Promotion: Treater, Art Form and Joke

Anthony F. McGann, University of Wyoming
[ to cite ]:
Anthony F. McGann (1984) ,"Promotion: Treater, Art Form and Joke", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 438.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Page 438


Anthony F. McGann, University of Wyoming

The three preceding papers are aligned by virtue of their topic. Each addresses aspects of advertising and promotion. However, these papers are different, one from another, in several important ways.

The first paper, by Gardner and Strang proposes an alternative path by which consumers move from promotion toward purchase. This new pathway is constructed from the notion of a script. I think the authors should be gently chided for furnishing something less than a definition of what is meant by the term, "script". In fairness, though, this definition is available elsewhere.

Perhaps it is not accidental that the term script suggests the theater. There, scripts are written, rehearsed, routinized boundaries of the way in which the dramaturgical climax is to be approached and then resolved. The present paper implies that consumers may well be using a cognitive construct as a way of responding to marketplace promotions that has many of these theatrical properties.

As an addition to buyer theory, the concept of script as part of the consumer response to marketplace promotions must bear the altogether justified scientific burdens. Beyond validity and reliability, my impression is that the authors will have to be exceptionally assiduous in demonstrating the parsimony of this construct as well as its competitive advantages over other promising research lines which address buyer reactions to prices and price reductions. Among these, a "Weber's Law" which incorporates the notion of ambient price level and a just noticeable difference may be the most robust competitor facing a "scripts" theory. And, as has been the case with other dramaturgical orientations and explanations of behavior, measurement problems associated with collecting empirical evidence for the value of scripts are likely to be as severe as those encountered in establishing symbolic interaction as a mainstream sociological perspective. Nonetheless, script explanations provide an intriguing and potentially valuable research development. Most of use will be following closely the forthcoming empirical work.

In the next two papers by Hirschman and Solomon and bs Duncan, Nelson, and Frontczak, the focus is shifted from theories of behavior to practical elements contained in advertisements. While these share a common bond in that they have common implicit assumptions about the components needed to assemble an advertisement, they are different research efforts and deserve separate analYsis.

In "Utilitarian, Aesthetic, and Familiarity Responses..." the authors continue Hirschman's research tradition of aesthetics in marketing. In the present paper, the tradition is directed toward a comparison of "all visual" versus "all verbal" formats of actual advertisements, and there is an attempt to measure the relative consequences of these two pure ad layout types on several important dependent variables. The first finding, that all verbal advertisements would be rated as being higher on a utilitarian and rational scale than would the all visual format is not news to most members of the ACR. More interesting than the finding itself is the authors' speculation about why this happens, and this reader was left wishing f or more evidence. In the second dependent variable, with its implied relationship between visual stimuli and high levels of aesthetic/emotional response, the findings run counter both to the author's hypotheses and intuition. It could very well be that the mixed results are artifacts of the actual research design. For example, in the ads for the table, my impression is that the verbal form is so unappealing that it would outweigh any lack of appeal in the visual form. And, regarding the statue of the goddess, Fortuna, the verbal form of the ad is really quite lyrical, almost a poem, whereas the visual illustration appears (to someone with no formal training in art) to be a photograph of a broken, scratched statue which might have come either from antiquity or a demolished old Post Office building. It must also be acknowledged that Beth and Mike's hypothesis as well as my intuition might lie at variance with the relevant state of nature. Regarding the third dependent variable, we have a finding which is of great potential usefulness. What the authors found is that a visual representation is associated with high levels of familiarity when advertising audiences have no actual basis for being familiar with the product. Of itself, this is a remarkable finding and I would encourage the authors to develop this evidence more thoroughly, particularly for consumer products with major market shares and sales levels and, then, for intermediate goods advertising also.

Finally, we come to the study on the effect of humor on advertising comprehension, by Duncan, Nelson and Frontczak. Here, the authors have done a nice piece of experimental work and have concluded from their efforts a) that humorous advertising works and, b) that even if it doesn't "work", it does no harm. The authors correctly distinguish between manipulated humor and perceived humor, but in the hurly-burly of their rearrangements of categorical boundaries, depending on frequencies, you may have felt some of the same confusion I did about what constitutes a funny commercial, and which experimental group thought it was funny.

In fact, no commercial is likely to be funny to everyone. The authors seem to be saying that that's o.k.; failed humor does no harm, and cite Greyser's discussion of how even irritating commercials can be quite commercially effective. I think it important to point out that Greyser's "irritation" can be behaviorally different from failed humor that disgusts or disparages members of an advertising audience. Of course, humor can fail in many other ways.

I do believe that there is a downside risk associated with humor which misses its target. And I am sure many of you will join me in looking for additional work from these authors on the questions relating to which type of humor fails, with which group in an audience, and with what behavioral penalties for failure.

More generally, the last two papers proceed from the assumption that advertisements are assemblages of component parts. Further, it is implied that these parts can be unbolted and scrutinized and altered and manipulated while, at the same time, preserving "ceteris Paribus". The longer I study advertising and advertisements, the more convinced I become that Beth Hirschman's suggestion about holistic analysis needs to be applied in the study of advertising. If I am right, and the overall impression of an advertisement is fundamentally altered when two, three, four or more elements in it are experimentally manipulated, then the consequences for consumer research will certainly include more expensive experiments and, it is to be hoped, less ambiguous results.