A Framework Providing Direction For Research on Communications Effects of Mental Imagery-Evoking Advertising Strategies

Laurie A. Babin, University of Southern Mississippi
Alvin C. Burns, Louisiana State University
Abhijit Biswas, Louisiana State University
ABSTRACT - The authors review mental imagery research related to advertising strategy and observe that both within- and across-strategy research is lacking. A framework positing predictor, criterion, mediator and moderator variables is proposed as an appropriate frame of reference. The mediating role of mental imagery between advertising strategy alternatives and communications effects is highlighted, and while some scale development has taken place, a rigorous scale development process, along with the recommended framework, could lead to much better understanding of the consumer information processing dynamics involved with imagery-evoking advertising strategies.
[ to cite ]:
Laurie A. Babin, Alvin C. Burns, and Abhijit Biswas (1992) ,"A Framework Providing Direction For Research on Communications Effects of Mental Imagery-Evoking Advertising Strategies", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 621-628.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 621-628


Laurie A. Babin, University of Southern Mississippi

Alvin C. Burns, Louisiana State University

Abhijit Biswas, Louisiana State University


The authors review mental imagery research related to advertising strategy and observe that both within- and across-strategy research is lacking. A framework positing predictor, criterion, mediator and moderator variables is proposed as an appropriate frame of reference. The mediating role of mental imagery between advertising strategy alternatives and communications effects is highlighted, and while some scale development has taken place, a rigorous scale development process, along with the recommended framework, could lead to much better understanding of the consumer information processing dynamics involved with imagery-evoking advertising strategies.


Much of the research into the methods by which consumers process information has concerned itself with what is termed "discursive processing" (MacInnis and Price 1987). This style of processing inquires into how language and symbols are manipulated in memory to perform some function such as solve problems, create or change attitudes, or be stored for later retrieval. Recently, however, there has been interest in mental imagery as a provocative method of information processing (See MacInnis and Price 1987; Lutz and Lutz 1978; Childers and Houston 1982, for example). Lutz and Lutz (1978) have defined imagery as "a mental event involving visualization of a concept or relationship." On the other hand, MacInnis and Price (1987) describe imagery as a "conceptually distinct way of representing information." They further stress that imagery is: "...(1) a process...by which (2) sensory information is represented in working memory." Childers and Houston (1982) state that various forms of imagery can be experienced, including stimuli represented by each of the five senses: hearing, touch, taste, smell, and visualization.

While the research on the conceptual and applied aspects of imagery theory is embryonic, initial theoretical implications and empirical findings indicate a rich domain for consumer research, especially in an advertising context. MacInnis and Price (1987) recently reviewed research on imagery as it relates to information processing. They indicate a need for further work on imagery's role in a marketing context stating that although imagery is pervasive, little is known about its impact relative to consumption. They further recommend that factors controlled by marketers to influence consumer imagery should be investigated due to their potential effects on product information processing and purchase behavior.

The general purpose of this paper is to review imagery research that relates to advertising and to provide directions for future consumer research in this area. Specifically, imagery-evoking strategies that can be used in advertisements are reviewed and gaps in our knowledge are revealed. We posit an appropriate framework which identifies the categories of factors which should be addressed in future empirical research, and we discuss the variables in each category which pertain to advertising strategy. Based on this framework and our review of prior mental imagery research, we propose a systematic program of research which should lead to enlightenment in this area.


MacInnis and Price (1987) discuss four imagery-evoking strategies: pictures, concrete words, instructions to imagine, and guided imagery. These were gleaned from Lutz and Lutz (1978) and Alesandrini and Sheikh (1983), and the first three were advocated as advertising strategies by Rossiter (1978). These works, in turn, were compiled primarily from the psychology literature. For example, Paivio (1970) enumerates the typical types of imagery manipulation as concrete stimuli, instructions, and the selection of subjects based on individual imagery capability, and Wollman (1981) discusses the use of guided imagery in studying social psychological phenomena. In sum, there is a substantial base of literature that holds there are different types of imagery-evoking strategies. However, with the exception of Slee (1978), no studies have examined whether there are differences between these strategies. Slee examined the differences among the use of concrete words, instructions to imagine, and individual differences as imagery-evoking strategies and found that each type of strategy caused different effects on memory.

Guided imagery is an intrusive, clinical method of stimulating mental visualization and does not fit an advertising context well; however, the remaining three strategies enumerated by Rossiter (1978) and MacInnis and Price (1987) are viable alternatives for both print and broadcast media and could be compared separately and/or in combination to determine differential impacts on (e.g.) memory and brand attitudes. Although scant empirical evidence exists, practitioners continue to design advertisements with these components. In fact, in a normative paper, Rossiter (1978) states, "high imagery visuals work far better than instructions to imagine" (p. 102). Thus, it is apparent that empirical investigation seems warranted to address the question of the relative efficacy of alternative imagery-evoking strategies.


Pictorial material is defined as "any two-dimensional representation in which the stimulus array contains at least one element that is not alphabetic, numeric, or arithmetic" (Lutz and Lutz 1978, p. 611). As such, photographs, drawings, and illustrations fall under the rubric of pictures. It is believed that pictures influence the process of mental imagery (Bugelski 1983; Paivio 1971; Rossiter 1978; Shepard 1967). The picture superiority effect, which contends visual information is remembered over verbal information, has been explained through imagery by Paivio's (1986) dual code theory. The theory posits that not only do pictures activate a visual encoding process, but they also activate a verbal encoding process. Moreover, the visual code is thought to be qualitatively superior to the verbal code. So two retrieval paths can be activated at the time of recall. Words, on the other hand, activate only a verbal encoding process, resulting in poorer recall. (However, certain words can also stimulate mental imagery as is discussed under concreteness of wording.)

Pictures can be classified according to the level of concreteness and the degree of interaction depicted. Concreteness can range from very concrete and realistic to abstract (Rossiter and Percy 1983). A concrete picture is one that is easily identifiable of a person, place, or object; whereas, an abstract picture is one not easily identifiable (Rossiter and Percy 1983). For example, an advertisement containing a picture of a product is more concrete than one that contains a silhouette. Moreover, the elements within a picture can also be interactive or noninteractive in nature (Lutz and Lutz 1977, 1978). An interactive picture is one in which persons and/or objects are figurally integrated in such a manner as to be associated in some mutual or reciprocal action; whereas, a noninteractive picture depicts the items side by side (Alesandrini and Sheikh 1983).

While studies have analyzed the impact of concrete, abstract, or no pictures (e.g., Mitchell 1986; Mitchell and Olson 1981) and interactive versus noninteractive pictures (e.g., Lutz and Lutz 1977), no study has examined the impact of a range of pictures. For complete disclosure, it is necessary to examine the relative effect sizes of all types of pictures, concrete/ interactive, concrete/noninteractive, abstract, and no pictures, on imagery processing.


Compared to abstract words, concrete words are more likely to elicit a mental image in the mind of the viewer/listener because of their higher "imagery value." By asking individuals to rate words with respect to their ease of arousing sensory images, imagery values have been established for nouns (Paivio, Yuille, and Madigan 1968), for verbs (Lippman 1974), and for 1,000 frequently-used words (van der Ver 1975). For example, it is easier to form an image given the concrete word "dog" than it is given the abstract word "justice." There is evidence indicating the positive effects of concrete words on memory (Paivio 1969). The effectiveness of concrete wording on memory and attitudes has been well-substantiated in the literature (see Lutz and Lutz 1978 for a review). In a normative paper, Rossiter (1978, p. 101) states, "High imagery words should be used in advertising," and it has also been shown in an advertising context that ads containing concrete versus abstract wording resulted in more positive attitudes toward the ad and brand as well as greater behavioral intentions (Burns, Biswaw, and Roach 1991). Still, the comparative or combined impacts of word types with picture types and/or instructions to imagine remain elusive.

Instructions to Imagine

This imagery-evoking strategy is the most direct way to encourage imagery processing. Typically, instructions to imagine have involved the experimenter giving instructions to the subject to form mental images, especially in studies in psychology. Subjects are told to "form a mental picture..." or to "picture yourself in the situation."

Embedding instructions to imagine within a message stimulus is a viable alternative for advertising. A few researchers have analyzed the effects of embedding instructions to imagine within a promotional message, but results have been mixed. For example, Wright and Rip (1980) manipulated instructions to imagine included within a message stimulus given to high school sophomores concerning colleges. However, they failed to achieve significant differences on attitudes. The lack of effect could have been due to subjects' inability to imagine the scenarios described because they did not possess adequate knowledge structures about colleges to facilitate imagery (MacInnis and Price 1987). In a study by Gregory, Cialdini, and Carpenter (1982), subjects were given information concerning cable television, and the experimental group received a message with instructions to imagine included in the message. The experimental group exhibited more positive attitudes, greater behavioral intentions, and had a greater subscription rate than the control subjects. However, one factor other than the instructions to imagine may have caused the results. In the information-only condition the message did not target the respondent in the scenario, while the imagery-only condition did. Thus, the imagery condition was also self-related, while the information condition was not. It has been found that self-relatedness of an imagery-inducing message influences responses such as likelihood (e.g., Anderson 1983), attitudes, and intentions (e.g., Bone and Ellen 1990). Therefore, the messages were not equivalent with respect to self-relatedness, and this could have been the casual factor for the differences found.

Paivio (1971) reviewed several studies on experimenter-provided mental imagery instructions and concluded that such instructions facilitate learning. Another advantage of instructing the viewer to form his/her own mental image as opposed to providing a picture for them is that the self-generated mental imagery will probably be more personally relevant. This could result in self-generated persuasion and stronger attitudes (MacInnis and Jaworski 1989). While Rossiter (1978) states, "high imagery visuals work far better than instructions to imagine," no wholly adequate empirical study has been performed to test this proposition. Thus, there is need to assess the mental imagery-generating potential of instructions to imagine embedded within an advertising message.




A fundamental shortcoming of almost all studies to date is that instead of assessing imagery processing, researchers have relied on criterion-based responses (MacInnis and Price 1987). Typically, an imagery-evoking strategy is manipulated, and imagery processing is inferred from the results such as memory differences. Thus, it is assumed that imagery processing was the causal factor in the positive responses for the imagery-evoking condition. While pragmatic, this approach affords little with regard to insight and understanding. Figure 1 offers a research framework to overcome the inherent shortcomings of prior research. The Figure draws conceptually from comments by Baron and Kenny (1986), who distinguish between moderator and mediator variables in social-psychological research. As can be seen, the three classes of imagery-evoking advertising strategies are cast as independent variables. Communications effects such as recall, attitude, brand beliefs, and intentions are posed as the dependent variables, while mental imagery itself is positioned as mediating the effects of predictors on criterion variables.

A mediator functions by accounting for some or all of the relationship between a predictor and a criterion. Thus, mental imaging serves as a cognitive process bridge between independent and dependent variables. Moderators, on the other hand, affect the direction and/or strength of the relationships between predictor, mediator, and/or criterion. As just noted, no research to date has posited mental imagery as a mediator of advertising strategy on communications effects variables, nor have most studies utilized a moderator designation to investigate conditions under which empirical relationships do or do not hold. (See Baron and Kenny (1986) for complete discussion of mediators, moderators and recommended analytical procedures.)


Given this framework, it is useful to briefly discuss the criterion variables of interest to those experimenting with the various imagery-evoking advertising strategies described earlier. While memory plays an important role in brand awareness, beliefs, attitudes, intentions, and purchase behavior are also major communication effects for advertising research (Rossiter and Percy 1983). Some studies in marketing have examined the effect of an imagery-evoking strategy on recall and recognition of brand names (e.g., Childers and Houston 1984; Childers et al. 1985; Houston et al. 1987; Lutz and Lutz 1977; Robertson 1987) or message recall (Gardner and Houston 1986). Other studies have examined the impact of some imagery-evoking strategy on attitude toward the product or brand (e.g., Bone and Ellen 1990; Burns et al. 1991; Gregory et al. 1982; Kisielius and Sternthal 1984; Mitchell 1986; Mitchell and Olson 1981; Oliver et al. 1990; Rossiter and Percy 1978, 1980; Wright and Rip 1980), attitude toward the ad (e.g., Bone and Ellen 1990; Burns et al. 1991; Mitchell 1986; Mitchell and Olson 1981), behavioral intentions (e.g., Burns et al. 1991; Gregory et al. 1982; Kisielius and Sternthal 1984; Mitchell 1986; Mitchell and Olson 1981; Rossiter and Percy 1878, 1980; Oliver et al. 1989), and actual behavior (e.g., Gregory et al. 1982).

Whereas awareness, attitudes, and intentions have been studied in imagery applications, only a handful of studies have investigated imagery and product beliefs (e.g., Mitchell 1986; Mitchell and Olson 1981), and these have have primarily manipulated pictures as the imagery-evoking strategy. It can be speculated that different imagery-evoking strategies will result in differential beliefs about the brand advertised. Furthermore, one imagery-evoking strategy may result in a greater number of beliefs as well as different brand belief strengths. This is an area that needs further research, and, as with all other criterion variables, there must be increased concern for comparisons across imagery-evoking strategies.


Researchers familiar with this area will readily agree that the measurement of mental imagery has been a major hinderance. There have been various approaches to measuring imagery processing, but only one holds good promise. From psychology, one method involves interrupting an individual involved in imagery processing, which is referred to as "thought sampling" or "event sampling" (Klinger 1978). Another, called Experiential Analysis Technique (EAT), involves videotaping individuals as they are imagining and later having them interpret the video (Sheehan et al. 1983). Physiological measures have also been used to assess imagery processing. Finally, pencil and paper assessment of imagery processing has also been attempted, which incorporates manipulation checks and scales.

In general, research in psychology has not really succeeded in measuring imagery processing. The attempts are, at best, performed as manipulation checks and can be classified into three groupings: (1) asking subjects to rate the vividness of their imagery (e.g., Rigney and Lutz 1976); (2) asking subjects what learning strategy they had used (e.g., Elliott 19733); or (3) checking the subject-provided written or verbal record of what they had done (e.g., Anderson 1983).

In marketing, measurement attempts can be grouped into: (1) manipulation checks (e.g., Lutz and Lutz 1977); (2) protocols (e.g., Rethans and Hastak 1982; Smith et al. 1984); or (3) scales (e.g., Bone and Ellen 1990; Ellen and Bone 1990; MacInnis and Price 1990; Oliver et al. 1989). Except for Ellen and Bone (1990), however, useful conceptualization and scale development of imagery processing has been lacking.

Ellen and Bone (1990) provide the only systematic attempt to develop a scale to measure stimulus-evoked imagery processing. They proposed that communication-evoked imagery may be reflected in five dimensions: vividness and/or clarity, quantity, ease, and links experienced from the message, but they empirically determined four dimensions in which the quantity and ease dimensions were considered as one. However, careful review of their work reveals they did not adhere to rigorous scale development methodology such as that set forth by Churchill (1979). First, the authors did not generate a large inventory of items to begin with; indeed, they started and ended with 19 items. Second, they used radio ads from a previous study as stimuli (see Bone and Ellen 1990), which may have resulted in demand characteristics since six out of the seven ads were high imagery-evoking ads beginning with the statement "Imagine this." It may be more appropriate to use a spectrum of stimuli that range from high to low imagery-evoking characteristics. Finally, the authors only collected data once to develop the scale (although they did use two studies with one data collection each). This procedure is inconsistent with the framework proposed by Churchill (1979) in which new data is recommended to purify the measure and assess validity.

Nonetheless, the work of Ellen and Bone (1990) provides an excellent starting point. They propose reasonable dimensions derived from the conceptual and empirical literature from which to begin proper scale development. Because it is a pregnant mediator construct, assessment of imagery processing is necessary in any study, particularly those in an advertising context. Thus, there is a need for an acceptable scale to measure mental imagery processing, and the best method for developing one involves a rigorous and systematic effort.


Not only are the effects of different imagery-evoking strategies on imagery processing and advertising communication variables an area for future research, but the moderating natures of several variables have yet to be explored satisfactorily. Variables such as individual differences in imagery processing and knowledge structures (i.e., familiarity with the product or brand advertised), needs tapped by the advertisement and/or product, and the opportunity for imagery processing may influence the effectiveness of an imagery-evoking strategy.

Individual Differences in Imagery Processing

Individual differences in imagery processing have received attention in a number of studies. The areas of interest are studies of individual differences in (1) spatial ability, (2) imagery ability, (3) imagery content, and (4) processing style. These dimensions of individual differences have been studied both for their direct and indirect roles on the processing of information, but the majority of studies have treated individual differences in imagery ability, imagery content, and/or processing style as predictor variables. Several scales exist to measure individual differences in imagery processing (for a review, see MacInnis (1987) and Sheehan et al. (1983)).

Imagery ability refers to the vividness and controllability of an individual's mental imagery (MacInnis 1987). Vividness refers to clarity of the mental imagery, while control implies an individual's ability to perform manipulations such as mental rotations (Childers et al. 1985). These dimensions focus on one's cognitive ability as the determinant of the type of processing strategy evoked. Ability has typically been treated as a predictor variable (e.g., Childers et al. 1985; Marks 1973; McKelvie and Demers 1979; Oliver et al. 1989; Slee 1978) or as a covariate (e.g., Childers and Houston 1984; Sheehan 1966), but results have been mixed. Thus, no conclusions can be drawn regarding the moderating effect of imagery ability on the relationship between imagery-evoking strategies and imagery processing or communication effects.

Individuals also differ with respect to the general content of their images and fantasies as well as their use of imagery in everyday life. This construct reflects individual tendencies to engage in vivid imagery, to use imagery to plan the future, and to engage in fantasy (MacInnis and Price 1990). Very few researchers, however, have studied this individual difference variable, and those who have (e.g., MacInnis and Price 1990), have found disappointing results.

Similar to imagery ability, style of processing (or processing preference) has been examined in several marketing studies. In contrast to imagery ability, however, it has received more support as being effective as a predictor variable (e.g., Childers et al. 1985; Gould 1990; Holbrook et al. 1984; Oliver et al. 1989; Rossiter and Percy 1978). While imagery ability and style of processing may appear to be similar constructs, Richardson (1977) argues that they are independent dimensions, and Childers et al. (1985) provide support for this argument. Ability refers to an individual's basic cognitive ability, but preference for using a specific processing style (i.e., verbal) or imagery (i.e., visual) reflects one's tendency to utilize one type of processing style more than others. More specifically, Childers et al. (1985, p. 130) conceptualize processing style "as a preference and propensity to engage in a verbal and/or visual modality of processing." Thus, while an individual may possess a strong imagery or verbal ability, he/she may be indifferent as to the style of processing preferred. Indeed, Betts (1909) found that most, if not all, individuals possess some imagery ability and can image when asked to do so. Therefore, processing preference may be the superior, differentiating individual difference moderating variable.

Product Type and Needs

The type of product advertised may well influence imagery processing. Some products may be considered as strictly utilitarian in nature, and may discourage imagery processing. This could have been the reason Oliver et al. (1989), who used a high-tech computer printer, failed to find significant results. This type of product may have a low imagery-evoking ability, and using an imagery-evoking strategy may be disappointing unless unusually creative. Thus, a typology of products based on their imagery-evoking potential would be useful to advertisers and researchers alike.

The type of need evoked by an advertisement may enhance or dampen imagery processing. MacInnis and Jaworski (1989) posit that needs, either utilitarian or expressive, may moderate the relationship between exposure to the ad stimulus and the level of brand processing. If rather concrete in nature, a product advertised through strictly utilitarian benefits may not generate the elaborative processing necessary for mental imagery to be effective. On the other hand, a product advertised through more emotional, expressive needs may encourage mental imagery. Both product type and need configuration are potential moderator variables deserving attention.


Familiarity with the stimulus affects the quality of imagery. MacInnis and Price (1987) contend that imagery processing relies on prior knowledge for both the ability to visualize and the vividness of such visualization. This claim is also made by Smith et al. (1984) and alluded to by Wright and Rip (1980). The point here is that mental visualization requires some prior knowledge of the stimulus being imagined, and the more familiar one is with the stimulus object, the richer is the base from which images will spring. Scant research (Burns et al. 1991) has addressed this factor. It remains unknown as to what extent familiarity moderates mental imagery.


Another moderating variable that may influence the effect of imagery-evoking strategies is the opportunity to image (MacInnis and Jaworski 1989). While many studies have used print ads as stimuli (Burns et al. 1991; Childers and Houston 1984; Childers et al. 1985, 1987; Lutz and Lutz 1977; Rossiter and Percy 1978, 1980; Wright and Rip 1980), only one has used radio ads (Bone and Ellen 1990). Though it has been pointed out in the literature that, ceteris paribus (i.e., involvement in processing the medium), imagery strategies presented aurally may be more effective than written imagery strategies (Alesandrini and Sheikh 1983; Lutz and Lutz 1977), no study has examined this issue empirically. This assertion was based on the interference work done by Brooks (1967), in which two visual tasks interfered with each other. Experiments performed by Salthouse (1975) also indicate an interference effect when two simultaneous tasks both involved either verbal information or spatial information but not when one task was verbal and the other spatial. Clearly, because mental imagery requires some degree of effort, the opportunity factor should be factored into future research designs.


Several avenues for future research are apparent from this review. First, the relative efficacy of different imagery-evoking strategies has yet to be explored satisfactorily. Both intra-strategy and across-strategy comparisons must be assessed. For example, while it is well-known that including pictures in an advertisement is more effective than not including pictures, the type of picture included has not been examined. Based on past studies, it would seem that a concrete/interactive picture would be more effective than an abstract picture. Not only are pictures useful for eliciting imagery in advertisements, but instructions to imagine should elicit imagery processing and influence communication effects. However, only a few studies have included instructions to imagine within a message stimulus, and results have been mixed. Additionally, it would be interesting to examine whether or not instructions to imagine could supplant pictures, thus making the use of pictures unnecessary. If this could be done, then costs associated with the advertisement could be reduced by not including pictures.

Second, whereas awareness and attitudes have been widely examined as dependent variables, beliefs, behavioral intentions, and actual behavior have not. Although a hierarchy of effects implicitly underlies most advertising strategy, the nuances of mental imagery may obviate a smooth progress. In short, until a compete array of communications effects is investigated, the total consequences of these strategies will not be properly researched.

Third, the examination of imagery processing as a mediating variable between imagery-evoking strategies and communication effects is an area for future research. To examine the effect of imagery-evoking strategies on imagery processing, an acceptable scale to assess imagery processing is necessary. Scale development could begin with the dimensions proposed by Ellen and Bone (1990), and then the mediating role of those dimensions could be examined. Only by measuring the quality and quantity of mental imagery can we hope to understand how criterion variables are affected.

Fourth, the effect of several moderating variables should be explored. Individual differences in imagery processing, particularly processing preferences, may moderate the effectiveness of an imagery-evoking strategy. If so, identifying individuals with different processing preferences would be of interest to advertisers. Thus, demographic and psychographic profiles of these individuals will provide insight into whether or not it would be profitable to segment based on this individual difference variable. Needs expressed in the advertisement or inherent in the product itself may also moderate the effectiveness of an imagery-evoking strategy. Furthermore, from a research point of view, a typology of products based on perceived need, and hence imagery-evoking value, would be useful when designing experiments to examine the effect of imagery-evoking strategies on imagery processing and communication effects. Researchers and advertisers must also be aware that familiarity with the product stimulus plays a moderating role. Asking audiences to imagine using a product may be not be effective if they are not sufficiently familiar with the product class. Finally, the opportunity to imagine may be another moderating variable that holds implications as to the appropriate medium for a given imagery-evoking strategy. For example, instructions to imagine may be more effective for radio advertisements because there is no interference from other visual tasks such as reading a print advertisement.

While not exhaustive, this paper has presented several fruitful areas of imagery research in an advertising context. In our view, imagery research, regardless of the context, must adopt the proper framework, and it desperately requires the development of an acceptable scale to assess imagery processing. Conceptualization of relevant dimensions of imagery processing is necessary, followed by rigorous scale development to measure those dimensions. Once done, the "black box" can be opened to provide insight into the processes that mediate the relationships between imagery-evoking strategies and communication effects. Though numerous input-output studies have been performed indicating the effectiveness of imagery, there is a dearth of literature regarding explanations. From a practitioner's perspective, knowing that one strategy is effective may be sufficient, but from a consumer researcher's point of view, understanding why a strategy is effective is the goal.


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