A Conceptual View of Questions and Questioning in Marketing Communications

James M. Munch, The Pennsylvania State University
John L. Swasy, The Pennsylvania State University
ABSTRACT - Although questions and questioning represent important aspects of marketing communications, the role of these communication factors in marketing persuasion has not been systematically addressed. This paper attempts to highlight the need to conceptually examine these factors in both one and two-way marketing communications.
[ to cite ]:
James M. Munch and John L. Swasy (1983) ,"A Conceptual View of Questions and Questioning in Marketing Communications", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, eds. Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 209-214.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, 1983      Pages 209-214


James M. Munch, The Pennsylvania State University

John L. Swasy, The Pennsylvania State University

[James M. Munch is a doctoral student in marketing and John L. Swasy is an assistant professor of marketing at the Pennsylvania State University. All correspondence should be sent to James M. Munch, Dept. of Marketing, The Pennsylvania State University, 707 Business Administration Building, University Park, PA 16802, (814) 863-0728.]


Although questions and questioning represent important aspects of marketing communications, the role of these communication factors in marketing persuasion has not been systematically addressed. This paper attempts to highlight the need to conceptually examine these factors in both one and two-way marketing communications.

A conceptual framework to order research on questions is developed as the first step in assessing important psychological process underlying questions and questioning. The two dimensions of the model, a response mode and a cognitive mode are suggested based on an interdisciplinary review of research on questions. Marketing implications of the two factor models are discussed and hypotheses derived from the model.


Communication variables examined in persuasion studies are typically discussed in terms of source, message, channel, receiver and destination effects (McGuire, 1969). More research has been done on message factors than on any other variables (Percy and Rossiter, 1980). Several variables which have been investigated include type of message appeal (e.g., fear, humor), affirmative versus negative sentences, passive versus active voice, and concrete versus abstract words (c.f., Percy and Rossiter, 1980, pp. 129-171). Despite such extensive research on message characteristics, very little has addressed questions within a persuasive communication. This paper examines this issue while recognizing that an understanding of the impact of/and processes underlying the effects of questions and questioning requires examining communication as a process, and not merely the individual communication factors per se.

Two reasons may be offered for why questions and questioning as communication factors in persuasion have received only limited attention: (1) questions are seemingly infinite in number and are such an obvious aspect of many persuasive messages that they are easily overlooked; and (2) questions may be viewed as being highly situation specific and therefore may not possess or reflect common underlying processes. The dangers of such oversight are that a parsimonious framework for understanding the role Of questions and questioning in persuasion processes may be overlooked and that potentially interesting phenomena will not be explored.

Within the domain of marketing, no research has been found that examines the role of questions as a communication factor. Nonetheless, simple observation and indications from existing marketing literature suggest that questions impact persuasion process in both one-way and two-way market communications.

The Use of Questions in One-Way Marketing Communications

The use of questions in one-way persuasive communications is evidenced by the frequent use of questions in advertising. One common advertising practice is the use of headline questions to generate customer attention, interest, or curiosity. "Why does a man who's made a million dollars read Barron's?," Another, perhaps less obvious advertising strategy may be the use of questions to establish receivers' agreement or concession. For example, one firm appears to achieve this by commencing with the question, "How do you spell relief?!" Another highly recognizable ad closes by raising the question, "Wouldn't you really rather have a Buick?!" Yet, while the above examples indicate that questions are used and may constitute very successful forms of persuasion, we as market researchers do not understand what questions are, what types of questions exist, and what persuasive impact such questions have in one-way marketing communications processes.

The Use of Questions in Two-Way Marketing Communication

Observational evidence suggests that the nature of questions in frequency of questioning are major determinants of success in two-way marketing communication. In a retailing study, Willett and Pennington (1966) coded 210 sales interactions into 26,000 specific exchanges between buyer and seller using Bales (1950) interaction analysis. Although the nature or frequency of questioning was not theorized about prior to the study, the authors found that over 75 percent of the interaction acts were question/answer sequences. The authors also found that for interactions resulting in a sale, a greater number of questioning sequences occurred. Additional research on the Willet and Pennington data by Olshavsky (1973) indicates that questions are used throughout the buyer-seller interaction. Moreover, questions appear to be used for both information gathering and control of the sales encounter.

In addition to information gathering and control, personal selling texts list many additional functions which questions can serve in practice (e.g., Grikscheidt Cash and Crissy, 1981). For example, questions may be used to build rapport, develop a need, disturb the status quo or complacency of a buyer, check the customer's "pulse," and so on. These functions highlight the large number of roles that questions may fulfill in two-way marketing communications.

Theoretical models in buyer-seller research also imply that questions may commonly be used as both social maintenance and control mechanisms. Whereas past research in buyer-seller exchange focused on static characteristics of the exchange (e.g., similarity: Evans, 1963), more recent research has recognized the importance of the truly dyadic nature of the interaction. Aspects central to the two-way communication process such as rapport building and information exchange have been emphasized (Wilson, 1976). In addition, Weitz (1980, 1981) suggests that personal selling must be viewed as both an information exchange and a social influence process. This view recognizes the importance of the salesperson's ability to obtain information from the customer and to maintain control and direct the course of the interaction.

In summary, even a cursory review Of recent advertisements documents the pervasiveness of questions in one-way market communications. Buyer-seller research in two-way marketing communications contains both empirical and conceptual support for the importance of questions and questioning during the persuasion process. This evidence suggests that marketing researchers and theorists may benefit from a closer examination of the role of questions and questioning in marketing communication.


Although questions have not been systematically investigated in marketing, the preceding discussion illustrates that investigating questions and questioning may improve our understanding of persuasion processes. Therefore, the basic purpose of this paper is to provide a conceptual framework to help guide research on how questions and questioning affect persuasion processes. To achieve this purpose, several specific objectives are undertaken. First, a conceptual definition of questions and questioning is presented. Second, a response dimension of questions is developed by examining question types and forms in terms of their syntactic (i.e., structural) criteria. Third, a cognitive dimension of questioning is suggested by assessing the semantic aspects of receivers' processes and strategies. Finally, the response and cognitive modes are crossed to provide a conceptual model of questions that may affect receivers processing, responses and outcomes during a persuasive communication. Issues related to the model are discussed throughout.


The notions of "question" and "questioning" refer to very heterogeneous concepts as evidenced by the variety of definitions and taxonomies which characterize the phenomena (Flammer, 1981; Andre, 1979; Gall, 1970). In survey research questioning is defined as a form of communication between people in which the questioner elicits information from a respondent (Bradburn, 1982). In linguistics, questions have been termed a psychological attitude whereby the speaker subordinates himself to his hearer and "craves" a verbal or other semiotic (e.g., nod) response to his question (Bolinger, 1957, p.4). Educational researchers define questioning as giving directions to a learner to examine instructional material or one's memory of it and to produce some response (Andre, 1979). Under this conception both the sentences, "Memorize this poem and recite to me from memory" and, "What is the capital of Iowa?" would be considered questions. Cognitive psychology and psycholinguistic perspectives view questioning as a knowledge acquisition Process in which individuals gather potential knowledge from the addressee, and/or use questions as interPersonal communication mechanisms in ways independent of question content (Flammer, 1981; Miyake and Norman, 1979; Kearsley, 1976).

Knowledge Acquisition. From a cognitive perspective Berlyne (1965) defines questioning as an epistemic drive which causes the organism to be curious and engage in exploration. Cognitive consistency theories suggest that the individual asks questions to maintain a system of consistent beliefs and to avoid imbalances (Abelson et. al. 1968). A more general theory of question selection based on "filling the gaps" in one's cognitive structure has also been advanced (Kearsley, 1975). However, recent results of question asking processes during a learning task suggest that the theory that people ask questions to fill their knowledge structures is too simplistic. Rather, people do not appear to be able to cope with material that is too far beyond their present level of knowledge (Miyake and Norman, 1979).

Interpersonal Communication. In addition to a cognitive dimension, the speaker who asks a question also reflects social meaning via the utterance. For example, question asking attempts to provide one of the prerequisites for interaction: conversational sequencing. That is, questions form the first part of the exchange, answers being the second part. As a conversational linkage, questions are explicit invitations to the listener to respond and normative demands that they do so (Fishman, 1979). In addition, questions are stronger speech forms interactively than declarative sentences. It has been shown that when individuals introduce conversational topics with questions (e.g., The new defense policy is awful, isn't it?), topic acceptance for discussion is significantly higher than when a variety of other utterance types are used (Fishman, 1978; 1979). Finally, control patterns evidenced by questioning sequences clearly reflect social power (Mishler, 1975). For example, Mishler (1975) identified three modes of questioning exhibiting bevels of social power/ authority in elementary school teacher-child discourse have been identified: chaining: the questioner maintains control of the interaction through a series of successive questions; arching: to regain control when asked a question, the receiver answers the question with a question; embedding: equal power structure exemplified in the classroom by two or more individuals responding at once to the teacher's question. (See Mishler, 1975).

These differences in modes of questioning might be examined in transcripts of dyadic and buying center exchanges. Differences in question asking sequences could be very useful in assessing power/authority relations between parties. In addition, differences in questioning strategies may be dramatic across levels of salesperson expertise.

To a large extent (but not exclusively), confusion exists among taxonomies of questions because of a failure to organize questions and questioning in terms of their underlying syntactic and semantic characteristics (see Kearsley, 1976). The next portion of the paper distinguishes forms and types based on syntactic criteria, and then discusses questioning in terms of its semantic processes and functions. The outcome of this organizational framework is a conceptual model for viewing questions and questioning in marketing persuasion.

The Structure of Questions

Several forms of questions can be differentiated on the basis of syntactic (i.e., structural) characteristics (See Figure one). Questions may be communicated either verbally or nonverbally. Nonverbal questions may be overt or covert: overt nonverbal questions are gestures (e.g.. raised eyebrows. facial expressions, shoulder shrugs) which serve to elicit verbal response; covert nonverbal questions are internally directed questions we ask and answer ourselves (Kearsley, 1976).



Nonverbal questions clearly warrant research in marketing persuasion. For example, what role do covert nonverbal questions play in various stages of the persuasion process such as individuals' message response, attitude determination, preference determinations and action planning episodes? (c.f., Wright, 1980). Might covert nonverbal questions be used to maintain self-control of the nature, speed, and direction of such processing episodes. These conceptual issues are of interest in both one and two way marketing persuasion contexts.

While potential research issues related to nonverbal questions are important, the specific focus of this paper is on verbal questions. Verbal questions subdivide into direct and indirect questions. Direct questions are "true" questions in the syntactic sense (i.e., interrogatives bearing question marks, e.g., "Where is the party?"). Indirect questions may be imperative or even declarative sentences so long as the speech act (including intonation) is used to elicit verbal information from the addressee (e.g., "I wonder where the party is.") (Schmidt-Radefelt, 1977; Kearsley, 1976; Searle, 1975).

The degree of freedom, or scope, given to the respondent in answering a question is the major division of direct questions. Questions that leave the respondent free to choose any number of ways in which to answer are open questions (c.f., Pope, 1976; Hargie, Saunders and Dickson, 1981). Closed questions represent questions where "the respondent does not have a choice in his response other than those provided by the questioner" (King, 1972 p. 158). Also closed questions usually have a correct answer and/or can be answered in a few words.

The actual types of questions occurring in discourse may be positioned under the open/closed dichotomy of direct questions. These include wh- questions (i.e., who, what, where, why, when, how) and yes-no questions (i.e., have, has, are, is, do) of various forms. Only rhetorical questions as questions to which no (overt) answer is expected (e.g., "Can you afford not to trust your story to Kodak?") appear to fall outside (Kearsley's, (1976) framework. These have (cautiously) been noted as indirect speech acts that "expect" covert response (Schmidt-Radefelt, 1977; c.f., Ervin-Tripp, 1976; c.f., Danet, 1979).

Response Dimension of Questions (open/closed)

Based on work in linguistics it turns out that if question forms and types are grouped together in terms of their "expected" answers (e.g., yes-no questions), the structural or syntactic characteristics of such questions are similar (Bolinger, 1957). In fact, generative transformational grammar (i.e., a theory of the way the structure of language functions in the human mind) is largely organized by viewing questions from a response perspective (Pope, 1976). This response mode is an important conceptual dimension on which to view questions in persuasion.

Evidence suggests that an important phenomena underlying response mode is the perceived response pressure or coercion. Differences due to the grammatical structure of questions (e.g., the open/closed dichotomy) create differences in the degree of pressure they exert on the respondent (Ervin-Tripp, 1976). The most coercive questions leave the fewest options open to the respondent (e.g., closed questions) whereas, the least coercion occurs when discourse constraints are at a minimum (e.g., open questions) (Ervin-Tripp, 1976 p. 128). The importance of this is reflected in research on courtroom language.

During tape recordings of change of plea criminal proceedings, Phillips (1979) found important syntactic variations in judges' language. Some judges preferred to ask defendant open-ended questions, presumably because a defendant who actively made open/ended admissions was more likely to stand by his/her plea.

In addition, open responses increased the likelihood that the defendant knowingly and willingly pleaded guilty to the charge. This strengthened the judges' own position in case of appeal. Other judges preferred relatively closed questions (e.g., yes-no) as a means of eliciting agreement and control of the interaction. Their rationale was that assent is all that is legally necessary for a voluntary and knowing plea (Phillips, ,979, p. 372). These findings suggest the following proposition: receivers' responses to open/ended questions produce greater commitment and realization of their position toward the issue (product) than responses to closed questions.

The response differences implied in questions' grammatical structure raise interesting issues concerning the open/closed dichotomy in persuasion settings. For example, when attempting to establish the need- for a product, what cost does the salesman incur by controlling receivers' responses via closed questions? How should open/closed questions be used in personal selling contexts? These issues illustrate the importance of this dichotomy to marketing.

The Meaning of Questions

From the receivers' perspective questions are also important. This is recognized in teaching training programs and texts on teaching techniques (e.g., Davies, 1981; Hyman, 1981; Hunkins, 1976).

Despite educators' belief in the importance of higher-level questions, the effects of questions on student learning are not well-known. Empirical research examining the effects of different questions on achievement has been rare (Gall, 1970; Andre, 1979).

At present, the most widely accepted experimental paradigm on questions involves experimental studies using adjunct questions. Popularized by Rothkopf (1965, 1966), the adjunct question technique typically involves inserting one or two questions either before (prequestions) or after (postquestions) each paragraph (or passage) of text. The questions are termed adjunct in the sense that questions and text segments appear on separate sheets of paper and the reader is told not to turn back once a page is turned. After reading the entire passage, the amount of questioned (intentional) and nonquestioned (incidental) passage material retained by the readers is assessed. The typical finding is that the prequestion group has the same level of factual recall as the postquestion group for material addressed in the pre or post question. Both groups retained more questioned material than a reading-only control group. This finding is termed the "direct instructive effect" or simply the "direct effect" (Rickards, 1979). More importantly, adjunct question studies have generally demonstrated that a postquestion group produces more recall of material not addressed by the postquestions than a prequestion group or a reading-only control condition. This is the so-called "mathemagenic" (Rothkopf, 1965) or the "indirect effect" (Anderson and Biddle, 1975).

Early research on adjunct questions was based on a behavioristic view of adjunct postquestions and focused largely on the verbatim recall of information. According to this position, postquestions serve as reinforcing or discriminative stimuli (Bull, 1973; Frase, 1968; Rothkopf and Bisbicos, 1967). A correct answer given to a postquestion served to reinforce the readers prior processing (i.e., mathemagenic behavior). A post question itself may also serve as a discriminative stimulus by providing the reader with a hint as to what type of information to look for in succeeding paragraphs (Frase, 1968). The text sentences themselves, therefore, take on secondary reinforcing characteristics in so far as they represent the category or type of information sought by the reader (Bull, 1973).

The methods developed to test this position included analysis of reading speed (Rothkopf, 1966) and recall of incidental information (Rothkopf and Bisbicos, 1967). Expectations regarding incidental learning were that the amount of incidental recall associated with adjunct postquestions would increase across a series of paragraphs as the postquestions "shaped" appropriate processing behaviors (c.f., Nord and Peter, 1980).

While early research largely concerned itself with recall questions and classical or association theory, current work on adjunct questions takes a cognitive view of human learning. The most important manifestation of this paradigm shift toward a more cognitive model is as follows: rather than employing verbatim recall adjunct questions, researchers have varied the conceptual level or "depth or processing" (Craik and Lockhart, 1972) required to answer the adjunct questions Richards and DiVesta, 1974; Watts and Anderson, 1971).

Theorizing within this cognitive paradigm, Frase (1967) offered an information processing interpretation of the direct and indirect effects of postquestions. Specifically, Frase reasoned that direct and indirect effects of postquestions were due to either "backward" or "forward" processing. The backward hypothesis asserts that questions work in a backward manner, organizing and repeating previous prose content. The alternative "forward" hypothesis asserts that questions act in a forward manner optimizing mathemagenic behaviors on passages following the questions (Frase, 1967 . 270). In later work, Frase (1970) suggested that both a forward and a backward process might be produced by adjunct postquestions. Subsequent research has supported this view (McGraw and Grotelueschen, 1972; Rickards, 1979).

Within the domain of marketing communications, the question paradigm seems largely transferable and very appealing. For example, the adjunct question paradigm might be used to determine which processing type is most effective in generating increased attention, retention, or readership of advertising. In buyer-seller exchanges one might hypothesize that successful salespersons attempt to direct buyers toward a backward processing strategy (Rickards, 1979). This is one mechanism by which the salesperson retains control of the buyer's cognitive activity. In short, both the direction and manner in which receivers cognitively process questions is of major importance in persuasion.

Cognitive Dimension of Questions (process/recall)

Recall questions involve simple recall of some type of factual information that was previously given. Recall questions are of a lower order cognitive nature than process questions because they only test the ability of the respondent to retrieve information from memory (Rothkopf, 1965, 1966). Questions that involve more than simple direct memory are process questions in the sense that some higher order memory processes are needed to answer them (Andre, 1979). Recall and process questions are used as anchoring question types along the cognitive processing dimension.

Compared to factual recall questions, process questions enhance receivers ability to use knowledge concepts and principles in recognition -and problem solving tasks (Watts and Anderson, 1971). Also, by their nature, recall questions imply greater control of the extent Of mental construction (e.g., elaboration) allowed to take place (Reder, 1979). Process questions, on the other hand, do not connote "pressure" via processing restrictions since they are of a higher level cognitive nature. Finally, process questions also appear to be more effective in increasing both participation and achievement of individuals of high intellectual ability. Recall questions appear to be more effective in these respects with individuals of lower intellectual ability (Ryan, 1973).

Recall/process question differences have many implications for marketing. For example, what are the differential effects of process versus recall questions on attentiveness to advertising messages? This, and manY other such issues are of interest in persuasion.

Conceptual Framework of Questions

The preceding sections suggest important dimensions underlying questions. A syntactic view of question forms and types suggests that the responses questions "expect" are important in understanding persuasion. Research on semantic dimensions of questioning emphasizes cognitive processes stimulated via questions. Therefore, these dimensions are suggested as important conceptual processes underlying questions. The end points for the response mode dimension are referred to as open/closed questions; process/recall questions label the anchors for the cognitive mode. Figure 2 illustrates the conceptual framework and provides examPles of these questions types.

Interactive Effects of Response and Cognitive Modes

Examining receivers' perceived consistency/inconsistency that occurs when mixing response and cognitive modes may be useful in understanding the effects of questions in persuasion. Therefore, we suggest a crossed conceptual framework within which we examine these interactive effects

Process/open type questions appear to be consistent with the respondents' degree of perceived pressure exerted by the question. The level of cognitive activity dictated by the question is unconstrained; likewise the response format is unconstrained with regard to extent or nature. Recall/closed questions are also consistent by their nature. The content or orientation of the cognitive activity is more constrained/ defined; the response format is also more constrained defined.



Process/closed and recall/open questions are both inconsistent modes of questioning as perceived by receivers (c.f., Fillenbaum, 1971). In the case of process/closed questions, the level/nature of cognitive activity is unconstrained. However, the resultant outputs of this activity are forced into a constrained response mode. Recall/open questions are also perceived to be inconsistent. Receivers are asked to recall certain information in a defined, limited cognitive manner. However, the response framework is uncertain and unconstrained.

Zillmann (1972) argued that the impact of rhetorical questions on persuasion in a simulated Jury trial was due to an operant conditioning effect. Petty, Cacioppo and Heesacker (1981) dismissed Zillmann's explanation and offered a distraction interpretation of rhetoricals. By characterizing rhetorical questions as requiring deep processing but closed (i.e., covert) responding, an alternative processing interpretation for rhetoricals may be examined. Thus, social psychological approaches to the use of questions in persuasion may benefit from the model.

The conceptual model also has implications for buyer-seller situations. For example, one might reanalyze the data in terms of the four question types. The results may help address the following issues: Do questions asked during sales encounters tend toward a common sequence? Are the sequences consistent with stages of current theoretical buyer-seller models ( c . f ., Wilson, 1976)? Do process/open type questions characterize the rapport building and information exchange stage of the model? Are controlling questions used during negotiation stages? If so, what types? and so on. In short, future research should consider the role of questions in persuasion. Questions may provide valuable insight into buyer-seller exchange processes at both empirical and theoretical levels


Although questions and questioning are important in marketing communications, the role of these communication factors in marketing persuasion has not been systematically addressed. This paper attempts to examine these factors in one-way and two-way marketing communications.

A conceptual framework is developed to assess psychological processes underlying questions and questioning. Two dimensions of the model, a response mode and a cognitive mode, are suggested. Implications of the main effects and interaction of these two factors are discussed.


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