may facilitate reception (because of a positive influence on comprehension), but may adversely affect yielding. Similarly, a person’s intelligence as measured by an IQ test may have a positive impact on reception, but a negative one on yielding.
Although the foregoing theories have been developed and tested with various types of persuasive communication in mind, hierarchy-of-effects models have been conceptualized specifically by advertising practitioners and researchers to account for the impact of commercial communication on purchase behavior. Although their empirical value is generally low, and they are considered obsolete in the academic community, their influence is still pervasive in the field of advertising practice, probably because of their heuristic value. In short, and in line with the frameworks discussed earlier, hierarchy-of-effects models posit that advertising affects behavior through a fixed sequence of stages. The best-known exponent of these is the so-called AIDA-model, an acronym that describes the effectiveness of advertising as a sequence of attention, interest, desire, and action. Over the years, modifications to this model have been proposed, each involving a different acronym, including “AIDCA” (attention, interest, desire, conviction, action), “ACCA” (awareness, comprehension, conviction, action), and “AIETA” (awareness, interest, evaluation, trial, adoption).
Apart from a fixed sequence of stages, these models share the notion of a fixed “think– feel–do” sequence in which all advertising is processed via a cognitive stage (“what do I think about it?”), followed by an affective stage (“how do I feel about it?”), and finally a behavioral stage (“how do I act with regard to it?”). The think–feel–do sequence has proven to be problematic as an account of the various ways that ads are processed. The most prolific problem associated with these hierarchies is that the fixed sequence of processes presupposes a relatively high level of consumer involvement: the prototypical consumer is exposed to an ad, which invariably spurs his or her interest, induces desire, and so on. However, high consumer involvement levels are the exception rather than the rule. To accommodate this reality, contemporary approaches to examining ad effectiveness acknowledge that people often process information in less effortful ways.
The elaboration likelihood model (ELM; Petty & Cacioppo 1981, 1986; Petty et al. 1983) and the heuristic systematic processing model (HSM; Chaiken 1980; Chaiken et al. 1989) are considered “dual process models” (Chaiken & Trope 1999). These models assume that persuasion (defined as attitude change in response to exposure to a persuasive message) may be a function of two distinct modes of processing that anchor a controlled– automatic continuum. “Central route” (the ELM annotation) or “systematic” (the HSM annotation) processing occurs when consumer motivation and/or ability is high. Under these conditions, persuasion is the result of careful scrutiny of the true merits of the product that is advertised in the message. Consequently, attitude change is a function of the quality of the arguments presented in the message. This attitude change is thought to be highly predictive of behavior. Thus, product attitudes formed or changed systematically via the central route may predict purchase behavior, depending on their valence. In contrast, when motivation and/or ability is low, persuasion comes about via less effortful means, i.e., via “peripheral route” or “heuristic” processing, respectively. Under these conditions, consumers base their evaluations on message elements that offer shortcuts for inferring something about product quality.
The unimodel (Kruglanski & Thompson 1999; Kruglanski et al. 1999) is more parsimonious than the ELM or HSM; it basically poses one key process instead of two. Based on lay epistemic theory, the unimodel holds that advertising affects persuasion through a process of implicit hypothesis testing by the consumer, influenced by the structure of the message elements presented to support the advertised product, the ability of the consumer to engage in effortful processing, and the motivation that may influence the extent and/or direction of processing. In contrast to dual process models, the unimodel holds that all message elements (i.e., arguments and other persuasive elements) in an ad are essentially processed the same way (through a single route), to the extent that these elements are deemed relevant for the position in the ad.
The acronym MODE stands for motivation and opportunity as key determinants of persuasion. The model (Fazio 1990) shares with dual process models and the unimodel the emphasis on both motivation and a specific form of ability (i.e., opportunity) as factors affecting the extent and/or direction of ad processing. Like these models, it posits that when motivation is high and opportunity abundant, extensive information processing may occur that results in product or brand attitudes that guide future (purchasing) behavior. In addition to these models, however, the MODE model is more optimistic regarding the attitude–behavior link when either motivation and/or opportunity is low. In that situation, the MODE model would hold that highly accessible attitudes (e.g., brand attitudes that have evolved over a prolonged period of exposure to extensive advertising) might still affect choice behavior, albeit without any extensive processing. When exposed to the attitude object (i.e., the product or brand), the valence of this accessible attitude triggers a process of selective perception, by which either positive or negative aspects of the object are highlighted. This drives behavior, such that largely favorable attitudes result in approach behavior (e.g., purchasing the product), whereas negative attitudes induce an avoidance response.
All frameworks discussed so far rely on conscious consumer processing as a basis for understanding persuasion effects, although they differ in the proposed extent and direction of this processing. This leaves open a vast reservoir of consumer persuasion and behavior phenomena that has been left largely unaddressed: unconscious influences of advertising on consumer behavior. Since the beginning of the new millennium, a renewed interest in automatic and unconscious consumer processes has flourished, spurred, in part, by work on automatic construct activation (i.e., “priming”; Bargh 2002). This trend has even accumulated in renewed research attention to one of the great myths of advertising as persuasion: subliminal influence of ad-related stimuli (Dijksterhuis et al. 2005; Strahan et al. 2002).
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