Conceptualization and Operationalization of Involvement

John H. Antil, University of Delaware
ABSTRACT - Involvement has become a very important variable in consumer research. But in spite of its popularity, the concept has not been well defined, conceptualized and operationalized. This paper addresses these issues and argues for consistency of use in future research.
[ to cite ]:
John H. Antil (1984) ,"Conceptualization and Operationalization of Involvement", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 203-209.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 203-209


John H. Antil, University of Delaware


Involvement has become a very important variable in consumer research. But in spite of its popularity, the concept has not been well defined, conceptualized and operationalized. This paper addresses these issues and argues for consistency of use in future research.


Over the past few years, speculation was that the involvement concept may become one of the most important variables in consumer research. At this writing there is little doubt that these predictions have proven correct. Even more significant than the amount of research directly addressing this issue is the countless references to and uses of involvement in a wide variety of consumer related research. Whether the topic is information processing, brand choice behavior, brand loyalty, attitude measurement, cognitive structure and responses (and the list could go on), involvement is frequently mentioned as an important (or potentially significant) variable. Even the leading text in consumer behavior has been restructured around the involvement concept. (Engle and Blackwell 1982). One could go so far as to suggest that much too frequently this concept is used indiscriminantly and has become a "scapegoat" for some to explain results not readily accounted for by manipulated variables.

The above may be interpreted as an unjustified indictment of the use of involvement, perhaps this is true. But please consider the advice of Mitchell (1979):

There seems to be general agreement that "involvement" is potentially important mediator of consumer behavior, however, "involvement" remains an elusive concept. Precisely what is involvement? How to we manipulate involvement in the laboratory? Until we can answer these questions, the quantity and quality of empirical research on the subject will remain limited. (D. 191)

Though published three years ago, frightfully little has been done to address these critical issues. There still is not an agreed upon definition and if one judges by the variety of ways involvement is used in current research, it could even be argued that there is less agreement today than existed in 1979. It follows that without consistent and proper conceptualization of a concept, attempts at operationalization, measurement and manipulation are doomed to failure.

For the involvement concept to reach its potential contribution to consumer research, these issues must be directly addressed. And that is the purpose Of this paper. Through integrating the variety of ways the concept has been used, a clearer conceptualization of involvement is provided. The issues of operationalization and measurement are then discussed. Though it may be too much to expect, it is hoped that the "involvement" concept as developed here will adequately integrate divergent views in such a way that general agreement can be obtained.


It is unlikely that Krugman (1965) ever suspected the high level of interest and enthusiasm for the involvement concept when he first introduced the term to consumer psychology more than fifteen years ago. Since then, researchers have embraced the idea that many situations arise in consumer behavior when the level of interest in the stimulus is very low and because of this "low involvement", a consumer's cognitive and behavioral activities are very different from "high involvement" situations:

. . . the consumer unconcernedly purchases and consumes F the product, tries new products, switches brands, obliviously ignores promotional activities and worries about the important events in his or her life . . . (Kassarjian, 1981, p. 31)

While there appears to be general agreement that involvement varies by individuals and circumstances and that it is somehow related to "importance" or "interest", there is by no means any agreement exactly what involvement is, its bounds, and in general a thorough conceptualization of the concept. This is evident when one considers where the concept has been applied: for example, there are high/low involvement products (Bowen and Chaffee 1974: Bloch 1981); high/low involvement issues (Petty and Cacioppo 1979, Swinyard and Coney 1978); high/low involvement consumers (Newman and Dolich 1979) high/low involvement media (Krugman 1966) high/low involvement learning (Smith and Swinyard 1982: Gardner Mitchell and Russo 1978 Finn 1982) high/low involvement situations (Belk 1981) and high/low involvement cognitive structures (Lastovicka and Gardner 1978). Is it possible that the same concept equally applies to all of these areas? When one speaks of high/low involvement learning is the underlying concept the same as when used to describe a high/low involvement product or issue? Such diverse use has continued most likely because of the lack of an agreed upon definition and method of operationalization. A review of the literature quickly reveals that one researcher's definition and use of "involvement" is very different from another's. And to complicate matters even further, several (perhaps most) studies never specifically define what they mean by involvement and simply use the term and assume the reader understands the concept. Table 1 provides a list of several definitions that have appeared in the consumer behavior literature. A review of these quickly indicates little consistency and in some cases one wonders whether these concepts are even closely related. In his review of the uses and definitions of involvement, Finn (1983) concluded such varied use was not possible and went so far as to question the continued use of the term.

However, is there a common thread that can possibly link the varied definitions of involvement? The second column of Table 1 classifies each definition according to "primary components". All of the definitions (except Houston and Rothschild's definition of response involvement) either directly or indirectly imply "involvement" is somehow related to the individual, usually in terms of some measure of interest or importance to the person. On a purely intuitive level, this makes perfect sense and is likely related to the long time use of ego involvement in social psychology where it has assumed a meaning of personal importance to the individual (Sherif et al. 1973). While the "common thread" running through most uses of involvement is personal importance, differences arise from what else is included in the definition that is joined with or "causes" personal importance. That is, some define involvement in terms of "product" involvement and thus it is characteristics of the product which cause the individual to be "involved". Similarly, it may be the particulars of a message or situation which somehow influences the person to become "involved". Figure I illustrates how the various definitions differ.



The person/situation definitions concentrate on linkage A, while product/person definitions on B, and linkage C, those related to the communication and information processing.

The position taken here is that there is a directional flow between the three stimuli and the individual. This is represented by the solid arrows in Figure I. Thus, it is the characteristics of the stimulus that are interpreted by the person and determine the extent of involvement. This, I believe, is a critical point. It is not the product per se that is involving, but the personal meaning or significance the individual attributes to the characteristics of that product that results in involvement. Similarly, for linkages A and C, it is how the individual interprets the specific circumstances (e.g. situation or message) that will determine the level of involvement for that person. Since it is the individual's interpretation of the stimulus (and not the stimulus itself) that determines the level of involvement, people will vary in the level of involvement they associate with a given stimulus. This explains why it is dangerous to assume that a given stimulus (e.g., automobiles) will be "high involvement" for all consumers. Due to a variety of individual differences (e.g., personality, stage in purchase cycle, previous experience, financial situations etc.) one must expect fairly high levels of between subject variability. Though most studies do not report this data (or even results of manipulation checks), Bowen and Chaffee (1974) reported the means and standard deviations for the eight products used to determine high and low involvement product classes. They operationalized involvement by selecting seven items that measured "a perceptual behavioral reward" associated with the product. Using these statistics, Figure II was constructed to illustrate the extent of subject variability and clearly shows the problems associated with a stimulus centered view of involvement. Though suffering from problems in measurement, Lastovicka (1979) also showed considerable heterogeneity existed across consumers within product categories.





A second problem encountered in involvement research is determining whether the source or cause of involvement is attributable to one or more stimuli. Often, it is two or more stimuli that in combination influence the level of involvement. An experiment consisting of a commercial, for example, contains a specific message, product/brand, spokesperson, laboratory setting etc., all of which may affect a subject's perceived level of involvement. Because of this, it is necessary to anticipate and measure the combined effects of the relevant stimuli. The totted lines in Figure 1 represent this interrelationship among the three stimuli. Again it must be emphasized, however, that it is the person's interpretation of the interaction of the stimuli that determines the level of involvement and not the characteristics of the stimuli themselves.

Given the above discussion, a simple, straight forward definition of involvement is the level of perceived personal importance and/or interest evoked by a stimulus (or stimuli) within a specific situation. This definition is perhaps closest to those offered by Mitchell (1979), Bloch (1981) and Day (1970); primarily because these definitions all focus on the individual as the determinant of involvement. In sharp contrast to the internal state oriented conceptualization proposed here are those which view involvement as a process (Krugman 1966: Leavitt, Greenwald, and Obermiller 1981; Petty and Cacioppo, 1981; Ray 1973; Houston and Rothschild 1978). The process oriented conceptualizations depend heavily on the assumption that involvement is a function of the type of information processing and/or decision making process employed by the individual. Considering the current interest in information processing within consumer psychology, it is not surprising that this process oriented viewed has gained such popularity. In his review of the use of involvement in consumer research, Finn (1983) even uses the extent of cognitive processing as one of two criteria necessary to the application of the involvement concept.

Process oriented conceptualizations of involvement assume cognitive activity results in or causes involvement. Thus, only when more extensive decision processes and heightened cognitive activity take place can a "high" involvement situation exist. This, I believe, is incorrect. I see involvement and information processing activities to be two very different and separate concepts (though they can be related). For example, a consumer may have a very well developed cognitive structure for automobiles, have high confidence in his/her ability to judge available brands and be committed to Mercedes. It is quite conceivable that this person will not engage in extensive external search (e.g., pay attention to auto ads) and the decision process will be quite simple and straight forward. But the purchase of an auto is still quite important to this consumer. The information processing view would not consider this to be a "high" involvement situation, though it should be. Thus, heightened cognitive processing should be considered a possible result of high involvement, not the cause of it. In other words, one does not become highly involved because of increased information acquisition and a more complex decision process, but alternately, high involvement will be one variable which may influence the extent and form of information processing. Empirical support for this distinction was found by Tyebjee (1979) and Sherrell and Shimp (1982). Using factor analysis Tyebjee found that a very clear distinction existed between product and task related variables. He concluded:

A conceptual distinction needs to be drawn between a consumer's involvement in a product and his/her involvement in those tasks or activities that relate to this product, such as information search and acquisition, product purchase, and product consumption or use (p. 301).

If one accepts the internal state definition advocated here, an interesting question is: is it still possible to refer to a "high involvement product" or "low involvement communication" and not violate the intent of the definition? I believe it is not only possible, but desirable. Since "involvement" refers to an internal state that has been influenced by something else, it makes perfect sense to say z "high involvement product" when you mean to imply that a person perceives that product to be of high Personal importance to him/herself.

The above contains the minimum necessary for a complete definition of involvement. However, such a definition does not provide all that is necessary to more fully conceptualize the concept. In an attempt to approach a more complete conceptualization,involvement will be explained as both a continuous and a situation specific variable. Further, the meaning and measurement of "personal importance" will be discussed.

Involvement is a Continuum

Involvement must be concePtualized and operationalized as a continuous variable, not as a dichotomous variable. There is no reason to believe nor any research results to support the notion that involvement consists of two mutually exclusive and exhaustive states, one being "high" and the other "low". The inappropriate treatment of a continuous variable as dichotomous is not new to consumer behavior and has previously caused problems in a variety of areas: (fear appeals (Higbee, 1969; Ray and Wilkie 1970 Spence and Moinpour 1972), brand loyalty (Jacoby and Chestnut 1978; Jacoby 1971) and socially-environmentally responsible I consumption (Antil and Bennett, 1979). Whether out of convenience, convention, habit or for whatever reason, almost all involvement research has treated this variable as dichotomous. Can we reasonably assume that two separate studies' "high" involvement manipulations result in comparable levels of "high" involvement. Are subjects equally "high" or "low" involved when the stimuli are comprehensive exams and shampoo (Petty and Cacioppo 1981), or automobiles and clothing (Bloch 1981), or political races (Swinyard and Coney 1978), or a candy bar and a job placement service (Sherrell and Shimp 1982)? Thus, one of the major problems that results from this artificial "high"-"low" dichotomy is the difficulty one has in comparing results from one study to another. This situation is exacerbated by the data analysis that typically classifies subjects as a group, as being either "high" or "low" involved subjects. Due to between subject variances, the results one obtains from such a procedure must be evaluated very carefully. The Bowen and Chaffee (1974) data in Figure II clearly illustrates the problem one encounters when subjects are grouped into one of two classifications. The "overlap" or "misclassifications" that result can be quite substantial.

The usefulness of involvement as a mediator and in general, a potentially important explanatory variable of consumer behavior is severely limited by a dichotomous classification. For example, one complication resulting from such a classification is the inability to find a nonlinear relationship. Perhaps the relationship between involvement and susceptibility to persuasive attempts is not linear but monotonic or perhaps the relationship between repeat purchase behavior and involvement is also not linear but monotonically decreasing. The possibility of finding such relationships will only be possible when involvement is defined and operationalized as a continuous variable. Moreover, another limiting factor is the problem of applying more sophisticated multivariate techniques that offer more versatility in data analysis. As involvement related hypotheses become more complex, it may be necessary to apply these more advanced forms of data analysis.

Another interesting situation arises from the incompatibility of viewing involvement as a continuous variable and the dual hierarchy of effects models. If these models are valid in their existing form (i.e. one for high and another for low involvement), it would still be necessary to have a dichotomous classification of involvement. However, the argument and logic for involvement as a continuous variable is so strong that further examination f of the validity of these models is necessary. One very promising approach to this conflict is the integrated model i of Smith and Swinyard (1982). Through a reconceptualization they have shown that a single model can be applied cc both high and low involvement situations. Further research along these lines is encouraged and should resolve the existing conflict.

Situation Specific

Involvement should be considered to be situation specific. That is, if one is interested in measuring the degree of involvement, the specific set of circumstances that exist at the time of measurement must be taken into consideration. When a consumer is actively searching for information to make a planned purchase of a new TV, his/her involvement with TV brands is likely to be much higher than it will be six months after purchase. Houston and Rothschild (1978) have termed this situation involvement and have suggested it will vary according to such situational variables as cost and complexity of the product, interpurchase time and absence or presence of significant others. The work of Belk (1981) is a perfect example of how involvement (and purchase strategies) will vary depending upon the purchase situation. The importance of understanding the potential impact of the situation within which behavior will occur is not new to consumer behavior (Belk 1975) and failure to acknowledge its importance in the conceptualization of involvement would be a major oversight.


The key component of the definition of involvement proposed in this paper is "perceived personal importance". The major problem then becomes how does one measure "importance". This is particularly problematic when consumer involvement-is a function of the interaction of several stimuli (e.g. product, situation, and communications). Ideally, we would like one way to measure involvement in all situations. That is, how nice it would be to have a single reliable and valid procedure that would apply when involvement was a function of the product, or situation or communication, or any combination of the three. At the present time, however, this does not appear possible. The closest attempt to develop such a scale has been the one reported by Lastovicka and Gardner (1979). Their scale though is limited to measuring product class involvement; thus ignoring the potential effects of the situation and communication. Beyond this, their approach has been criticized for being too general and contain items which are "ambiguous and may not capture how a consumer really feels about any one product" (Bloch 1981, p. 61). Ray (1979) was very concerned with this issue and concluded: "Measures and applications of involvement should be developed in individual consumer research application situations" (p. 198).

If true, this is very discouraging for involvement researchers since it would be necessary to develop a different measure for every study conducted. This is further complicated by the increased but justified emphasis on the need for reliable and valid involvement measures (Ray 1979; Mitchell 1979). A notable example of the substantial effort required to construct a product specific involvement measure (automobiles) is the exemplatory work reported by Bloch (1981).

There may be, however, an acceptable alternative to developing separate measures for every application. The key to finding such an alternative is dependent upon the likelihood of identifying common characteristics or dimensions of involvement that exist across situations. Using an approach similar to that proposed by Bowen and Chaffee (1974), the position taken here is that perceived personal importance is a function of the expected benefits from the interaction between the person and relevant stimulus (i). The term "benefits" as used here, is broadly defined to imply the personal rewards (psychic or otherwise), significance, value or worth that are anticipated to be associated with the interact on. (It should be noted that is possible that negative benefits may be perceived). Thus, the degree of involvement within a specific situation is equal to the level of perceived personal importance which is determined by the total of expected benefits to be gained through interacting with the stimulus (i). A 'benefits" orientation is based upon the assumption that the consumer must have reasons or motivations for determining how "involved" he/she will be with the stimulus (i). In a sense, it is a "what's in it for me" attitude. Such an approach seems to make sense. Involvement requires a certain amount of effort from the consumer, whether it be time, cognitive activity, social or financial "costs" etc. The consumer determines what rewards or benefits are possible and based upon this evaluation decides his/her extent of involvement. For example, product involvement may be a function of such factors as interest in product category, perceived similarity among alternatives, cost, previous experience, interpurchase time etc. Thus, if a person views the product category as consisting of several essentially similar brands of relatively low cost, the benefits from more extensive interaction or concern are relatively low and thus, of relatively low personal importance-(i.e., "low" involvement). Alternately, a high cost product that one has had little experience with has potentially high benefits associated with more extensive concern for the product category and motivation for interaction is high (i.e., "high' involvement).

In terms of operationalization, the benefits one can conceivably associate with a given stimulus/situation are limited and at least to a degree, generalizable across situations. Fortunately, the number of significant stimuli is limited (these are likely limited to those in Figure I, (i.e., product, situation and communication) and there should be a finite (and not too large) number of characteristics or components to each of these stimuli. The central issue than is the degree to which these benefits/components can be expected to be generalizable across products, situations and communications. The position taken here is that to a large extent these benefit/components are generalizable or can be adjusted to apply to other circumstances. For example, there are certain characteristics of a product that in general lead to the level of perceived involvement (e.g., financial and social risk, interpurchase time, perceived similarity among alternatives, previous experience, etc.), and these characteristics will, by and large, be applicable across product categories. In addition, proper scaling procedures will assure that the extent of relevance (generalizability) to a specific situation of any given characteristic can be assessed (i.e., through the use of appropriate response categories e.g., agree-disagree, important-not important, etc.).

One procedure that has the advantage of supplying generalizable items that can be made product specific was suggested by Mitchell (1979). By the nature of the example items provided, he is suggesting (intentionally or otherwise) that involvement will have common components that can be made product specific by "filling in the blank". For example, one of his items is "Do you generally read advertisements for _______" (p. 194).

The intention here is not to imply that a generalizable scale is per se, better than a product/situation specific scale; but that developing several scale items that are generalizable is possible and a desirable objective. There are good reasons for justifying the use of product/situation specific scales (Ray 1979; Bloch 1981), but the disadvantages may well outweigh any differential advantage that may exist. Fortunately, progress towards generalizable measures of involvement has already begun. Previous research has identified and measured several of the common characteristics/components of involvement. Continued use and improvement on this methodology would lead to reliable and valid measures and, of great importance, consistency in measurement methods. The net result of this then, could be "standardized" measurement procedures that would greatly reduce scale development time and permit valid comparison of results across individual research projects.

Evidence of progress toward this goal is illustrated by the contents of Table II. Listed under the three primary involvement stimuli are several characteristics/ benefits that are conceivably associated with each stimuluS Most of these are summaries of items actually used in previous research. Thus, several have at least to some degree, already demonstrated reasonable levels of reliability and validity (this is especially true for those taken from Bloch (1981). As is evident from Table II, more progress has been made in identifying characteristics/ benefits of the product. This is likely an advantage since the situation and communication stimuli will frequently also require the measurement of product characteristics (since most/many situations and communications include a product category and measurement of the interaction will be necessary). In addition, if past experience is a good indicator, measures of involvement (regardless of the stimulus) have primarily included characteristics/benefits of the product.

Though to date, Lastovicka and Gardner (1979) are the only ones who have attempted to develop a generalizable scale, there is ample opportunity to move toward more "standardized" measures of involvement. Eventually, through modifications and replications of previously used scales (with an emphasis on detailed reporting of relevant scale statistics), attainment of quality involvement measures can be attained.




The current interest in involvement is based upon the justifiable conclusion that consumer information acquisition and decision making process will differ depending upon the product and/or situation (c.f. Kassarjian 1978, 1981; Olshavsky and Granbois 1979; Smith and Swinyard 1982). "Low" involvement has seemed to evolve to the point where it is now assumed that for most/many purchases consumers are unconcerned, unreasoning, unthinking and in general, simply do not care (c.f. Kassarjian (1981) ) .

Olshavsky and Granbois (1979) go as far as to "conclude that for many purchases a decision process never occurs, not even on the first purchase" (p. 98). But have we now gone too far in the opposite direction, that is, assuming too little from the consumer instead of assuming too much? Is it reasonable to suggest that consumers select products with absolutely no thought process and do not form any preference for one brand over another? This view, I believe, is absurd. The consumer does not purchase stochastically: very few shoppers would be willing to stand in front of a display and select a brand blindfolded. Consumers do have reasons for their selections; they may not be elaborate reasons, but they do think about their purchases. Reasons for brand choice may be simply because it is the lowest priced, or the only brand the consumer ever heard of, but there is a decision process albeit it may be very simple and noncomplex. The integrated information response mode of Smith and Swinyard (1982) proposes that even for "low" involvement purchases affect is formed (even though it may be based on low intensity beliefs) prior to behavior. This seems to be a much more realistic representation of the decision process as opposed to assuming "that people do not buy trivial products because they like them, but rather, they like them because they buy them" (Smith and Swinyard 1982, pp. 82-83.

A related question which also must be addressed, is "are 'low' involvement products literally of little or no importance to the consumer?" My response is that there are very few products which are of such low importance that the consumer does not care. It may on the surface appear that such "low" involvement products as toilet paper, canned peas, light bulbs, etc. are of little importance, but in fact, they are important to the consumer in terms of the satisfaction they expect to receive from consumption, Previous experience may lead one to expect certain performance standards and if the consumer is confident that he/she will receive these benefits, the consumer is not likely to have an elaborate decision making process (i.e., routine, repeat purchase) and this purchase may appear to be a "low" involvement purchase. However, even for a product such as toilet paper, it is a "low" involvement purchase only because of high confidence in expected benefits from the brand purchased, not because the consumer does not care about product performance. Even without a research project, one has to agree that most consumers are very concerned about the performance of toilet paper (not be like pages of the Sears catalog, not be tiny separate sheets, must be absorbent, must be soft, etc.) If the expected benefits are not realized, the "low" involvement product will become a "high" involvement product since dissatisfaction is likely to lead to heightened interest in brand alternatives that will provide the expected benefits. The point, of course, is that such "low" involvement products are "low" only because of confidence in expected brand performance, not because the product is unimportant. Again, there are very few products which the consumer really does not care about, they are concerned about product performance. It would be a major mistake for a product manager to assume consumers do not care about the performance of the products they purchase. However, from reviewing many of the consumer research studies about "low" involvement products, the product manager could easily conclude consumers do not think about or care about his/her product. This, I believe, would be a grave error.


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