Viewer Processing of Commercial Messages: Context and Involvement

Gordon W. McClung, University of Pittsburgh
C. Whan Park, University of Pittsburgh
William J. Sauer, University of Pittsburgh
ABSTRACT - This paper explores the theoretical relevance of several major factors which have not received much attention in advertising research. It is our contention that the interaction among viewer's level and type of involvement, program context, and the nature of the advertisement influences the effectiveness of commercial messages in conveying the desired concept and influencing brand attitude formation.
[ to cite ]:
Gordon W. McClung, C. Whan Park, and William J. Sauer (1985) ,"Viewer Processing of Commercial Messages: Context and Involvement", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 351-355.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 351-355

VIEWER PROCESSING OF COMMERCIAL MESSAGES: CONTEXT AND INVOLVEMENT

Gordon W. McClung, University of Pittsburgh

C. Whan Park, University of Pittsburgh

William J. Sauer, University of Pittsburgh

ABSTRACT -

This paper explores the theoretical relevance of several major factors which have not received much attention in advertising research. It is our contention that the interaction among viewer's level and type of involvement, program context, and the nature of the advertisement influences the effectiveness of commercial messages in conveying the desired concept and influencing brand attitude formation.

INTRODUCTION

The major intent of advertising is to influence brand-attitude formation and choice by conveying to the consumer a specific concept regarding the market offering. For example, BMW has been conveying a concept of the ultimate driving machine. The extent to which the consumer's brand-attitude and choice will be influenced is dependent upon the individual's learning and retrieval of the message contents. It is readily apparent that each commercial message is in competition with other stimulus for the target individual's attention and dedication of processing capacity. Competing stimuli for a television advertisement, for example, includes both other ads aired during the allocated time slot and the program itself.

For the marketer who is interested in communicating with an identifiable group of consumers it is very important to be able to effectively convey his/her message. Effectiveness in this case being defined as the viewers incorporation of the concept into his/her cognitive structure, e.g., the brand becoming recognizable, becoming a member of the evoked set, or possibly becoming the brand of preference. Learning as referenced throughout this discussion is not a single mental activity but rather any modification of the individual's knowledge base (Rumelhart and Norman 1978). Learning includes both the restructuring and adjusting of schema, as well as the traditional concept of accretion by matching and adding to existing schemata. Consequently, if the advertiser wants to effectively communicate his/her message it is important to come to an understanding of how a particular concept is learned in a television viewing situation.

At issue is a fundamental question of how to best allocate limited resources to achieve the advertising objectives of the organization. Strategically marketers have traditionally relied upon Nielson ratings and viewer demographic profiles for the determination of where to place their advertisement. This traditional approach, however, obfuscates the issue and can lead to erroneous ad placement. Nielson ratings of television tuning reflect an on-off switching phenomenon. In terms of viewer involvement Nielson ratings reflect a specific program's capability to exceed a minimal level of involvement intensity, a threshold point below which the individual is defined as being non-involved, e.g., nonviewing. This approach, however, overlooks the fact that beyond this threshold the individual's involvement with the program can vary along a continuum from a very low level to a maximum or high level of involvement. To the advertiser Nielson ratings suggest that programs which are below some threshold level of viewer involvement will be tuned out, or not viewed. Consequently, the more interesting, and perhaps more relevant viewing behavior for the advertiser, focuses on the stages of involvement intensity beyond this simple on-off switching phenomenon.

Of particular interest to the advertiser is how specific contextual aspects and the viewer's involvement with the television program facilitate or hinder the integration of a commercial message. Several authors have focused on contextual effects (Anderson and Ortony 1975; Barclay et al. 1974; and Tulving and Thompson 1973), illustrating the degree to which human memory a..d language understanding are sensitive to the context within which exposure to a message occurs. Rumelhart (1977) states that "even when an input is thoroughly processed and the information is carefully stored it will not be retrievable unless the context of retrieval matches that of storage in certain important ways." Individuals rely upon contextual guides in order to find sought after information (Roediger 1983; Smith et al. 1983). Those aspects that are believed relevant at the time of storage serve as efficient guides back into one's memory. In his work on visual perception Liebowitz (1965) found that the surrounding context, even though one may not be aware of it, is nevertheless critical. Balota and Rayner (1983) and Palmer (1975) further demonstrated in a series of experiments the importance of context for our processing of visual scenes. As argued by Neisser (1967) the perceiver uses his/her knowledge of what should be happening in conjunction with the few features he/she finds to construct a representation of what must be happening and what he must be seeing.

Rumelhart and Ortony (1976) argue that the particular schema which will be activated at the time of comprehension depends not only on the input but also on the context. Different contexts may give rise to different patterns of schemata available for comprehension even though the input be the same. The essence of these findings is that the context within which learning occurs has an effect upon the individual's ability to recall the information at some future point in time. The contextual aspect, in the case of learning of a commercial message is the program within which the commercial is aired.

Prior research efforts in advertising have been directed at a diverse array of areas, including viewer involvement with the product (Petty et al. 1983), the inducement of low involvement with advertising (Gardner et al. 1982), the moderating role of attitude towards the ad (Mitchell and Olson 1983; Mitchell 1982), the effects of TV clutter (Webb and Ray 1979), viewer perceptions of ads (Aaker and Brugzone 1981), and programming effects upon advertising (Kennedy 1971; Soldow and Principe 1981). Kennedy (1971) raised the issue of how the program environment may affect the individuals processing of information conveyed in TV commercials. The conclusion drawn by Kennedy was that the program environment does affect the commercial message. Soldow and Principe (1981) investigated viewer response to commercials as a function of program context by explicitly addressing viewer involvement with the program. The significance of their work, and of Kennedy's, was the recognition of the need to study contextual effects of programming on the viewer's response to commercial messages.

Prior work on the effects of viewer involvement with a program has failed to distinguish between the type of involvement, cognitive or affective, with both the program and the advertisement. The interaction between viewer's level and type of involvement, program context, and the nature of the advertisement have not been studied in the past. These three factors are interconnected and influence the effectiveness of commercial messages in conveying the desired concept and influencing brand attitude formation. It is our contention that the interaction of a viewer's type and level of involvement with the program will have an effect upon advertisement effectiveness. The viewer's ability and willingness to process a commercial message is a function of his/her involvement with the program within which commercial message exposure occurs.

This has important implications for both brand and advertising managers. Research regarding this phenomenon will provide managerial insights concerning such issues as the appropriate type of ad for a given program to maximize ad effectiveness.

Initially, we present a general model of program-commercial interactions. Subsequent to this discussion we direct our attention to the task of providing supporting research for our contention of television program effects.

PROGRAM-COMMERCIAL INTERACTION

The interaction of television programs and commercial messages aired within the program is illustrated in Figures 1 and 2. Two general conditions of viewer involvement with the television program, cognitively or affectively based, and two types of commercial message, cognitive or affective, are examined. For an extensive discussion of the theoretical foundation and recent research on two types of involvement see Park and Mittal (1983). The advertisement referenced in each figure is assumed to be relatively effective. The functions are illustrative of the interactive effects of viewer involvement with a program given a specific commercial message that is either cognitively or affectively based. It is recognized that most commercials are not clearly cognitive or affective and the discussion is based upon an assumption of dominant rather than exclusive commercial message characteristic. The variables which serve as a bases for the formulation of the hypothesized impact upon ad effectiveness are priming, and overloading.

Viewer Involvement With The Program

When the underlying motive or reason for involvement with the television program is cognitive the emphasis is upon the individual's information processing of feature, or attribute based information, and is analytical (Brooks 1978) in nature. In contrast, when the underlying reason for viewer involvement with the program is affective, the emphasis is upon projection and matching of individual's self image with the external stimulus and is analogical (Brooks 1978) in nature. Horowitz and Kaye (1975) and Holbrook and Hirschman (1982) have supported the contention that one's self-image plays a significant role in influencing brand choice.

One important implication of the differences in processing information which is attributable to the viewer's type of involvement with the program was demonstrated by Park and Young (1983). They found that individuals in a cognitive state tend to focus on the cognitive aspects of a commercial message and individuals in an affective state tend to focus on affective aspects of a commercial message. With regard to the context in which a commercial message is embedded one would expect a higher degree of learning and recall in the case where the program, through priming of the individual, creates a mind set that is congruent with the content of the commercial message (Seamon, Brody and Kauff 1983). To the extent that there exists a state of incongruence one would expect learning and recall to be inhibited. The manifestation of the congruency effect is contingent upon the viewer's level of involvement.

FIGURE 1

PROGRAM AND COMMERCIAL INTERACTION: COGNITIVELY BASED ADVERTISEMENT

FIGURE 2

PROGRAM AND COMMERCIAL INTERACTION: AFFECTIVELY BASED ADVERTISEMENT

Priming

The congruency effect is illustrated in Figures 1 and 2. In Figure 1 the cognitively based ad is more effective when the viewer is cognitively involved with the television program. Figure 2 illustrates that an affectively based ad is more effective when the viewer is affectively involved with the television program. Initially the lowly involved consumer experiences only incidental learning (Krugman 1965) and mere exposure effects (Zajonc 1968; Batra and Ray 1981; Zajonc, Markus and Wilson 1974) from a passive exposure to a cognitively or affectively based commercial message irrespective of whether they are affectively or cognitively involved with the program (see the Low Involvement Level of Figures 1 and 2). As the level of viewer involvement with the television program increases from low to moderate the congruency effect becomes more pronounced. The difference in the effectiveness of the commercial message under conditions of congruent and incongruent advertisements becomes more evident. This is illustrated in Figures 1 and 2 where the greatest difference in ad effectiveness between conditions of cognitive or affective involvement with the program occurs at the moderate level of involvement intensity. If the viewer is moderately involved with the program then they will be actively engaged in processing of program content either affectively or cognitively. If they are cognitively involved with the program and exposed to a cognitive commercial message the ad will be more effective than if the viewer had been affectively involved (Figure l--moderate level). If the viewer is affectively involved with the program and exposed to an affective commercial message the ad will be more effective than if the viewer were cognitively involved with the program (Figure 2-moderate level). This difference in ad effectiveness is attributable to the provision of either appropriate or inappropriate priming (Anderson and Ortony 1975; Tulving and Thompson 1973).

Overloading

As the viewer's level of involvement increases to a high level the limiting aspects of viewer's ability to process information come into play. Human information processing is limited in capacity (approximately seven chunks, Miller 1956), and the time required for integration of information into memory (five seconds per chunk, Greg and Simon 1967; Simon 1982).

If we accept the argument that individuals are constrained in the amount of information that can be processed during a given time interval, the question of interest to the advertiser is how the viewer formulates chunks of information from their commercial message. We have already stated that when a viewer is engaged in analytical processing of information they are dealing with feature based information. Such information equates to a large number of relatively small chunks that could potentially be extracted from the program and commercial message. As the viewer's level of involvement with the program increases they will attempt to process increasing amounts of information approaching the limit of their cognitive capacity. As the viewer approaches the limit of their processing capacity they will pursue strategies which will alleviate cognitive strain. In the situation of television programming and commercial breaks, one strategy may be to block out commercial messages which are presented during program breaks. This condition is illustrated in Figure 1 where the viewer who is cognitively involved with the program reaches an overload condition and starts blocking out the cognitively based advertisement. Another strategy may be to switch from the analytical mode to an analogical mode during the commercial break. This effect is illustrated in Figure 2 where the viewer that is cognitively involved with the program starts switching modes, e.g., increasing the affectively based ads effectiveness, at a moderate level of involvement. Once the viewer hits the overload condition at a high level of cognitive involvement with a program they will block out the affectively based communication.

In the case where the viewer is affectively involved with a program they will be engaged in analogical processing. Analogical processing does not require as extensive of a cognitive effort as that associated with analytical processing. The chunks of information represent larger units of informational content which are interpretable as feeling states for integration. In a condition of increasing viewer affective involvement the point of overload exceeds the overload point associated with cognitive involvement. The viewer is able to process additional information since program content has been structured into larger chunks. The crossover of viewers who are affectively involved with the program and those that are cognitively involved in Figure 1 illustrates the condition where the cognitively involved group is blocking the commercial message information. It is not necessary for the affectively involved group to block out the commercial even though they are highly involved with the program. In Figure 2 it is evident that the affectively involved viewer does not hit an overload condition though they are highly involved. As such, the effectiveness of the affectively based message is not impaired.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Several issues of importance to the practitioner and the researcher have been raised within this paper. After developing the theoretical justification for the consideration of involvement our attention turned to the impact of the program context or commercial messages. Several important aspects of programming context were presented, including priming, and overloading. Much of the discussion of program context is directly relevant to the consideration of ad context. The following illustrates the relationships which have been discussed.

FIGURE

We can summarize several general propositions which have arisen from our discussion of the viewer's level and type of involvement with the program, program context, and the nature of the advertisement

P1: There is a priming effect of the-program on commercial message processing. Cognitively involved consumers will focus on and process the cognitive aspects of a commercial message. Conversely, viewers who are affectively involved with a program will process the affective aspects of a commercial message more than the cognitive aspects of a commercial message.

P2: The priming effect is subject to the type and the level of involvement:

(a) High levels of cognitive involvement with the program will be detrimental to viewer processing of cognitive commercial message. Ad effectiveness will be highest at a moderate level of cognitive involvement with the program.

(b) High levels of affective involvement with the program will not affect the processing effectiveness of affective commercial message.

Several important implications for brand and advertising managers are evident. The viewer's level and type of involvement with the program, the program context, and the nature of the advertisement are interconnected and influence the effectiveness of a commercial message in conveying the desired concept and influencing brand attitude formation. At issue is the question of the appropriate type of ad for a given program to maximize ad effectiveness. This issue cannot be adequately addressed by utilizing program ratings and audience demographics since an essential aspect of program-commercial message matching relates to the type and intensity of viewer involvement with the program and advertisement. To address this issue the advertiser must carefully examine the intensity of viewer's involvement with the program within which an advertisement will be aired. In addition, the advertiser will need to come to some understanding of the dominant type of viewer involvement with a program to effectively match the ad with the program.

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