Some Central and Peripheral Thoughts on the Routes to Persuasion

Paul W. Miniard, The Ohio State University
Peter R. Dickson, The Ohio State University
Kenneth R. Lord, State University of New York - Buffalo
ABSTRACT - Recent research on the persuasion process has suggested that the impact of central and peripheral message cues on preference formation will depend on the level of involvement during message processing. This paper discusses a number of conceptual and methodological issues relevant to future research in this area, with particular emphasis on the role played by peripheral cues.
[ to cite ]:
Paul W. Miniard, Peter R. Dickson, and Kenneth R. Lord (1988) ,"Some Central and Peripheral Thoughts on the Routes to Persuasion", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 204-209.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 204-209


Paul W. Miniard, The Ohio State University

Peter R. Dickson, The Ohio State University

Kenneth R. Lord, State University of New York - Buffalo


Recent research on the persuasion process has suggested that the impact of central and peripheral message cues on preference formation will depend on the level of involvement during message processing. This paper discusses a number of conceptual and methodological issues relevant to future research in this area, with particular emphasis on the role played by peripheral cues.


Few areas have drawn more attention from social researchers than the investigation of how communication variables affect the persuasion process. Studies examining the impact of source characteristics (e.g., credibility, attractiveness, expertise), message factors (e.g., type of appeal, argument quality and quantity, presence or absence of a conclusion), channel characteristics (e.g., print versus audio), and target factors (e.g., demographic and personality characteristics, level of involvement) must certainly number in the hundreds, if not thousands. Much of this early work could be aptly described as "main effects" research where the influence of some factor is examined in isolation. For example, a typical study might simply manipulate source expertise and observe the attendant effects. Whether the influence of a particular variable depends upon the presence of some other variable was rarely considered in this early research.

In contrast, the last decade or so has witnessed an explosion in research which has examined simultaneously two or more variables hypothesized to moderate the persuasion process. Of particular relevance here is the work of Petty and Cacioppo (Petty and Cacioppo 1981, 1984; Petty, Cacioppo, and Goldman 1981; Petty, Cacioppo, and Schumann 1983). They have proposed what they call the "central and peripheral routes" to persuasion. These two forms of message processing are discussed below.


Petty and Cacioppo argue that a communication can have a persuasive impact through one of two routes. Under the "central" route, post-communication attitudes are based on a careful and thoughtful consideration of the persuasive arguments contained in the message. Accordingly, post-communication attitudes should become more favorable as the message arguments increase in quality.

Alternatively, a "peripheral" route to persuasion may occur. This peripheral route does not involve diligent consideration of the message arguments. Rather, post-communication attitudes are simply based on peripheral cues that are associated with the message. These cues may take a number of forms such as the quantity (rather than quality) of message arguments, the source's attractiveness or credibility, and/or the type of music which accompanies the communication.

What determines which route to persuasion is likely to occur in a particular situation? According to Petty and Cacioppo's elaboration likelihood model, the person's level of involvement during message processing is considered a critical factor. Specifically, as the message becomes more personally relevant to current and future attitudes and behavior (i.e., as involvement increases), people are increasingly motivated to expend the cognitive effort required to process the message arguments. Thus, when involvement is high, people follow the central route by basing their post-communication attitude primarily on their reactions to the message arguments. When involvement is low, however, people have less motivation tn process the message arguments.- Instead, they follow the peripheral route and rely more heavily on other message elements in forming their attitude.

In one study, Petty et al. (1983) examined the impact of central and peripheral cues within a print advertisement for a fictitious disposable razor. The research design involved manipulating subjects' involvement (high involvement subjects anticipated making a choice among several razor brands while low involvement subjects did not), argument quality (strong versus weak message claims about the product), and the message endorsers (celebrities versus average citizens). Highly motivated subjects were expected to expend the cognitive effort necessary to evaluate the message claims, while subjects uninvolved during message processing were not expected to devote much attention to the claims. Instead, their focus should be on the message endorser. Presumably, the focus of processing activity (source versus claims) should enhance the availability of certain stimuli at the expense of other stimuli. Consequently, source (claim) information should have a greater impact on attitude under low (high) involvement because of its greater availability. This expectation is consistent with the "availability-valence hypothesis" presented by Kisielius and Sternthal (1984, 1986) which predicts that subjects' attitudinal responses are based on the favorableness, or valence, of information available in memory when the judgment is rendered.

The results revealed that the argument quality manipulation had a strong impact on product evaluation under high involvement conditions and a weaker, but still significant, effect under low involvement conditions. In contrast, the endorser manipulation influenced product attitude only for those subjects less involved during message processing. Consequently, they concluded that:

The present study suggests that, although the informational content of an advertisement may be the most important determinant of product attitudes under some circumstances, in other circumstances such noncontent manipulations as the celebrity status (likability) or credibility of the product endorsers may be even more important.(p. 143)


Although the work of Petty and Cacioppo and others (Gorn 1982; Yalch and Elmore-Yalch 1984) is quite suggestive in its implications for persuasion strategy, there would appear to be a number of issues which require clarification. A recent ACR conference paper by Bitner and Obermiller (1985), which describes several limitations in the application of the central versus peripheral processing framework to consumer behavior, represents progress in this direction. In a similar vein, the remainder of this paper discusses both conceptual and methodological issues that future empirical endeavors may wish to address.

Lack of Support at the Process Level

What may come as a surprise is that data capturing the focus of message processing (e.g., cognitive responses) is extremely rare and, in those studies collecting such information, unsupportive. One would expect a greater number of cognitive responses directed toward peripheral (central) cues when subjects' processing involvement is low (high). Yalch and Elmore-Yalch (1984) did not find differences in source versus message oriented cognitive responses between conditions argued to influence central and peripheral processing. Petty et al. (1983) do not report such a comparison, although they do indicate that an index of total cognitive responses was unresponsive to the manipulations.

We believe process data is needed to clarify the relative focus on central and peripheral cues during message processing. Such data might reveal, for instance, whether central and peripheral processing are truly separate routes or merely different levels or stages of a single route. It may very well be that processing focuses initially on peripheral cues regardless of involvement level. Peripheral cues in the form of illustrations seem likely to dominate central cues during the initial stage of processing. Consequently, highly involved subjects may first travel the peripheral route but then proceed to a careful consideration of the message claims. Note that this possibility suggests that the number of cognitive responses reflecting peripheral processing may be quite similar across different levels of involvement. Conversely, even uninvolved subjects may engage in some amount of central processing (as suggested by the Petty et al. (1983) finding that an argument quality manipulation was influential under low involvement), although not to the same degree as those highly involved during message processing.

The classification of a cognitive response as representing central versus peripheral processing will not be an easy task. Simply classifying thoughts about the message claims as central and those involving nonclaim elements as peripheral is problematic. As Petty and Cacioppo (1986) point out, a stimulus can serve as both a central or peripheral cue depending on the nature of other factors within the persuasion setting. Similarly, some thoughts about the claims may represent central processing (e.g., "this brand works better than my current brand") while others may reflect peripheral processing (e.g., "the ad is too wordy"). Thus, the strength of any categorization system will depend on its ability to reflect differences in issue relevant thinking.

A possible alternative (or compliment) to process data involves the assessment of subjects' evaluations of the central and peripheral cues. For example, one could measure subjects' attitudes toward the message arguments and source. Based upon Tesser's (1978) attitude polarization findings (i.e., that altitudes become more polarized as the time subjects spend thinking about the attitude object increases), one might hypothesize a similar polarization for attitudes toward the cues. Specifically, if subjects spend more time thinking about the message claims under high involvement, then their attitudes toward the claims should be more polarized relative to low involvement. In contrast, attitudes toward the source should be more polarized under low involvement conditions.

The amount of attention devoted to peripheral cues during high involvement processing may also carry potent pragmatic implications. According to the previously mentioned availability-valence hypothesis, when processing encompasses not only the message claims but peripheral cues as well, post-communication attitude should suffer if peripheral cues elicit thoughts that are less favorable about the product than those generated by the claims. Kisielius and Sternthal (1984) report that peripheral cues in the form of crude pictures had an adverse impact on attitude, although Dickson, Burnkrant, Miniard, and Unnava (1986) found just the opposite result. This concern could be easily accommodated within the research design employed by Petty et al. (1983) by including a treatment in which the message is devoid of the endorser's picture. The availability-valence hypothesis would predict that attitude should be most favorable when the picture is absent (assuming of course that the claims generate more favorable thoughts than those initiated by the picture). Interestingly, if the message was constructed to contain arguments so weak that they lowered evaluation, then just the opposite effect should hold as attitude should be most favorable when the picture of the endorser is present.

Estimating the Relative Influence of Central and Peripheral Cues

As previously noted, Petty et al. (1983) suggest that central cues are the most important determinant of product attitude during high involvement processing, while peripheral cues are more important during low involvement processing. This interpretation would seem more reasonable if, under low involvement conditions, the source manipulation had an effect and the argument quality manipulation, while influential under high involvement processing, was unimportant. This was not the case, however, as low involvement subjects were affected by both manipulations. One might then be tempted to rely on the variation explained by each manipulation. However, this approach is suspect since the strength of a manipulation can be easily influenced by the levels of the treatment conditions. One could construct a powerful source manipulation (e.g., a moron versus a genius) but a weak argument quality manipulation (e.g., a one year guarantee versus a 366 day guarantee).

The lack of a "control" condition in which a particular central or peripheral cue is absent from the advertisement also compromises the inferential power of their experimental design. It is important to consider that the cue is always present in the treatment conditions comprising the cue manipulation, but differs in its anticipated persuasiveness (e.g., weak versus strong arguments). The fact that some cue manipulation as currently operationalized fails to have an effect does not necessarily mean that the cue was unimportant in preference formation. It may be that the simple presence of a cue, regardless of its specific content or form, may be sufficient for it to exert an influence. For example, highly uninvolved subjects, while unwilling to exert the effort to carefully consider message claims, may respond more favorably to an ad simply because it contains claims that have some value or meaningfulness. In this instance, a manipulation of simply weak versus strong claims would suggest that the claims were "unimportant." However, comparisons with a control group in which any message claims were absent might reveal that both weak and strong claims conditions produced higher product evaluations, thus revealing the previously obscured impact of this cue.

An alternative approach to assessing the impact of central and peripheral advertising cues would involve directly measuring subjects' evaluations of these cues. For example, one could measure subjects' perceptions of argument quality and source attractiveness. A causal model could then be constructed in which favorable and unfavorable cognitive responses would act as determinants of these central and peripheral cue evaluations, which in turn serve as antecedents of product attitude (see Figure 1). This would provide a simple and direct test of the relative impact of these cues. Support for the contention that peripheral cues dominate under low involvement would require that the path estimate between peripheral cue evaluation and product attitude be greater than the estimate for the central cue evaluation product attitude path. Just the opposite pattern should occur under high involvement settings.



An advantage of a causal modeling approach is that it helps eliminate a problem common to experimental research. As discussed by Lutz (1977), subjects' idiosyncratic reactions to the experimental treatment (e.g., some view the endorser as highly attractive while others hold a less favorable perception) are treated as error variance within an experimental paradigm. These variations in subjects' responses to a treatment, however, are quite meaningful and can be better represented through their direct assessment as nonerror variance within the causal model paradigm.

An added benefit of this causal modeling approach is that it can allow us to extend the inquiry of central and peripheral cue effects into the "attitude toward the ad" research domain (Gardner 1985; MacKenzie, Lutz, and Belch 1986; Mitchell and Olson 1981; Park and Young 1986). Research on advertisement attitudes has focused primarily on the unique influence of attitude toward the ad on affective product attitude beyond that exerted by cognitive product attitude. Researchers have only begun to examine the impact of various message elements on attitude toward the ad (e.g., Mitchell 1986). The replacement of product attitude with attitude toward the ad in Figure l would allow an examination of central and peripheral cues' influence on ad attitude. Consistent with those effects anticipated for product attitude, argument evaluation should exert a greater impact on attitude toward the ad under high involvement while source evaluation should be more influential under low involvement.

Peripheral Effects: Do They Matter?

Consider the subject in a low involvement condition who, after being exposed to an irrelevant persuasive stimulus for a product (in the sense that the subject does not anticipate having to make a decision about the product in the immediate future), is required to make some attitudinal or choice judgment. Importantly, subjects are not allowed the opportunity of acquiring new information prior to rendering their judgment. It is under such conditions that peripheral cues have been reported to be more influential than message content.

Yet in actual choice environments consumers typically have the very real option of gathering further information prior to making their decision (e.g., from packaging at the point of purchase). This is not to say that consumers will always exercise this option. Indeed, decision making may often occur without prior external search (Olshavsky and Granbois 1979). However, in those instances where consumers do acquire product information, the question becomes whether prior preferences induced by the peripheral route have any impact on choice behavior. It may well be that preferences formed during low involvement by peripheral message cues are completely over-ridden by preferences formed when processing product information during high involvement (i.e., in anticipation of making a choice). If this were the case, the value of creating persuasive messages geared for low involvement processing would be undermined. An unresolved issue, then, is the incremental or residual effect of preferences developed during low involvement when the person enters a decision making process and collects additional information relevant to the impending choice.

We hypothesize that consumers' choice behavior will typically be based on their reactions to product information processed during high involvement rather than by their reactions to peripheral stimuli processed under low involvement. However, in some circumstances the peripheral route may still be influential. When available product information fails to differentiate the alternatives (e.g., alternatives are equally attractive or unattractive), choice may then be based on peripheral cues. Bitner and Obermiller (1985) have also raised this possibility.

A simple modification of the typical experimental paradigm to include additional choice-relevant information would permit a test of this issue. Specifically, subjects could be exposed to an advertisement involving a fictitious new brand under conditions where they do not anticipate initially making a decision about the product. This ad could employ a peripheral cue as the basis for creating product preference. After exposure to the ad, subjects would be informed that they must make a choice between the "advertised" brand and several alternative brands. Next, information would be provided about the advertised and alternative brands on a number of important product attributes. Subjects would then make their choice. In order to determine whether initial preferences formed through the ad using peripheral cues have any "carryover" effect on choice behavior, it is of course necessary to establish a baseline for comparison purposes. Thus, a second treatment condition could parallel the prior condition with the single exception that the peripheral cue is excluded from the ad. A comparison of how many subjects select the critical brand when it is or is not accompanied by an ad using a peripheral cue would reveal the role played by peripheral-based preferences formed during low involvement in choice settings where additional information is considered following activation of the decision process. Furthermore, because we anticipate that the nature of the product information is an important determinant of a peripheral cue's influence, this factor should also be manipulated. For example, half of the subjects could be exposed to a set of product ratings that clearly differentiates the choice alternatives, whereas the remaining subjects would receive a set of ratings indicating the choice alternatives are equivalent.

A test of the above concerns would require a 2x2 factorial design. The first factor would manipulate the presence or absence of a peripheral cue within an advertisement for one of the choice alternatives. The second factor would vary the nature of the product information. Support for our hypothesis would require a significant interaction between these two factors. Specifically, subject's choice behavior should be affected by the peripheral cue only when the product information fails to differentiate the choice alternatives. In this instance, subjects should rely on the peripheral cue to make what would otherwise be a "random" choice (since the alternatives are equally attractive in terms of attribute performance characteristics). However, when the product information does differentiate the alternatives, subjects' choice behavior is predicted to be based solely on this information and thus unaffected by the peripheral cue. Substantiation of this interaction hypothesis would limit the value of peripheral persuasion to settings where consumers (1) rely on peripheral-based preferences rather than acquire new information and (2) engage in search but are unable to make a choice based on this new information. Research efforts might then begin to focus on understanding when consumers will base their decisions on peripheral-based preferences and forego search.

Attitude Formation versus Attitude Change

Another issue requiring examination is the generalizability of current research, which has compared the central and peripheral routes under attitude formation conditions, to settings involving attitude change. Prior investigations in this area share a common procedure of using a fictitious rather than real product (an exception is the Yalch and Elmore-Yalch 1984 study). Consequently, subjects lack an "initial" attitude toward the product and the effects of central and peripheral cues are best viewed as occurring under conditions where subjects are forming an attitude toward this new product. Demonstration of the generalizability of present findings to situations involving attitude change would require replicating these results using a real product toward which subjects hold an initial attitude. Although Kahle and Homer (1985) have recently argued that the theory and effects hold for both attitude formation and change situations, we are skeptical that the observed impact of peripheral cues under low involvement would replicate in attitude change settings. It is one thing to show that manipulating some peripheral cue will influence preference in the absence of an initial attitude. It is quite another to demonstrate that this same manipulation will be influential when it must interact with existing cognitive schema of varying complexities and "overcome" the resistance to change that typically accompanies an existing attitude. Let us illustrate this concern through an example. The present evidence suggests that a manipulation of some peripheral cue (e.g., source attractiveness) may-be more potent than a manipulation of some central cue (e.g., argument quality) when subjects are uninvolved during message processing and are unfamiliar (i.e., they do not possess an initial attitude) with the product. Suppose we were to change the topic from an unfamiliar product to a highly familiar and important issue such as abortion. To the extent people hold strong convictions about abortion, we doubt whether these initial convictions would be affected by the presence of an attractive or unattractive source. Indeed, it is very difficult to change strongly held attitudes through the use of well reasoned arguments that strike at the foundations of such attitudes, let alone through cues which, by definition, are peripheral to the issue at hand.

Because peripheral cues "compete" not only with central cues for determining the post-communication attitude in attitude formation situations, but must also compete with an initial attitude in attitude change settings, we expect that the impact of such cues will differ across formation and change situations. Consequently, the potential superiority of peripheral cues over central cues may be limited to attitude formation settings. Future research might explore this prediction by manipulating not only central and peripheral advertising elements, but also whether the advertised brand is new versus a brand toward which subjects possess a pre-existing attitude.


Research on the persuasive impact of central and peripheral cues and how this may depend on the intensity and focus of message processing is still in its infancy. This paper has identified some conceptual and methodological considerations that may help guide efforts in this area. In particular, we suggest that future research consider: (1) collecting data to establish the hypothesized process underlying the central and peripheral routes, (2) the use of a causal modeling approach to estimating the influence of central and peripheral cues, (3) examining the impact on choice behavior of preferences formed by peripheral cues during low involvement when followed by more involving information processing, and (4) testing for potential differences in peripheral persuasion between attitude change and formation conditions. Efforts along these lines may be useful in delineating the conceptual and pragmatic boundaries of the central and peripheral routes to persuasion.


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