Consumer Processing of Social Ideas Advertising: a Conceptual Model

Lalita A. Manrai, University of Delaware
Meryl P. Gardner, University of Delaware
ABSTRACT - A process-oriented approach is used to understand consumer reactions to social ideas advertising. Diffeences between social ideas and conventional products are discussed from a consumer's perspective. A model is developed to understand how these differences affect consumers' attention, cognition and affect upon exposure to social ideas advertising. Marketing implications and directions for further research are presented.
[ to cite ]:
Lalita A. Manrai and Meryl P. Gardner (1992) ,"Consumer Processing of Social Ideas Advertising: a Conceptual Model", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 15-22.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 15-22


Lalita A. Manrai, University of Delaware

Meryl P. Gardner, University of Delaware


A process-oriented approach is used to understand consumer reactions to social ideas advertising. Diffeences between social ideas and conventional products are discussed from a consumer's perspective. A model is developed to understand how these differences affect consumers' attention, cognition and affect upon exposure to social ideas advertising. Marketing implications and directions for further research are presented.


Weibe (1952) asked: Why can't you sell brotherhood like soap? In this paper, we address this question by developing a conceptual model of consumer processing of social ideas advertising based on differences between social ideas and conventional products. Social marketing is defined as the "design, implementation, and control of programs seeking to increase the acceptability of a social idea in a target group" (Kotler and Armstrong 1989). The field of social marketing is thus a type of non-profit marketing that includes public health campaigns (e.g., those to reduce smoking, alcoholism, drug abuse, overeating); environmental campaigns (e.g., wilderness protection, recycling) and other campaigns (e.g., human rights, social equality) - (Kotler and Zaltman, 1971). Despite the phenomenal growth in social ideas advertising, very little is known about how consumers process these advertisements in comparison to the advertisements for conventional products.

This research takes a process-oriented approach to understanding consumer reactions to social ideas advertising. First, social ideas are compared to conventional products to understand how they differ from a consumer's perspective and what challenges are involved for marketers. Then, a model is developed to understand how these differences affect consumers' attention, cognition and affect upon exposure to social issues advertising. Implications of these relationships for marketing social ideas are discussed, and directions for future research are identified.


The term "social ideas" refers to social issues and social causes. According to Fine (1981):

"... issues are controversial; causes are generally not. One takes a position on an issue, but simply adopts a cause, such as joining a movement. Abortion and gun control are issues; the prevention of child abuse and forest fires are causes."

A list of social ideas as developed by Fine (1981) is given in Table-1. In some cases, organizations are listed rather than the associated causes, (e.g., United Way rather than volunteerism or nongovernment social service,) to maintain consistency with common usage. Social ideas are similar to products in that both involve consumption and need satisfaction. For social ideas, consumption involves taking a position on a social issue or adoption of a social cause and need fulfillment involves resolution of a social problem. As suggested by these similarities, product marketing and social idea marketing share a common underlying philosophy. Differences between social ideas and conventional products, however, necessitate adjustments in marketing actions. For example, although motivation to process advertising messages affects attention to both conventional product and social idea advertising, sources of motivation may differ in the two cases. An understanding of these and other differences could help marketers design more effective communications for social ideas.

There exists some -- although limited -- research investigating the differences between social ideas marketing and conventional products marketing. Brady (1984) points out that in the nonprofit sector (including social idea marketing) product offerings are vaguely defined and lack competition. Hupfer and Gardner (1971) investigated individuals' involvement with tangibles and issues. Their findings indicate that involvement with issues was higher than involvement with tangible products.

Rothschild (1979), however, suggests that involvement with social ideas follows a bi-modal distribution across ideas, with some having low involvement (e.g., the introduction of a $2 bill) and others high involvement (e.g., drunk driving). In contrast, involvement with conventional products may be distributed over the middle of the continuum. In addition, involvement with social ideas may be bi-modally distributed across individuals - i.e., some people may have low involvement with almost all social ideas while others have high involvement. Fine (1981) compared the characteristics of individuals involved with social products (referred as "idealists") with those of individuals involved with ordinary goods (referred as "materialists"). His findings indicate that idealists tend to be older, married, females and members of racial minorities. Idealists were also less likely to own rather than rent their homes and spent less time watching television and on their jobs. No significant differences were found between the two groups on socioeconomic factors such as income and education.




Based on the research discussed above and a general analysis of the nature of social ideas, we developed the model depicted in Figure-1. First we will discuss eight dimensions on which social ideas can be distinguished from conventional products. Then the implications of these differences for attention, cognition and affect will be summarized.

1. Shared Benefits:

Benefits resulting from consumption of an idea typically accrue to society rather than to individuals per se (The term "individual" is used here to include such units as households and organizations.) (Fine, 1981, p. 148). These benefits are thus "Shared Benefits." Some health-oriented social action campaigns like "Quit Smoking" may benefit targeted individuals more than other people and thus social ideas may vary in their relative emphasis on personal versus social benefits. However, any social campaign always has the basic objective of benefiting society and thus involves shared benefits.



Compared to this, consumption of most conventional products primarily benefits individual consumers. We thus propose:

Proposition 1: Consumers' perceptions of personal (in comparison to social) benefits would be lower for social ideas than for conventional products.

2. Shared Responsibilities:

Similarly, consumers view social causes and issues as concerns to be jointly shared by the entire society. In comparison, decisions concerning consumption of traditional products are viewed as personal responsibilities. There are instances of joint decision making, e.g., house buying, automobile purchase, etc. where multiple members of a household may be involved but the personal element of responsibility is dominant in conventional products. Thus:

Proposition 2: Consumers' perceptions of personal (in comparison to social) responsibility would be lower for social ideas than for conventional products.

3. Delayed Benefits:

The adoption of a social idea may offer immediate intrinsic satisfaction to the adopter in terms of belonging to a cause to affect a societal or environmental change. But, the impact of such actions on society or the environment often cannot be seen immediately (Fine, 1981, p. 148). For example, the results of a campaign to preserve a rare species cannot be known for years to come. In contrast, most conventional products offer relatively immediate gratification.

Proposition 3: Consumers' perceptions of the time within which benefits of consumption will be realized would be longer for social ideas than for conventional products.

4. Controllability:

Consumers have more control over the consequences of their product purchases than the consequences of espousing a social idea or taking a social action (Fine, 1981, p. 148). For product purchases, the decision making unit includes the purchaser and the user. For social ideas, these roles are undertaken by very distinct, often very different, individuals. For example, consumers who buy food are reasonably sure that the food will be eaten by themselves or their families. In contrast, those who donate organs have no control over who will use their organs and whether a life will be saved.

Proposition 4: Consumers' perceptions of their control over the usage and consequences of consumption would be lower for social ideas than for conventional products.

5. Intangibility:

Services are, in general, less tangible than physical products (Shostack, 1977). For-profit services often involve services linked to tangible objects - e.g., restaurants serve food, airlines fly airplanes. In contrast, not-for-profit services, including social ideas, are less frequently associated with tangible objects. Thus, within services, not-for-profit services can be construed as more intangible than services for profit. To quote Assael (1990) who compared for-profit and not-for-profit services: "The benefits of air travel, telecommunications or bank services, are easier to convey than the benefits of religion, culture or knowledge." Thus

Proposition 5: Consumers' perceptions of the tangibility of social ideas would be lower than that of conventional products.

6. Complexity:

Not only are social ideas more intangible than conventional products, they are more complex too (Fine, 1981, p. 149). The term complexity is used here to refer to the multiplicity of relevant dimensions. First, consumers' own involvement may be higher (Hupfer and Gardner 1971; Rothschild 1979). Second, reference group influence may be more important and complex than it is for conventional products. Third, because social ideas may lead to social change, they have consequences in many different arenas. All these forces make social ideas more complex to comprehend and adopt.

Proposition 6: Consumers' perceptions of message complexity would be higher for social ideas than for conventional products.

7. Reversibility:

In adopting a social idea, the commitment one makes has more long term implications than that for a conventional product. If a consumer does not like the article of clothing he or she has bought, it can easily be returned at the store. The same may not be possible for a social idea (Fine, 1981, p. 149). One cannot undo the support one has already given; one cannot get back donation dollars.

Proposition 7: Consumers' perceptions of the reversibility of a consumption decision will be lower for social ideas than for conventional products.

8. Counter-Pressures:

Consumers considering social ideas, especially social issues, are often faced with opposite pressures from different reference groups (Fine, 1981, p. 149). For example, a campaign on Drug Abuse Control points to the negative consequences of drug usage while peer pressure suggests that drug usage will provide wonderful experiences. This kind of counter-pressure will be far more dominant for controversial social issues than for conventional products.

Proposition 8: Consumers will experience more intense counter-pressures (opposing viewpoints) in decisions about social idea than in decisions about conventional products.


Attention to Content of Social Ideas Advertising:

As indicated in the model, the first four differences, i.e., shared benefits, shared responsibilities, delayed benefits and controllability would affect consumer attention to the content of social ideas advertising such that attention would be:


9a) negatively related to consumers' perceptions of the extent of benefits sharing.

9b) negatively related to consumers' perceptions of the extent of responsibilities sharing.

9c) negatively related to consumers' perceptions of the extent of delay in realizing benefits.

9d) positively related to consumers' perceptions of the extent of controllability.

The rationale for and implications of these are discussed next.

The effect of benefits sharing are related to consumers' reaction of "Why do it?" or "What's in it for me?". To overcome this, social idea advertising has to convey that what is beneficial to society is eventually beneficial to the individual. To convey this, the society-individual link should be emphasized. One example is the campaign of the United States Space Foundation - "Space Benefits - Find Out What's In It For You." This series of public service advertisements uses spokespersons who are polar opposites in some way (e.g., personal or political viewpoints, dress/lifestyle). These spokespersons state that all of us can benefit from the spin-offs of space research. The ads illustrate how technological accomplishments directly benefit Americans.

The effects of responsibility sharing are related to the reaction "Somebody else will do it" or "If I do not participate, it won't matter." Precisely the opposite message must be conveyed to overcome these reactions; social idea advertising must say, "You can make the difference." Once again, the link between individuals and society should be emphasized. One campaign that fosters a sense of "You Can Make the Difference" is the campaign of the National Association of State Foresters and the Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture - "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires." It is estimated that over $420 billion in natural resources was saved by this program since the launch of the campaign in 1942. (An additional reason for the success of this campaign could be the use of Smokey Bear, a communication symbol with a recognition rate of 99%.)

The delay in realizing the benefits of adopting social ideas introduces uncertainty and skepticism. It may also make individuals procrastinate on social action. To overcome this, social idea advertising should offer immediate rewards. A campaign that capitalizes on the fact that the target audiences are already aware of the problem (and therefore would see more imminent benefits and would be more receptive to the idea) is Internal Revenue Services Campaign "File Now. File Early." This campaign is directed at over 100 million taxpayers and has the triple objectives of motivating taxpayers to file early, increasing public awareness of assistance programs and recruiting volunteers to help needy individuals with tax preparation. Almost everybody can relate to the immediate benefits of this social idea.

The fourth factor affecting attention - e.g., controllability - taps into individuals' desires to see and control the outcomes of their decisions. Since the action being sought is at the societal level, this control gets lost. Social idea advertising needs to restore this control to the individual. An example of social idea advertising which assures individuals that they have control is the "Reach for the Power. Teach." campaign of Recruiting New Teachers, Inc. This campaign, showing a teacher interacting with students in a classroom situation, was highly successful. In its first year, more than 184,000 individuals from 50 states responded, thus providing a large pool of potential teachers.

Cognitive Processing of Social Ideas Advertising:

Attention to social ideas advertising is expected to be negatively related to perceptions of extent of benefit sharing, responsibility sharing and delay in realizing benefits and positively related to perceptions of extent of controllability. This attention in turn is likely to affect consumers' cognitive processing of social ideas advertising such that comprehension of message content would be positively related with the attention.

In addition, as depicted in Figure-1, intangibility and complexity of social ideas would also directly affect consumers' comprehension of social ideas advertising. "Comprehension" is used here to refer to consumers' understanding of message content in the way intended by the advertiser. We propose that comprehension of social ideas advertising would be:


10a) negatively related to consumers' perceptions of the extent of intangibility.

10b) negatively related to consumers' perceptions of the extent of complexity.

In discussing the intangibility of ideas, Fine (1981) quotes Rogers and Shoemaker's (1971) report on rejection of the idea of boiling water in a Peruvian village:

Mrs. C. does not understand germ theory, in spite of Nelida's repeated explanations. How, she argues, can microbes survive in water which would drown people? Are they fish? If germs are so small that they can not be seen or felt, how can they hurt a grown person? There are enough real threats in the world to worry about - poverty, hunger - without bothering with tiny animals one can not see, hear, touch or smell (p. 4).

The effect of intangibility of an idea is basically captured in one's inability to comprehend it using one's senses. A social idea marketer's job thus translates into the challenge of making an intangible more tangible. When the social idea is an "experience," this can be done by depicting the products used in gaining that experience. For example, the United States Army's recruiting efforts make extensive use of military equipment (e.g. planes, tanks) in their advertising directed at potential recruits. However, when the social idea is a desired action on part of the target audience, the task becomes more challenging. An example is the efforts of the American Red Cross to promote participation in CPR classes. Their campaign "If only they came with instructions" shows a baby holding a card with the following message, "IMPORTANT: Please hug me, feed me, keep me warm and PLEASE learn American Red Cross Infant and Child CPR." The bold headline of the ad says "If only they came with instructions." Written in small print is the fear appeal-based message "Every year thousands of babies die of choking, suffocating or breathing emergencies. Don't let yours be one of them." The picture of a beautiful, smiling baby combined with the strong fear appeal message make the rewards of learning CPR very obvious and conveys the tangible results of this action.

The complexity of some social ideas may create information overload (Jacoby, Speller and Kohn 1974;) and affect consumers' ability to process the relevant information. Advertising for social ideas should be kept simple and consider target consumer's information processing capacity.

Affective Responses to Social Ideas Advertising:

In addition to its effect on consumers' cognitions (e.g., message comprehension), attention to social ideas advertising affects consumers' affective responses (e.g., feelings). Two aspects related to consumers' feelings need to be discussed - the valence or the pleasantness/unpleasantness of feelings and the intensity of feelings. Feelings are likely to be more intense when consumers devote more attention to the message than when they devote less attention. The second aspect concerns the valence of the feelings. As indicated in the model in Figure-1, lower reversibility of social ideas consumption decision and higher counter-pressures will directly affect affective responses to social ideas messages such that feelings would be:


11a) more pleasant when consumers' perceive greater reversibility.

11b) less pleasant when consumers' experience greater counter pressures.

The reversibility effect poses real challenges for the social idea marketer. The very objective of social idea advertising is to obtain commitment for a cause and issue and often these commitments are sought as a long-term action rather than a short-term one. This poses a threat to the consumer who sees himself or herself being "tied". This threat is associated with unpleasant feelings. The marketer of a social idea cannot really say that "they'll offer a refund" as in use of a conventional product. However, they can decrease the unpleasant feelings association with the commitment by emphasizing the high benefit to costs ratio: - i.e., emphasizing that benefits are far more and costs are nothing in comparison (without undermining the importance of the commitment). An example would be a television solicitation for children in poor countries which says that you can make the difference in the life of a child by "committing only 39 cents a day." These ads then go on to describe how the sponsored child will regularly write to you and how you will get pictures showing the difference your contribution has made.

The counter-pressures to social idea advertising arise from opposite and preexisting viewpoints. Conflicts resulting from such counter-pressures are associated with unpleasant feelings. To help consumers cope with such feelings, an ad should acknowledge these counterpressures while establishing the viewpoint advocated. The field of social idea advertising deals mostly with topics with which consumers are already familiar. Research suggests that when consumer awareness and knowledge are high, two-sided messages are more effective than one-sided messages (Faison 1961). Two campaigns of the American Cancer Society (ACS) demonstrate this point. ACS identified two high risk groups: leisure tanners and outdoor workers. The campaigns directed at these two target groups had a common theme but different executions. The common theme was "Cover up or face the consequences." The ad directed at leisure tanners showed a skeleton with a pair of sunglasses lying on a chaise lounge and carried the heading "Skin Cancer Can Ruin a Beautiful Tan." Thus this ad very indirectly acknowledges that "covering up" (the social idea in the interest of public health) prevents one from getting a tan but saves you from skin cancer. This makes viewers think about the choice they want to make. Similarly, the ad aimed at outdoor workers shows a brawny construction worker without a shirt. The ad headline says "Staying Cool on the Job Could Cost You Your Life." This time the social idea marketer is acknowledging that covering up may make you feel warmer, but it saves your life. Once again the target has to make a choice.

Consumer Behavior in Response to Social Ideas Advertising:

As the model in Figure-1 depicts, consumer behavior in response to social ideas advertising results from cognitive and affective processing of such messages. Further, the cognitive and affective responses are construed as mutually reinforcing rather than independent processes. The notion of behavior being a function of cognitive and affective responses is well supported by research related to the Theory of Reasoned Action (Fishbein and Ajzen 1975, 1981) which links the attitudinal or cognitive component and subjective norm or affective component to behavior. For example, research by McArdle (1972) suggests that behavioral intentions of alcoholics to sign-up for treatment in a Veterans' Hospital program were jointly predicted by their attitudes towards signing up for the program as well as their motivation to comply with referents (e.g., spouses, parents).

The area of cognition-affect relationships and their directionality has captured the attention of researchers in the area of consumer satisfaction/ dissatisfaction. Several studies have established that cognitive responses such as attributions for product failure affect emotions or affective responses (Folkes 1984; Oliver 1989; Weiner 1985; Weiner, Russell and Lerman 1978, 1979). The reverse linkage, i.e., feelings affecting cognitions has been supported in the area of memory research (Bower 1981; Clark and Isen 1982; Isen and Daubman 1984). A cycle-recycle pattern of emotion-attribution-emotion was found in two studies conducted by Stephan and Gollwitzer (1981). More recently, Manrai and Gardner (1991) suggest that emotional context of product failure affects attributions.

Taken together, this suggests that consumers' cognitive and affective responses to social ideas advertising affects behavior directly and that these responses are mutually reinforcing.


This paper makes two important contributions to the area of social ideas advertising research.

1) Eight basic dimensions were identified that differentiate social ideas advertising from conventional products advertising. These differences enable us to understand the true nature of social ideas advertising and the challenges involved.

2) A model is developed relating the eight differences to three aspects of processing upon exposure to social ideas messages: attention, comprehension and affect.

Future research can be directed in several areas. First, the differences between the social ideas advertising and conventional advertising require empirical investigation. Second, the propositions relating the eight differences to three aspects of processing also should be tested empirically. Third, other possible linkages should be explored. For example, the four differences that affect attention, i.e., shared benefits, shared responsibilities, delayed benefits and controllability may also influence affective responses directly.

The model presented here is very basic; future research could be directed at exploring more complex relationships and interactions. There appears to be wide scope for future research in this area. Such research efforts should enhance our understanding of this societally important topic.


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