Experiencing Ad Meanings: Crucial Aspects of Narrative/Drama Processing

Gregory W. Boller, Memphis State University
Jerry C. Olson, Penn State University
[ to cite ]:
Gregory W. Boller and Jerry C. Olson (1991) ,"Experiencing Ad Meanings: Crucial Aspects of Narrative/Drama Processing", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 164-171.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 164-171


Gregory W. Boller, Memphis State University

Jerry C. Olson, Penn State University

How should consumer and advertising researchers study ad meaning? We can think of four viable approaches to the study of ad meaning. First, researchers can examine the manner in which the rhetorical structures in an ad present meaning (see Stern, this session). Second, researchers can examine the specific affective and cognitive processes by which consumers create and experience ad meanings. Third, researchers can examine how consumers use ad-influenced meanings in ordinary social contexts (see McCracken, this session). And finally, researchers can assemble the ''findings'' from all three approaches, compare them to the meanings intended by the ad creators, and explore the meta-meaning of the resulting gestalt (see Laing 1982 for a tantalizing- discussion on the value of meta-meanings). We hope that the fourth approach (the intended purpose of this session) will yield provocative insights into the meaning of ad meaning. Our contribution to this session consists of a discussion of "experiencing ad meanings" (the second approach).

Rather than identifying many of the specific meanings consumers may create in response to a commercial, we discuss a process through which consumers experience the meanings portrayed in a commercial. The process we discuss is known as empathy, and is particularly appropriate to consider when studying the effects of narrative advertisements.


An Initial Description of the GAIN Commercial

As evident from the title of this paper, we believe that the GAIN commercial is best described as a narrative form. By this we mean, the content and structure of this commercial is that of a story. In terms of content, the GAIN commercial contains events (e.g., preparations for a family get-together, arrival of a spouse, parental greeting of a child) as well as characters (e.g., a young mamma, a husband/father home from the military, an excited young daughter) who react to and experience these events. The temporal sequence of lead character reactions to story events defines the structure or plot of the narrative commercial--in this case, a folkloreish portrayal of maternal triumph in the context of family relationships.

In terms of narrative exposition, the GAIN commercial is an example of a "narrated drama" (cf. Deighton, Romer and McQueen 1989). That is, the experiences of the ad characters are communicated to the viewing audience through dramatic enactment (as evident in the visual sequence), as well as through overt narration (as evident in the ongoing and tag voice-overs). The dramatic component of the GAIN commercial narrative is clearly the dominant mode of exposition. The enactments portray the characters' experiences with and about the advertised brand. The overt narration embellishes and elaborates these experiences by providing the viewing audience with "key insights" into the lead character's thoughts and feelings related to the brand.

Although the above description is admittedly cryptic (see Stern, this volume, for a more thorough description), establishing the GAIN commercial as a narrative is critical because the processes by which consumers create and experience meanings during exposure to an advertisement largely depends upon the form of advertisement they are given (Boller 1990). We argue that theoretical accounts of ad processing should be contingent upon the form of the ad in question.

Important Assumptions about Narrative Advertisements

Until recently (see Boller 1990; Deighton, Romer and McQueen 1989: Wells 1989), consumer researchers have devoted little attention to narrative forms of advertising. Information processing and advertising response models implicitly assume that advertisements have an argumentative form (see, for example, the Elaboration Likelihood Model-- Petty, Cacioppo and Schumann 1983). That is, advertisements are treated as the purveyors of objective brand meanings that contain structured systems of attribute-benefit logic designed to convince audiences of the validity of specific brand claims. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this particular view of advertisements, not the least of which is that the archetypal language of science, the social system that studies the effects of advertisements, happens to be argument (cf. Bruner 1986).

Of course, many advertisements (especially those in the U.S.) have an argumentative form, and therefore, traditional models of advertising response are generally helpful. However, these models have a rather limited ability to account for the effects of narrative ads (Wells 1989). And given the burgeoning number of narrative advertisements, new theories of ad processing will be needed.

Unlike argumentative advertisements, narrative ads tend to portray experiential brand meaning (i.e., meanings about the self-relevant consequences associated with brand use) by telling stories about one or more character's experiences with the advertised brand. In these stories, characters generally interact with or consume the advertised brand, and thereby provide overt indications about their feelings toward the brand (e.g., through emotional displays). Through their actions with and reactions to the advertised brand, narrative ad characters can provide viewers with a "taste" of the psychosocial consequences associated with brand use (Boller 1990).

The importance of character in a narrative cannot be overstated. Events, though crucial components of any narrative, cannot convey experiential meaning. Only characters, as they respond to events in a story, can convey experiential meaning. As each character brings a particular emotional and cognitive point-of-view to bear during his or her interactions with story events, multiple "windows of experience" are opened to the viewing audience. Herein lies the power of narrative advertising--it can convey a multiplicity of brand meaning ,rom the varying perspectives of consumer-characters.

We contend that any theoretical account of narrative ad processing must start by describing how viewers "process" the ad characters. In short, we believe that viewers generally process narrative ads by building empathic relationships with the ad characters. Through their empathy with ad characters, viewers can vicariously experience the personal relevance of the advertised brand. The key dimensions of this process (empathy) and its effects are described next.


Since Aristotle's Poetics (Trans. 1987), literary theorists have long recognized that compelling narratives (those capable of influencing social action) move an audience to empathize with their characters (Booth 1961; Martin 1986). These theorists suggest that the experiential perspectives provided by story characters virtually demand imaginative processes of "participation" to be fully appreciated and understood. To effectively grasp the meanings portrayed in a story, audience members must, in a sense, partially assume the experiential identity of a character (Katz 1963).

Within the context of narrative advertising, empathy can be conceptualized as a dynamic process whereby consumers imaginatively project themselves into the experiences of featured ad characters (cf. Booth 1961; Katz 1963). This process involves consumers' 1) identification with a character (their experience of sharing core aspects of self-identity with a character) and 2) vicarious participation in that character's experiences (their apprehension of the story events from the cognitive and affective perspectives of a character).

Character Identification

During exposure to a narrative ad, consumers' empathy with a featured character typically begins with identification. That is, consumers begin to perceive similarities between aspects of their own self identity and that depicted by the character. Initially, these similarities may include simple expressions of self such as style of dress, speech and posture. However, as the commercial unfolds, consumers' initial identification with a character may deepen to include similarities in terms of interests, values and goals (Burke 1969). In some instances, consumers may feel as if their self-identity is indistinguishable from that of the character with whom they are empathizing.

Turning to the GAIN ad, it is clearly evident that the lead character is the "young mamma." If consumers strongly identify with this character, they may feel similar interests and goals pertaining to "motherly responsibilities," which in this case might include 'please thy husband' and 'deliver unto him a daughter with clean, fresh smelling clothes'). And, like this "young mamma," empathizing consumers should perceive GAIN as a means to satisfy these interests and goals.

Vicarious Participation

During their identification with an ad character, empathizing consumers also begin to feel as if they are participating in that character's experiences (Katz 1963). That is, consumers imaginatively experience the story events from the affective and cognitive perspectives of the character with whom they identify. Initially, consumers' vicarious participation may be limited to simple thoughts and perceptions. As their identification with a character deepens however, their vicarious participation will generally intensify to include emotional reactions and sometimes physical reactions. In rare instances, strongly empathizing consumers may feel as though they have actually "lived through" the story events.

Returning to the GAIN ad, what would empathizing consumers experience if they vicariously participated with the "young mamma" character? Perhaps these consumers would, in part, experience the ambivalence of the homecoming event (e.g., anxiousness about her husband's return, worry about how 'perfect' the party appears to others, joy in seeing her husband hug their daughter, pride in being a good mother). Ideally though, these consumers would experience satisfaction with GAIN detergent since it made this significant family event "perfect" and mamma feel "proud."

The Persuasive Impact of Empathy

In essence, empathy is a process of "participating consciousness" whereby consumers "try on" another's identity and obtain vicarious experiences with the brand in question. In advertising, identification with a character should lead to the activation and consideration of consumption-related interests and goals. Vicarious participation with this character provides consumers with means to experience the partial fulfillment of these interests and goals.

We argue that consumers' empathy, in response to a narrative ad, can be persuasive in that they learn about the self-relevance of the advertised brand. Empathizing consumers indirectly experience the self-relevant consequences associated with using or consuming the brand from the perspective of a character with whom they "share" similar interests and goals. Thus, they learn how the brand is instrumental in attaining desired goals.

Persuasion via "learned self-relevance" of course presupposes that consumers empathize with characters who are featured interacting with the brand in self-relevant ways. Consumers who empathize with "peripheral characters" (i.e., those with little stake in the advertised brand) will not likely experience brand consequences (Boller 1990). We suggest that one step toward evaluating the potential effectiveness of a narrative advertisement should involve assessing the execution in terms of its ability to generate empathy with characters whose experiences are "central" to the advertised brand.


In this section, we offer an informal procedure for thinking about the relationship between narrative ad execution and its potential ability to communicate self-relevant brand experiences. Although this "procedure" is presently sketchy, we believe it can provide a fundamental basis for developing testable hypotheses concerning an ad's effectiveness. Therefore, our comments about the GAIN commercial itself are intended as "points for subsequent testing."

Empathic Potential

As conceptualized in this paper, empathy is a natural process through which people attempt to understand the experiences of others. During exposure to a narrative ad however, there are numerous factors that might hinder the development of this process. For instance, we believe most would agree that factors such as casting, acting, direction and editing all influence the development of empathy. Slip-shod execution is highly distracting, and renders imaginative participation in the portrayed experiences difficult, if not impossible. The detrimental effects of poor technical execution are rather obvious, and we will not belabor them further. Instead, we consider the potential empathy-hindering effects of 1) narration, 2) weak character development, and 3) questionable verisimilitude.

Narration. Many narrative advertisements, including the GAIN commercial, use overt narration to embellish character thoughts and feelings and thus elaborate their experiences. Unfortunately, narration tends to interfere with the development of empathy by distancing consumers from the characters (cf. Aristotle's Poetics). When narrators provide verbal interpretations of character thoughts and feelings, consumer empathy is tantamount to redundancy--there is no need for vicarious participation if interpretations of experience have already been provided. More importantly though, narration can often prove to be distracting, particularly if the narrator's interpretations of character thoughts and feelings are inconsistent with consumers' vicarious experience of the same. In all fairness though, there is a good argument for the use of narration. Specifically, consumers rarely give narrative advertisements the same level of attention they give to cinema, novels or theater. Thus, narration ensures that consumers will at least be exposed to a verbal rendering of the characters' experiences, losses in empathy notwithstanding.

Weak character development. Before consumers can empathize with an ad character, they must be given an opportunity to "know" that character. Identification, in particular, will be difficult if little information about a character's identity is provided. Narrative advertisements that are short in length, those that contain many different characters, and/or those that spend a great deal of time on setting and action may contain character development inadequate for the development of empathy. The GAIN commercial is a mere 30 seconds--sufficient length by conventional, argumentative ad standards, but relatively short by narrative standards. Very little time exists to fully develop the character of the "young mamma." As such, consumer empathy with this character may be rather shallow.

Questionable verisimilitude. Broadly defined, verisimilitude refers to the believability of character actions and dialogue, within the context of the story (Todorov 1977). The portrayed experiences must be consistent with 'consumers' own general understanding of human experience for the story to possess verisimilitude. If consumers perceive a narrative ad to be contrived or hokey (i.e., lacking in verisimilitUde), empathy will probably fail to develop (Wells 1989).

The GAIN commercial contains at several areas of concern regarding verisimilitude. First, the chicken barbecue (opening scene) may possess verisimilitude problems. The intended target audience for this commercial is clearly Southern women. Unfortunately, many areas in the South consider chicken barbecue an act of heresy, particularly for an event as significant as a family homecoming--pork is the favored meat for barbecues. Although some may find this concern somewhat trite, we believe that it is possible for some Southern consumers to note the oversight, assume that the characters in the commercial are pretending to be Southern and view subsequent actions and dialogue as unbelievable. A second area of concern can be noted in the "young mamma's' emotional reaction to the reunion between her husband and their daughter. Given the story context, consumers are asked to believe that her "joyful gasp" is more a function of her pride in her daughter's clean smelling clothes than the excitement of the reunion itself. This inference may be too difficult for even the most imaginative of consumers to accept.

Communication of Brand Experience

At this point, we will assume that the GAIN execution provides sufficient empathic potential, and move to the next step in our assessment procedure. Here, we ask two questions. First, with which of the featured characters will the intended target audience likely empathize? Second, is the advertised brand an integral component of this character's depicted experiences?

Three characters are featured in the GAIN commercial--the young mamma, the returning husband, and the young daughter. If the intended target audience is narrowly defined as working-class Southern women, these consumers will most likely empathize with the "young mamma" character. Their identification with this character may be especially strong if 1) they are married to soldier, 2) have young children, and 3) do not take offense to being called a "mamma." If, however, the target audience is more broadly defined to include professional Southern women, it is unclear with which of the three characters they may empathize-the "mamma" characterization is very restrictive.

Assuming that the "young mamma" character is the likely target for consumer empathy, we now need to examine whether this character's interactions with the brand are sufficient to convey meaningful brand experiences. Apart from a "quick-edit visual" of "young mamma" finishing her laundry with GAIN detergent in the foreground, this character's interaction with the brand is primarily limited to her "joyful gasp" reaction to the father/daughter reunion. If the previously mentioned concern regarding verisimilitude does not arise, empathizing consumers may experience a powerful, self-relevant consequence associated with consuming GAIN detergent--pride. If the verisimilitude concern does arise, it is not clear what sort of brand experience these empathizing consumers may obtain.

Concluding Remarks

In this paper, we have outlined a conceptual framework for understanding the potential effects of narrative ads. Our conceptualization of empathy, coupled with discussions about its antecedents and effects, is intended to provide an informed basis for rethinking the manner in which consumers can experience ad meanings. We hope that our analysis of the GAIN commercial (tentative as it is) demonstrates the critical need for research on empathy and narrative ad processing.


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