Thoughts on the Importance of Psycholinguistics to the Understanding of Effective Advertising Communication

Larry Percy, Lintas:USA
[ to cite ]:
Larry Percy (1992) ,"Thoughts on the Importance of Psycholinguistics to the Understanding of Effective Advertising Communication", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 268-269.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 268-269


Larry Percy, Lintas:USA

There can be no doubt about the importance of words and how one uses them to the effectiveness of any communication. And while there is certainly no shortage of words in advertising, there is certainly a shortage of research on the impact of semantic content and syntax upon communication effectiveness in advertising. The efforts reported by the researchers in this session are most welcome.


Weiner and Mehrabian (1968) have done a good job of discussing the often subtle effects of language, and especially that what appears to be the same thing said with different words can be the basis for inferring quite different responses from the communication. Rickheit, Schnotz, and Strohner (1985) have offered the following definition of inference in discourse comprehension: "An inference is the generation of new semantic information from old semantic information in a given context." They go on to point out three areas that must be dealt with in considering the effect of inference:

(1) the psychological representation of old information and the new information resulting from the inference

(2) the process of inferring the new information from the old information, and

(3) the notion of content and its effect upon inferring

A number of concerns are evident for each of these points, and while a thorough discussion of these issues is certainly beyond the scope of these comments, it will perhaps pay us to at least take a brief look at some of the problems outlined by Rickheit et al. The idea of mental representation and inference is tied up in theories of just how people structure internally the meaning of text, what the units of this structure are, and how these units are combined to make a meaningful whole. Secondly, text processing is only a partially automatic process, and unfortunately problem solving processes such as inference, in most cases, do not reach a conscious level. Finally, they point out that although there is no doubt context is essential for making inference, the concept of context is generally left undefined in most current studies of language use. It would certainly seem that we have our work cut out for us.

In trying to determine the circumstances or variables that might lead people to draw misleading inferences from otherwise truthful claims one must necessarily address each of these points. Looking at such things as prior knowledge and expertise and their effect upon processing advertising messages and any subsequent inferences drawn from then cannot be simply addressed, but such pre-existing cognitive structure will surely be instrumental in the manner in which inferences are formed relative to the information processed. Kehret-Ward has begun to deal with this question in her work.


Syntax, of course, is the term given over to the composition or grammatical arrangement of words. Psycholinguists study syntax and decoct rules or hypotheses of just how all of these arrangements influence the way we learn and understand a language. But understanding syntax is anything but easy. As Akmajian and Henry (1975) remind us, linguistic activity is so much a part of being human that we are not at all conscious of it. People simply use language with no conscious awareness of the complex interactions stimulated by the ways in which they string words together. And while it would be fair to say that on the whole we tend to understand one another, there can nevertheless be unwanted communication consequences of language, simply as a function of the way in which a sentence is composed.

Lowrey (1991) quite rightly laments the paucity of research in the area of syntax and advertising. Percy (1982) and Percy and Rossiter (1980) summarize a great deal of psychology and psycholinguistic literature that bears upon syntactic issues; and, in fact, report several studies that attempt to deal with the issue (c.f. Percy, 1988; Percy and Rossiter, 1983). For example, in one of the studies reported by Percy and Rossiter (1983), subjects were asked to imagine a new calorie-controlled food that is advertised as:

Condition 1: "It's food that tastes good in your mouth and looks good on you"

Condition 2: "It's food which tastes good in your mouth and looks good on you"

Condition 3: "It's good tasting food that looks good on you"

Condition 4: "It's good tasting food which looks good on you"

The purpose here was to explore the use of a relative vs. demonstrative pronoun. The results tended to support the contention of Hakes and Cairns (1970) and Hakes and Foss (1970) that relative pronouns facilitate comprehension of self-embedded sentences (here both right branching). A measure of affect summed from four bi-polar scales (good-bad, inferior-superior, unpleasant-pleasant, and interesting-boring) and an intention-to-try measure (using a zero-to-ten scale) were used, with the following result:


As these results suggest, overall affect and intention do seem to be greater with the use of a relative pronoun (although results were not necessarily significant).

In some additional work dealing with syntax, Percy (1988) found that learning, recall, and comprehension of an advertising slogan all varied, and often significantly, as a function of the slogan's syntax. In one of the studies reported, subjects were asked whether taste or calories was most important to the product described in one of four ways (manipulating placement of negative subordinate clauses within self-embedded sentences). The correct inference in each case was intended to be "taste", and as the results below indicate, most people did indeed infer taste.


However, those subjects exposed to slogan 2, "It's the taste that counts, not just the calories," were significantly more likely to make an incorrect inference. Slogan 2 happens to embed the negative clause in a right-branching fashion, and there is evidence that suggests right-branching clauses, whether negative or not, are more difficult to process if the right-branching clause is subordinate.

We were reminded of these two studies in reviewing the work of Saliba (1991) and Lowrey (1991), as well as Kehret-Ward's (1991) work on inference. Each of these studies attempts to deal with some aspect of this intriguing yet complex issue of psycholinguistics and its obvious application to advertising. One also senses in their work the frustration of being able to significantly isolate effects; a frustration keenly felt in our own work. None-the-less, work in this area has the potential for meaningful contributions to better understanding advertising message comprehension. An advertisement is a complex communication vehicle, full of verbal and visual interactions. Yet, small efficiencies can lead to better communication; and research into the psycholinguistics of advertising copy will aid in uncovering just such efficiencies.


Akmajian, Adrian and Frank Henry (1975), An Introduction to the Principles of Transformation Syntax, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Hakes, D. T. and H. S. Cairns (1970), "Sentence Comprehension and Relative Pronouns", Perception and Psychophysics, 8, 5-8.

Hakes, D. T. and D. J. Foss (1970), "Decision Processes During Sentence Comprehension: Effects of Surface Structure Reconsidered", Perception and Psychophysics, 8, 413-416.

Kehret-Ward, Trudy (1991), "Understanding the Circumstances Under Which People Make Misleading Inferences", Unpublished paper presented at the Association For Consumer Research annual conference.

Lowrey, Tina M. (1991), "The Relation Between Syntactic Complexity and Advertising Persuasiveness", in John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal (Eds.), Advances in Consumer Research, 19, Association for Consumer Research.

Percy, Larry (1982), "Psycholinguistic Guidelines for Advertising Copy" in A. A. Mitchell (Ed.), Advances in Consumer Research, 9, Association for Consumer Research.

Percy, Larry (1988), "Exploring Grammatical Structure and Nonverbal Communication" in S. Heckler and D. Stewart (Eds.), Nonverbal Communication in Advertising, Lexington Books, Lexington, Mass.

Percy, Larry and J. R. Rossiter (1980), Advertising Strategy, Prager, New York, NY.

Percy, Larry and J. R. Rossiter (1983), "Mediating Effects of Visual and Verbal Elements in Print Advertising upon Belief, Attitude, and Intention Responses", in L. Percy and A. G. Woodside (Eds.), Advertising and Consumer Psychology, Lexington Books, Lexington, Mass.

Rickheit, Gort, Wolfgan Schnotz, and Haus Strohner (1985), "The Concept of Inference in Discourse Comprehension" in G. Rickheit and H. Strohner (Eds.), Inferences in Text Processing, Elsevier Science Publishers, B. V. Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Saliba, Slimen (1991), "Using Syntax to Direct Processing Resources", Unpublished paper presented at the Association for Consumer Research annual conference.

Wiener, M. and A. Mehrabian (1968), "Language Within Language: Immediacy, a Channel in Verbal Communication", Appletan-Century-Crofts, New York, NY.