The Role of Emotion in Processing Low Involvement Advertising

Larry Percy, U.S.A.
[ to cite ]:
Larry Percy (2001) ,"The Role of Emotion in Processing Low Involvement Advertising", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Andrea Groeppel-Klien and Frank-Rudolf Esch, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 293-296.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2001      Pages 293-296


Larry Percy, U.S.A.

A correct understanding of the role emotion plays in communication is essential to understanding advertising effectiveness, because emotion is an important mediator of processing. Yet the role of emotion seems to be misunderstood. There are at least two areas where we need to pay particular attention. First, we must be careful not to confuse 'emotion’ with positive affect. Emotion, even negative emotion, energizes processing, especially memory. And as Rossiter and Percy (1997) have repeatedly pointed out, it is not necessary to 'like’ all advertising for it to be effective. Emotion should and does operate in the processing of all advertising, even cognitive-oriented advertising. Because something is emotionally arousing does not mean it must be an affectively-oriented advert, at least not in terms of the affect-cognition distinction generally made.

How we evaluate information, the extent to which we attach positive or negative 'feelings’ to something, is to a large extent an unconscious (non-declarative) product of learning. Much learning involving positive emotion can proceed independently of conscious cognition, and this distinction is critical in the relationship between emotion and motivation (which we explain below). But emotion also has the ability to enhance declarative memory. Although the amygdala and hippocampus systems of the human brain seem to support non-declarative emotional memories and declarative memories separately, they do work together, and this ability of emotion to also enhance declarative memory is mediated by the amygdala.

The second area of caution deals with how we approach looking at emotion in communication. As Rossiter and Percy (1987), again, have suggested long ago, it is foolish to expect a single emotion to be operating throughout the processing of an advert. Yet even academic research continues to reflect a single emotion theory. What is needed for most brand attitude effects in advertising is a dynamic sequence of emotion. This is especially true of low involvement advertising when negative emotions are involved.


So what exactly do we mean when we are talking about 'emotion’? Emotion, strictly speaking, is a response by the autonomic nervous system to a stimulus. There may or may not be a simultaneous cognitive response associated with it. Emotional responses are elicited, which means they occur automatically upon exposure to a particular stimulus, advertising in our case. Because advertising, to be effective, must relate to the underlying motivation that drives behaviour in the category, emotional response to advertising must relate to the correct motivation, and hence to brand attitude.

Rossiter and Percy (1991) see his happening along the lines proposed by Hammond in his reconceptualization of Mowrer’s theory of emotion. The antecedents of motivations are reflected in the operations of deprivation and are usually mediated by internal stimulus change. For Mowrer (1960 a, b) emotion is a key to learning, drives that are associated with specific eliciting conditions. He sees fear, hope, relief, and disappointment as the fundamental emotions. External stimulus changes which might elicit emotions such as hope and relief are thought to stimulate approach behaviour, while the emotions of fear and disappointment are thought to stimulate avoidance behaviour. When someone senses the possibility of danger, fear will occur, and when the potential danger passes, relief. In response to a stimulus where a person expects to be safe, hope will be elicited. But if that expectation passes, there will be disappointment (see Figure 1).

Hammond’s (1970) work is informed by Mowrer’s notion that rewarding events lead to drive reduction and punishing events lead to drive induction. But he reworked Mowrer’s original formulations, suggesting rather that stimuli likely to increase the occurrence of an adverse state or decrease the occurrence of a rewarding state will be excitatory, eliciting fear or hope; stimuli that are likely to decrease the likelihood of either an adverse or rewarding state will be inhibitory, eliciting relief or disappointment (see Figure 2).

Strongman (1987) feels that Hammond provides the best synthesis of behavioural work on emotion, bringing together as it does both Hullian and Skinnerian ideas of behaviourism. He sees emotion as a central state elicited by both learned and unlearned stimuli; and the stimuli in both cases may be the presence or absence of either reward or punishment. To Strongman, this represents emotion within a motivational framework. This fits nicely with the homeostatic concept of motivation advanced by Rossiter and Percy in which there are two fundamental motivating mechanisms, one positive and one negative.

This homeostatic view follows directly from a need for marketing communication to facilitate the formation or reinforcement of a positive brand attitude which is consistent with the appropriate motivation driving behaviour in the category. Most psychologists see all behaviour as the result of specific motivation. With few exceptions these motivations will be classified as positively originated or negatively originated. In their formulation, Rossiter and Percy call negatively originated motives 'informational’ and positively originated motives 'transformational,’ and as we shall see, very specific emotional responses will be associated with these different motives.

The onset of a negative stimulus should motivate a person to reduce or remove the stimulus in order to return to equilibrium. You have a headache and seek something to remoe the pain (problem removal). You worry about what will happen to your young family if you have a fatal accident, so you buy insurance (problem avoidance). With the onset of positive stimulus, a person will maximize the utility of that stimulus until satiated, at which point they return to equilibrium. You smell fresh-baked cookies in the kitchen, seek them out and eat several until you are full (sensory gratification).

An understanding of this response relationship informs the distinction between informational and transformational brand attitude strategies for advertising. If the underlying motivation driving behaviour is negative, one set of creative tactics related to the emotional portrayal of the motivation will be required; if the underlying motivation is positive, a very different set of creative tactics will be required. We are looking for an emotional response that followed either indirectly from an evaluation of the benefit claim in our advert (the usual path for negatively motivated behaviour) or directly from executional elements within the advert (the usual path for positively motivated behaviour).

While emotional responses to stimuli are very specific, one can nonetheless look for certain emotions to be associated with particular motivations, very much in the spirit of Hammond’s reconceptualizations of Mowrer’s theory. Rossiter and Percy (1987) remind us that emotional stimuli in advertising should be used to elicit responses that are associated with the appropriate underlying motivation that is driving behaviour in the category. At the same time they point out that there are really no general schema that represent the exact functioning of emotions. However, if we look at something like Russell and Pratt’s (1980) circumplex notion of emotion we can see that one can organize emotions into generalized categories.





Utilizing an emotional categorization theory (like Russell and Pratt), it is possible to see how one can match certain emotional categories with particular motivations. The Russell and Pratt emotional categorization theory arrays categories of emotions around the circumference of a circle in such a way that each category has a logical 'opposite.’ Unpleasant-Pleasant, Dull-Exciting, Sleepy-Arousing, Relaxing-Distressing. Negative motivations such as problem-solution or problem avoidance are likely to follow a 'distressing’ to 'relaxing’ sequence of emotional response. A problem occurs, stimulating a 'distressing’ emotional response, followed by a 'relaxing’ emotional state when the problem is solved or avoided. Positive motivations such as sensory gratification are likely to follow a 'dull’ to 'exciting’ emotional sequence. Someone is feeling bored or 'dull’ when confronted with an opportunity to enjoy themselves which elicits a positive 'exciting’ emotional state.

Perhaps the most important insight here for advertising is the realization that in building or sustaining a positive brand attitude, to adequately address the originating motivation involved a dynamic sequence of emotional responses should be elicited. It would be inappropriate to think in terms of only a single emotion, or more precisely a single emotional state. What is likely to be involved is a transfer from one emotional state to another, and this must be implied or represented in the advertising. 'Oh, no, look at those stains on my new shirt’ (mild anxiety). 'Look, the advertised brand got the stain out’ (relief). This should be a very familiar scenario for every detergent or cleanser advert ever run. And it should underscore the fact that a sequence of emotion is involved (a point all too often ignored by both academic and practitioner advertising research).


Let us now turn our attention specifically to emotional responses in advertising. Emotional stimuli should be included in adverts in order to serve an underlying purchase or usag motivation, where motivation is defined as a behavioural energizing mechanism. It is this emotional energy that affects brand attitude communication effects. At the low involvement level, when dealing with negatively motivated behaviour, emotion will operate directly upon brand attitude, but when dealing with positively motivated behaviour, emotion will operate on brand attitude indirectly through attitude toward the advertising. This is why it is essential that advertising dealing with positive motives must be seen as 'emotionally authentic.’

These two dimensions of involvement and motivation are what define the brand attitude quadrants of the original 'grid’ theory of Rossiter and Percy (1984). In their view, involvement is defined in terms of risk, either fiscal or psychological. The fundamental difference between low and high involvement advertising is that in terms of processing, low involvement advertising only requires attention and learning, but with high involvement advertising one must also accept the message as true. As a result, it is easier to process low involvement advertising because the target audience does not need to be convinced by the benefit claim, they only need to have their curiosity aroused.

The relative contribution of the emotional component of the benefit claim will differ significantly according to the motivational aspect of the brand attitude. Specifically, when dealing with low involvement/informational (i.e. negative originating motives) advertising the emotional portrayal of the motivation itself is not as important as adequate benefit claim support. Information must be provided that satisfies the need, 'solves’ the problem being addressed. Emotion in this case will be largely confined to energizing the processing of the message, and the correct emotional sequence will facilitate this. In the low involvement/transformational (i.e. positive originating motives) case, however, the correct emotional portrayal of the motivation is critical to the delivery of the message. Emotional responses stimulated by creative elements within low involvement advertising facilitate learning.

Rossiter and Percy (1987) proposed a set of specific emotional sequences that might be associated with particular positive and negative motivation in advertising. In their original formulation they are careful to remind us that these hypothesized emotional sequence are just that: typical emotions that might be used in advertising to elicit an emotional response that will help stimulate the motivation. There is no doubt that advertising, like any stimulus, will elicit emotional responses, and that these will be related to motivations. But as noted earlier, emotional responses are specific, not general. Nevertheless, certain categories of emotional response sequences do seem to make sense. To reflect a negative motivation, for example, they suggest an emotional sequence such as 'annoyedBrelieved’ (problem removal) or 'fearfulBrelaxed’ (problem avoidance); and to stimulate positive motivations emotional sequences such as 'dull (or neutral)Bjoyful’ (sensory gratification) or 'apprehension (or neutral)Bflattered’ (social approval). The debt to Russell and Pratt in this formulation should be clear.

Low Involvement/Informational Advertising

The emotional portrayal of the motivation is low involvement/informational advertising should follow a simple problem-solution format. The problem is presented first, then the brand is offered as the 'solution.’ This follows from the emotional sequence generally associated with negatively originated motivations. This principle applies to both print and broadcast. Interestingly, low involvement/informational advertising does not need to be 'liked.’ This type of advertising works by introducing a problem or disagreeable situation which must be associated with negative emotional states before they can be resolved and elicit more positive emotional responses.

Low Involvement/Transformational Advertising

In the case of low involvement/transformational advertising, an authentic emotional portrayal is essential because in most cases it is this emotional response which becomes the key benefit for the brand. When dealing with positive motivations in advertising, one is attempting to draw the target audience emotionally into the role of using the brand. They must 'see’ or 'feel’ themselves experiencing the brand’s benefit, satisfying the positive motivation that drives their behaviour in the category, and experiencing the appropriate emotional response. You quite literally feel the exhilaration of driving the car or sense the envy of others as they see how attractive you look (for example) as a result of the advertising. If this positive emotional response is better than what is experienced when exposed to the marketing communication for other brands, this will be reason enough for choosing the brand (given the low involvement nature of the decision).

Unlike when dealing with negative motivations, where there is an emphasis on both the initial negative emotional state followed by the positive emotional resolution, the emphasis here is on the positive emotional end-state of the sequence. Also, again unlike when dealing with negative motivations, it is important that the target audience like the advertising. This should be obvious given the fact that it is the positive emotional response that is created by the advertising which becomes the perceived benefit of the brand.


In this paper, we have explored the role of emotion in the processing of low involvement advertising, pointing out the important link between emotion and motivation. Behaviour driven by negatively originated motives tend to be more a function of declarative than non-declarative memory, while behaviour driven by positively originated motives is more likely to be mediated by emotional learning associated with nondeclarative memory. Fortunately, the involvement of emotion in processing advertising (especially low involvement advertising) for both positively and negatively motivated product categories is mediated by the amygdala. This, of course, means that emotion plays a role in informational driven advertising strategies as well as the more obvious transformational strategies.

The precise emotional response involved in optimizing the processing of low involvement advertising will be a function of the underlying motivation driving behaviour in the category, as reflected in the brand attitude strategy. The important point is that an emotional sequence is involved, one that is likely to be consistent with the emotional memory associated with category behaviour: negative to neutral or slightly positive for negative motivation; mildly negative or neutral to positive for positive motivation.

Given the discreet nature of emotional responses, empirical testing of emotion-motivation associations and the idea of an emotional sequence is not easy. The problem, of course, is that when free to 'describe’ one’s emotions, there is no necessarily common vocabulary; and when emotional check-lists are made, there is the problem of emotional meaning. Nevertheless, there is some empirical evidence that does tend to support the theory. Although not addressing the sequence issue, Kover and Abruzzo (1993) found that individual emotions do discriminate well between informational and transformational adverts. This was also supported by Percy and Rossiter (1991). Kamp and MacInnis (1995) found support for at least a low level version of the idea of an emotional sequence, as did Rossiter and Percy (1991). In their study, subjects had an opportunity to select from a list of emotional adjective pairs and single emotion adjectives which they felt 'best described how they felt the (test) advertisement was trying to make them feel.’ For low involvement/informational adverts, 7% selected an emotional adjective pair, while for low involvement/transformational adverts, 99% selected a single emotional adjective (reflecting the hypothesized end-state emotion associated with positive motivations).

In conclusion, emotion influences the processing of low involvement advertising as these executions stimulate emotional responses consistent with the purchase motivations reflected in the brand attitude strategy. The appropriate emotional sequence, associated with the appropriate motivation, is what facilitates that processing.


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