Two Meanings For Transformation

John Deighton, University of Chicago
ABSTRACT - The use of the concept of Transformational Advertising in this session of the ACR conference and in earlier work is reviewed and a proposal is made to distinguish between two potentially differentiable uses of the term. The two concepts are defined, and the value of each concept is suggested.
[ to cite ]:
John Deighton (1988) ,"Two Meanings For Transformation", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 262-264.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 262-264


John Deighton, University of Chicago


The use of the concept of Transformational Advertising in this session of the ACR conference and in earlier work is reviewed and a proposal is made to distinguish between two potentially differentiable uses of the term. The two concepts are defined, and the value of each concept is suggested.


One of the ways we make progress in the inexact science of consumer behavior is by refining language. There are times when a promising term is determined, after long reflection and testing, to be making no new distinction. We seem to be discovering, for example, that 'involvement" is a term we did not need because its work is done by other terms. I want to argue that precisely the opposite is the case for Wells' (1980) distinction between information and transformation. Far from making a redundant distinction, I shall claim that this language makes two distinctions, both new and both important, but so different that perhaps we should mark them with two different terms.

In this paper I shall review the senses in which various authors have used the idea of transformation in advertising, and explicate the two meanings which need to be distinguished. Next I shall consider transformation as a process involving inference.


In this special topic session and elsewhere it seems that transformation is used sometimes to refer to a method of argumentation, and at other times to a consequence of argumentation. The reason why it is vital to be alert to these two uses is that, as I shall argue, it is by no means clear that a transformational argument is necessary or sufficient for a transformational effect. If this is so, it is fatal to define the argument mode by its effect, or to anticipate the effect as a consequence of the argument mode.

1. A Distinction Among Arguments

The concept of a transformational argument introduces a distinction among ways of making claims in advertising. Wells (this session) distinguishes between lectures and dramas, and in 1980 between informational and transformational advertisement. Boller (this session) uses the term narrative advertisements for the transformational pole of the distinction. Deighton (1985) attempts to identify the form and structure of arguments that can be called transformational.

The common idea that seems to underlie these usages is that, while some advertising makes explicit literal claims or assertions, telling its audience quite unambiguously what the advertiser wants it to believe or to feel (lecturing it), other advertising tells a story from which the claim has to be inferred. Instead of challenging an audience's beliefs directly, the transformational approach is to depend on a carefully spun tale to induce a"willing suspension of disbelief' (Coleridge 1817: 1967), in which the audience can come to believe new ideas or feel new sentiments without the discomfort of yielding up old ones. Speaking metaphorically, the audience "entertains" the idea in the story/ad, and the more entertaining, congenial, harmonious or agreeable the guest, the more likely it is to be invited to stay.

Informational appeals are sometimes distinguished from transformational appeals by arguing that the former are claims about the product and the latter are claims about the experience. Often informational advertising does make product or attribute claims, and transformational advertising does talk about the experience. But the correspondence is spurious: it follows only because an experience is usually more elusive, harder to pin down in common language, than a product feature. The comparison that matters is between concrete and abstract claims, and between explicit substantiation on the one hand and substantiation by instantiation on the other.

Similarly, the distinction being made here is not the distinction between functional and emotional claims, think and feel claims (Vaughn 1985) or instrumental and hedonic appeals (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982), although often these pairs will correspond to informational and transformational arguments respectively. Again the correspondence occurs because often (but not always) our language is more competent to describe function than emotion. The contrast I want to make is between that which can be said and that which must be shown because language is inadequate for the task.

When the consumers and marketers share a language to say what benefits a product category is supposed to deliver, and how to judge whether a brand in fact delivers, then informational arguments can be used. Thus Carlton cigarette advertising says "Carlton is lowest,' and substantiates this concrete claim with explicit data on tar levels. It does just one thing; it claims the brand is best in a well-defined contest.

Transformational arguments, on the other hand, do two things: first they define the contest and then they present the winner. The contest in the cola wars is hard to articulate. Loosely, the choice seems to be between the traditional/authentic values of Coke and the claim of Pepsi to the values of a new generation. These are abstract claims that have to be identified and then rendered vivid by the craft of the storyteller: the meaning of the category has to be transformed. Marlboro cigarette advertising first identifies a benefit that is hard to reduce to words but has to do with male assertiveness and confidence. It then presents the brand as a means to achieving that end, perhaps the only means to achieving that precise end.

The value of this distinction among arguments lies principally, I think, in its implications for measuring the effectiveness of communications. Much advertising testing treats comprehension of copy points as an important antecedent of persuasion. Audiences are often asked to replay the "main point" of a commercial. A transformational argument will fail this test by definition: there is no concrete "main point", and the transformational style is used precisely to the extent that the brand s appeal is not reducible to everyday language.

Second, attention to this distinction can help to indicate when advertising tests on rough (storyboard or animatic) executions will be valid predictors of the persuasiveness of finished executions and when they will not. If persuasion depends on the appeal being "entertained" in the sense I have used it, as it will for transformational arguments only, then the critical determinant of persuasion is the entertainment value of the commercial.

Third, it seems a plausible hypothesis that, as Wells (1980) proposes, transformational arguments require more repetition to be effective than do arguments which prevail by the sheer weight of logic. Just as a story accrues plausibility by repetition and familiarity, so repeated exposure to the story line of an advertisement may build its influence on the way the consumer interprets the choices in a market.

2. A Distinction Among Consequences

The other phenomenon discussed in Wells' writings is the transformation of experience Here, the term makes a distinction between consequences of advertising. Transformation of the consumption experience is the theme of Puto and Wells (1984), Rossiter and Percy (1987), and Petras and Puto (this session). However one must be careful to distinguish this use of the term "transformation" from the ordinary concept of persuasion. Every successful commercial has some effect on experience. At the very least it leads the consumer to expect that the experience will be rewarding, and as the long literature on consumer satisfaction indicates, experience is changed by these expectations. Bayes' Theorem, in fact, suggests that it would be irrational not to modify what we learn from experience to reflect prior expectations.

If all these effects are "transformation", then is successful advertising ever not transformational? If we merely show that an advertisement can change the level of satisfaction with a product, whether by associating emotional values with the experience or in any other way, we have not described a phenomenon that needs to be marked with a special label. On the face of it, it is just persuasion.

If, however, we can show that an advertisement can change the value of experience without having had any prior effect on expectations, then we have a curious phenomenon worthy of identification. There is evidence (see the 1986 ACR special session on delayed persuasion and Wells (1986) Fellow's address to that conference) that advertising can affect experience in this way. It is this form of influence that I would like to propose we call the transformation of experience.

To illustrate, if you own a painting which you enjoy and believe to be by Picasso, and then receive a document informing you that the painting is a forgery, the document will almost certainly change the experience of viewing the painting. If you own another painting and attend art appreciation classes, it is likely that the classes will also change the experience of viewing the painting. This illustration has two points to make. First, both alterations of the consumption experience are caused by information (lectures in Wells' terms), so that the drama form is not a necessary condition for change in the consumption experience. Second, the illustration contrasts a change in experience that is mediated by a change in expectations (news of the forgery) with a change in experience which is mediated by no change in expectations but rather by education in how to engage in the experience (the art appreciation course). The first illustration is a case of persuasion. If the document announcing the forgery is persuasive (alters beliefs) then the experience changes. The second illustration is a case of transformation. The lecture does not have to be persuasive to alter the experience. It has merely to influence what the audience attends to during subsequent experience with art. Further, the lecture will not work until the audience has some art to look at. Experience is indispensable for transformation to occur, but not for persuasion by changes in expectation.

Transformation deserves to be identified as a discrete persuasion phenomenon because it employs conceptually discrete persuasion mechanisms. Persuasion does not depend on the audience's yielding to the argument contained in the message, but on the audiences accepting the frame on sense-m king proposed by the communicator.

A theory of transformation must deal with the way in which communications can affect what consumers attend to and encode during experience, and what aspects of experience they retrieve during subsequent choice. It might consider how communications affect abductive inference (the process by which hypotheses come to be entertained) and how they affect inductive inference, for example facilitation of the "aha!" experience in which claims previously learnt but not believed are recognized in experience, precipitating a chain of recall and inference shaped by the prior communication. It seems likely that a theory of transformation will be complex, because it is likely that there are many ways that communications can alter sense making without altering prior expectations.

Measurement of transformational effects poses problems which cannot be solved by orthodox advertising pretesting methods. The opportunity to have experience must be built into the testing environment if the ability of the communication to alter sense-making is to be measured.


The term "transformation", as it is being used increasingly by researchers in consumer behavior, confounds two topics, transformational argumentation and transformational effects on experience. If transformational argumentation always resulted in transformation of experience, or if transformation of experience could only be achieved by employing transformational argument, then one term alone would suffice. But that seems not to be so. For conceptual clarity it might be better to follow Wells' use of lectures and dramas to make the first distinction, and reserve the term "transformation" for the latter distinction.


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Deighton, John. (1985) "Rhetorical strategies in advertising," in Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Morris B. Holbrook (eds.) Advances in Consumer Research XII. Provo: Association for Consumer Research.

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Hirschman, Elizabeth R. and Morris Holbrook (1982), "Hedonic consumption: Emerging concepts, methods and propositions," Journal of Marketing 46 (Summer) 92-101.

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