The Vicissitudes of Product Experience: 'songs of Our Consuming Selves' in Drama Ads

Gregory W. Boller, Memphis State University
ABSTRACT - This paper offers some tentative speculations and conjectures regarding the nature of drama ad processing. It is suggested that viewers of drama ads, in contrast to lecture ads, engage in a highly self-focused and self-participatory mode of processing. Data from an exploratory study are offered as initial evidence in support of this contention. It is suggested that future explorations of drama ad processing must give serious consideration to the role of vicarious participation (i.e., empathy).
[ to cite ]:
Gregory W. Boller (1990) ,"The Vicissitudes of Product Experience: 'songs of Our Consuming Selves' in Drama Ads", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 621-626.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 621-626

THE VICISSITUDES OF PRODUCT EXPERIENCE: 'SONGS OF OUR CONSUMING SELVES' IN DRAMA ADS

Gregory W. Boller, Memphis State University

[The author gratefully acknowledges support from GTE and the Avron B. and Robert F. Fogleman Academic Excellence Fund.]

ABSTRACT -

This paper offers some tentative speculations and conjectures regarding the nature of drama ad processing. It is suggested that viewers of drama ads, in contrast to lecture ads, engage in a highly self-focused and self-participatory mode of processing. Data from an exploratory study are offered as initial evidence in support of this contention. It is suggested that future explorations of drama ad processing must give serious consideration to the role of vicarious participation (i.e., empathy).

INTRODUCTION

As several theorists have recently noted, advertisements are a virtual repository of meanings about consumption experience (e.g., Goldman 1984; McCracken 1987; Pollay 1986, 1987). In contrast to usual terse listings of information regarding product benefits, many advertisements instead provide intriguing images of the rich, social drama surrounding everyday products (McCracken 1987). Often filled with visions of ideal interpersonal relationships, these advertisements rarely provide information about a product's attributes or functional benefits. Instead, these ads simply tell a story about one or more characters' experiences with the product in question; their form is dramatic in nature (Wells 1988).

In his paper, Wells (1988) echoes an observation made by other theorists interested in communicative form (e.g., Applebee 1977; Bruner 1986; Fisher 1984, 1985)--viewers engage in a different sort of processing when exposed to dramas than when exposed to lectures. To date, however, the particular nature of drama ad processing still begs empirical description.

One of America's most celebrated poets, Walt Whitman, apparently understood the nature of this processing quite well. The poem entitled, Song of Myself (Whitman 1855/1940), is a magnificent template for those interested in celebrations of self-reflection. Whitman understood that poetic and dramatistic forms of communication virtually demand a process of self-participation in and self-reflection on the depicted experiences. Or, as Coles (1987, p. 12) writes, dramas "...nudge us to connect our lives to the lives of various characters in their various stories--to immerse ourselves in a world with plenty of moral drama at work."

This research explores the notion that viewers exposed to dramas, and in particular drama ads, engage in a highly self-focused and self participatory mode of processing. More specifically, it is suggested that viewers come to understand the product experiences portrayed in drama ads by becoming vicarious participants in the experiences of drama ad characters.

Cognitive response data from four ads (two lecture and two drama) are offered to support the general contention of self-focused processing. Product evaluation data from the two drama ads are then examined in terms of their relationships to a measure of vicarious participation. Suggestions for the development of a theory of vicarious processing are offered as primary directions for future research.

A CONTINUUM OF ADVERTISEMENT FORM

Modern literary theorists assert that it is instructive to think-i-about communicative form in terms of a continuum (Applebee 1977; Bruner 1986; Fisher 1984, 1985). At one end of this continuum, we find forms which are generally argumentative and lecture in nature. Narrative and drama forms of communication can be found at the other end of the continuum. Aside from serving as a relatively simple way to classify forms of communication, Bruner (1986) claims that this continuum serves to delineate two modes of thought--logico-scientific and imaginative thought. More specifically, Bruner argues the necessary relationship between communicative form and the mode of comprehension employed- to make sense of the information contained in that form.

Lecture Ad Forms and Logico-Scientific Thinking

Lecture forms of advertising generally rely upon argumentative conventions of logic and validity for their import (cf. Wells 1988). An ad lectures to an audience by first asserting product claims, and then providing a carefully structured presentation of assertions in support of these claims. In general, lecture forms of advertising use arguments to establish the validity of asserted claims by providing a structured set of reasons (i.e., evidence) which logically defend those claims (see Boller, Swasy and Munch 1989).

Lecture advertisements, replete with argumentative thrusts and parries, are perhaps best thought of as purveyors of definitive product meanings. That is, lecture advertisements seek to convince an audience of the product's objective reality. Good lecture advertisements provide substantive information about the attributes and functional benefits of products to utility-maximizing viewers (cf. Resnik and Stern 1977; Shimp and Gresham 1983). After all, how can viewers make "informed" product choices unless they possess the facts regarding the features and benefits of competing product alternatives?

It is important to note that viewer acceptance of a product's "objective reality" is dependent upon their understanding and acceptance of the argumentative logic presented by the ad lecture. Viewers are not likely to accept the product claims until they discern, assess and accept the arguments offered in support of those claims (cf. Perloff and Brock 1980)

Wells (1988) writes that viewers process lecture advertisements "at a distance." Viewers assess the quality of the presented evidence, judge the authority and credibility of the source, and primarily counter-argue the logical linkages between the product claims and their supporting evidence. Viewers process lecture ads "...at arm's length and use the outcome to help them think about how to behave" (Wells 1988, p. 15).

Stated differently, viewers tend to process lecture ads in argumentative fashion. That is, they qualify, challenge, and judge the arguments step by step (Applebee 1977; Bruner 1986). Viewers first identify which statements of evidence are used to support particular product claims. Next, they assess and counter-argue these presented relationships with respect to their own understanding of what constitutes a logical relationship (Jaccard 1981; Reynolds and Burgoon 1984).

Drama Ad Forms and Imaginative Thought

In contrast to lecture ads, dramatic forms of advertising depend upon narrative conventions of plot and character for their import. Drama ads are foremost a story about one or more characters' experiences with a brand or service. Drama ads contain a plot--the correlative arrangement of story events and actions (Chatman 1978; White 1980). And drama ads also contain characters--protagonists given particular physiological and psychological traits, and through who's actions, brand-related experiences are conveyed to the viewing audience (cf. Martin 1986; Todorov 1977). However, unlike other forms of narrative (e.g., novels, tales and myths), pure dramas do not make use of a narrator.

In a pure drama, the actions of characters simply unfold--they are enacted or performed instead of told or recanted. Whereas narrated stories tend to provide overt interpretations of character actions with descriptions of their mental states and motives, dramatized stories require that their viewing audience provide these interpretations (Booth 1961; Iser 1976; Martin 1986). Overt narration tends to distance an audience from the characters. Specifically, narration prompts an audience to view the depicted experiences as "someone else's." In contrast, dramatized stories tend to prompt an audience to view the depicted experiences as "their own." Dramatic forms invite audience participation in the portrayed experiences. Through their imaginary apprehension of the characters' mental states and motives, audience members share in the enactment of the story actions (see Aristotle's Poetics) .

Drama ads can be thought of as purveyors of meanings about the relationship between product and self. That is, drama ads seek to convince viewing audiences of the subjective relevance of the advertised product. Wells (1988) writes that dramatic forms of advertising generally provide viewers with free samples of many of the emotional and psychosocial consequences associated with product use. And as viewers imaginatively project themselves into the perceptual and emotional perspectives of the ad characters, they learn not the objective reality of the advertised product, but the relevancy it holds to the management of their own lives (cf. Wells 1988).

SOME TENTATIVE CONJECTURES

As already implied, the major theoretical assumption underlying this research is: "There exists a necessary relationship between ad form and the processes employed by viewers to make sense of the information embedded within that form." In essence, the form of an ad provides viewers with a conceptual framework through which they can articulate product-related meanings. Lecture forms of advertising (with their reliance on principles of argument) provide viewers with a structured, and often sterile, system of attribute-benefit logic through which product meanings can be gleaned. The focus of viewers' processing will be directed toward the advertised product (object focused), and necessarily argumentative in nature.

In contrast, drama forms of advertising (with their reliance on principles of narrative) provide viewers with a story regarding the vicissitudes of product experience. Viewers are offered the opportunity to learn of the product's self-relevancy by imaginatively participating in the product-related experiences of a passionate, experience-seeking character. The focus of viewers' processing will be directed to the portrayed experiences (self focused), and necessarily imaginative or empathic in nature.

Based upon these ideas, and the preceding review, the following conjectures are offered.

Conjecture 1: Moving along a theoretical continuum of communicative form, advertisements which are increasingly lecture in form will invoke processing that is increasingly argumentative in nature.

Conjecture 2: Moving along a theoretical continuum of communicative form, advertisements which are increasingly dramatic in form will invoke a focus of processing that is increasingly self, as opposed to product-oriented.

The notion that drama forms of advertising invoke self-oriented thinking can be extended a bit further. Recall that drama ads provide viewers with a particular experiential perspective to articulate product meanings--the self-identity of an ad character. Provided that viewers imaginatively participate in the experiences of an ad character, their self-oriented thinking will be guided by the perceptual and emotional perspective of this character. The greater a viewer's extent of imaginative participation in the experiences of an ad character, the more he or she will learn of the product's self-relevancy (cf. Wells 1988). But more importantly, the qualitative nature of what viewers learn is dependent upon the specific character they choose to imaginatively participate with. As such, a third conjecture can be offered.

Conjecture 3: Within dramatic forms of advertising, the nature of viewers' articulation of product-related meanings is dependent upon the specific character with whom they choose to imaginatively participate.

METHOD

In this study, a 1 X 4, between-subjects research design was employed. Two hundred student subjects were randomly assigned to one of four "ad-form" treatment conditions. Subjects assigned to treatment condition 1 were exposed to a television ad which was pure-form lecture; treatment condition 2--lecture voice-over with visual drama vignettes; treatment condition 3--drama with narrated voice-over; treatment condition 4--pure-form drama.

Subjects were recruited from a large liberal arts class, and received the sum of five dollars for their participation. The study was conducted in a laboratory setting, and consisted of exposing subjects, in groups of 15 or less, to the treatment advertisement, placed directly behind a segment of "soft news" from CNN. The programming context was designed to place subjects in a "television viewing mode," making them feel more comfortable with the task of viewing a television commercial. Immediately following exposure to the treatment ad, subjects completed a cognitive response task, as well as ad and product-related evaluations. For those subjects assigned to the drama conditions, measures of vicarious participation were also taken.

Ad Stimuli

As defined by the research design, four different television ads were employed. All treatment advertisements were Subaru automobile commercials. Two Subaru advertisements were lecture in form (one pure-form; one with visual drama vignettes), and two advertisements were drama in form (one with overt narration; one pure-form).

In the pure-form lecture ad, the primary line of argument was concerned with establishing the validity of a quality claim. In addition to other pieces of evidence, the spokesperson in this ad stated that, "In a recent consumer survey, consumers rated Subaru second only to Mercedes Benze in terms of customer satisfaction."

In the lecture ad with visual drama vignettes, the primary line of argument was concerned with establishing the validity of a road handling claim. Subjects exposed to this ad were offered dramatic visual evidence regarding the automobile's road handling ability under poor driving conditions.

The drama ad with overt narration featured a middle-aged, country veterinarian as the main character. In terms of the storyline, the ad begins with a very concerned looking farmer placing a late-night call to a doctor (the audience does not yet know that the doctor is a veterinarian). The farmer tells the doctor that he thinks, "...she's ready." The doctor responds, "I'll be right over." Next, the doctor is shown driving through inclement weather in his Subaru wagon to the farmer's house. After the doctor's arrival, the farmer and his two daughters are featured anxiously awaiting word from the doctor regarding the condition of "the patient." The ad ends with a pronouncement from the doctor that mother and baby (a cow and her calf) are "...doing just fine." The narration primarily consists of statements regarding how dependent this veterinarian is upon his Subaru.

The pure drama ad featured an intelligent (although impish) college-aged individual as the main character. In terms of the story-line, this character was first featured asking his father for advice regarding the purchase of a new car. The father says, "Get another Subaru--it's been good to us." Immediately following the "advice scene," the son is shown speeding along back country roads in his new sports car. During the drive, the audience was treated to an examination of all the new features in this sports car. The main character arrives home to find his father, with a dismayed look upon his face, stating, "I thought we agreed you'd buy a Subaru." The son responds, astonished that his father would presume to doubt his car-buying ability, "But dad...I did!"

Procedure

Upon entering the laboratory, subjects were individually greeted by the researchers, and asked to take a seat in front of two television monitors. Subjects were seated at tables arranged in a U-shape around the monitors. A questionnaire packet and pencil were placed directly in front of each subject.

When all of the scheduled subjects had arrived and been seated, the researcher read a general description of the study. In short, subjects were told that they would be asked a number of questions about their reaction to a television commercial. After reading the general description, subjects were given the opportunity to ask questions regarding their role in the study. When all of the questions had been answered to their satisfaction, they were asked to read and sign two copies of an informed consent form. After all of the informed consent forms had been signed and collected, subjects were shown the news segment and the appropriate treatment ad. When the questionnaires had been completed, subjects were debriefed as a group, paid five dollars, and thanked for their participation. The total time for each session was less than one hour.

Measures

A total of five measures were used in this study. Cognitive response measures of (1) counter-arguments and (2) ratio of self-to-product thoughts were employed to address the first two conjectures. Measures of (3) vicarious participation, (4) attitude toward the product and (5) perceived self-relevance of the advertised product were employed to address the third conjecture.

Cognitive Response Measures. Immediately following exposure to the treatment ad, subjects were instructed to list all the thoughts that occurred to them during exposure. In accord with the conjectures of interest, subjects' thoughts were classified as (1) counter-arguments, (2) self-related, (3) product-related, or (4) other by two trained judges. Interjudge agreement was 87 percent, and disagreements were resolved by a third judge.

Cognitive responses were classified as "counter-arguments" if they consisted of statements of specific disagreement with what was shown or stated in the ad regarding the advertised product. The actual measure of counter-argumentative thinking (CA) consisted of the ratio of the number of counter-arguments divided by the total number of thoughts in the response protocol. Cognitive responses were classified as "product-related" if they were (1) general statements (positive, negative or neutral) for the advertised product, or (2) specific statements about certain features or consequences of the advertised product. Cognitive responses were classified as "self-related" if they were (1) statements regarding some past experience the subject was reminded about, (2) statements which reflected an emotional feeling, or (3) statements regarding subjects' identification with the portrayed characters and/or events. The actual measure of self-predominant thinking I S/P) consisted of the ratio of the number of self-related thoughts divided by the number of product-related thoughts.

Vicarious participation measure The extent to which subjects believed they vicariously participated in the experiences of ad characters was measured using a ten-item, six-point Likert scale known as the VEDA scale (Boller, Babakus and Olson 1989). The VEDA (Viewer Empathy in response to Drama Ads) scale consists of items such as, "I felt as though I were right there in the commercial experiencing the same thing," and "While watching the commercial, I felt as if the characters thoughts and feelings were my own." Scores on each of the individual items were summated to create the final measure (VP). Coefficient alpha was 0.96.

Attitude toward the product This measure (Ab) consisted of a three-item, seven point Semantic Differential scale. Scale endpoints included Like/Dislike, Positive/Negative, and Good/Bad. Coefficient alpha was 0.97.

Perceived self-relevance of the product. This measure (PSR) consisted of a seven-item, six point Semantic Differential scale, derived from the Zaichkowsky (1985) Personal Relevance Inventory. Examples of scale endpoints include, Relevant/Irrelevant, Meaningful/Not Meaningful, and Beneficial/Not Beneficial. Coefficient alpha was 0.95.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

To address the first two conjectures, a MANOVA was performed, with ad form as the independent variable; CA and S/P as the dependent variables. The multivariate results indicate a significant effect due to ad form (F=10.06; df=6, 390; pc.001). Univariate ANOVAs indicate that ad form has a significant effect on both SIP (F=15.54; df=3, 196; p<.001), and CA (F=7.44; df=3, 196; p<.001). Mean values of CA, and standard deviations, across all four levels of ad form (pure lecture; lecture with drama vignettes; drama with overt narration; pure drama) are 0.32 (0.29); 0.20 (0.26); 0.13 (0.20); 0.12 (0.16), respectively. Subsequent contrasts indicate that cell means 2, 3 and 4 are not significantly different at the 0.05 level. Mean values of S/P, and standard deviations, across all four levels of ad form are 0.15 (0.40); 0.33 (0.82); 2.54 (3.13); 1.20 (2.15), respectively. Subsequent contrasts indicate that cell means 1 and 2 are not significantly different at the 0.05 level.

In sum these results provide initial evidence in support of the first two conjectures. Lecture forms of advertising tend to invoke argumentative thinking. In contrast, drama forms of advertising seem to invoke more self-oriented thinking, relative to the extent of product-oriented thinking. Within these results, however, an anomaly can be noted. Specifically, the ratio of self-to-product thinking in response to the pure drama ad was significantly less than that in response to the drama ad with overt narration.

One possible explanation for this finding is that subjects exposed to the pure drama ad vicariously participated in the experiences of the character who was actually feature driving the advertised automobile (i.e., the son). In contrast, subjects exposed to the drama with overt narration may have vicariously participated in the experiences of characters who were not featured using the product (i.e., the farmer and or his daughters). If this were indeed the case, we should expect more product oriented thinking from subjects exposed to the pure drama ad because the character with whom they participated was featured actively thinking about the product.

As part of the VEDA scale, subjects were also instructed to indicate which of the featured characters they most strongly identified with. Nearly all of the subjects 198 percent) exposed to the pure-drama ad indicated that they most identified with the "son." However, only 32 percent of the subjects exposed to the drama ad with narration indicated that they most identified with the "doctor." This being the case, we should expect to find any relationships between the extent of vicarious participation and product-related evaluations to be stronger amongst subjects exposed to the pure drama than those exposed to the drama with narration ad. Simple Pearson correlations confirm this expectation. For those subjects exposed to the pure drama ad, the correlations between VP and Ab, as well as VP and PSR are 0.46 and 0.52, respectively. For those subjects exposed to the drama ad with narration, the correlations between VP and Ab, as well as VP and PSR are 0.29 and 0.01, respectively. Apparently then, the types of meanings created during exposure to a drama ad depend upon the extent of vicarious participation, as well as the particular character with whom viewers choose to participate.

IMPLICATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS

The purpose of this paper was to explore the notion that viewers exposed to drama ads engage in a highly self-focused and self-participatory mode of processing. The results of the current study suggest that this particular notion is indeed viable. Viewers exposed to drama forms of advertising, in contrast to lecture forms, engaged in less argumentative thinking and more self-predominant thinking. And more importantly, the results suggest that viewers exposed to drama forms of advertising engage in self-oriented thinking from the perspective of another self-entity (i.e., an ad character).

I believe that it is instructive to think of ad forms as conceptual frameworks through which viewers are able to articulate product meanings. And the conceptual framework offered by drama ads consists of the complex perceptual, cognitive and emotional perspectives of an ad character. Future explorations into the nature of drama ad processing should start with careful consideration given to the vicarious relationships audience members establish with key characters.

Such research, however, presupposes an adequate conceptualization of empathy. At present, consumer researchers know precious little about empathy and its effects. Future research needs to ask some hard questions regarding, (1) Why do viewers empathize--what motivates them to engage in this form of processing, (2) How do viewers empathize-what sorts of cognitive subprocesses are employed to imaginatively project oneself into the thoughts and feelings of another, and (3) What sorts of meanings do viewers create during empathic episodes--are these meanings qualitatively different than meanings produced during episodes when they are not empathizing? Answers to these and other similar questions will likely enlighten our understanding of the ways in which drama ads provide "songs of our consuming selves."

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