Incidental Learning From Radio Advertisements With and Without Curiosity-Arousing Questions

Rhonda Gibson, University of Alabama at Birmingham
Huiuk Yi, University of Alabama
Dolf Zillmann, University of Alabama
ABSTRACT - Ostensibly while waiting for an investigation to start, respondents were exposed to radio featuring popular music and local commercials. The presentational format of two commercials, one advertising male products, the other female products, was manipulated: Persuasively relevant information was conveyed in declarative or interrogative-declarative form. In the latter form, curiosity-arousing questions preceded the presentation of factual information about products. Following exposure, respondents were subjected to a surprise test on information acquisition. Regardless of salience of products advertised (male products for men, female products for women), the presentation of factual information in interrogative-declarative format, compared to the presentation of that information in purely declarative format, produced superior information acquisition. The significance of the use of questions to gain attention to commercials under conditions of disinterest and distraction is emphasized.
[ to cite ]:
Rhonda Gibson, Huiuk Yi, and Dolf Zillmann (1994) ,"Incidental Learning From Radio Advertisements With and Without Curiosity-Arousing Questions", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 282-285.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 282-285

INCIDENTAL LEARNING FROM RADIO ADVERTISEMENTS WITH AND WITHOUT CURIOSITY-AROUSING QUESTIONS

Rhonda Gibson, University of Alabama at Birmingham

Huiuk Yi, University of Alabama

Dolf Zillmann, University of Alabama

ABSTRACT -

Ostensibly while waiting for an investigation to start, respondents were exposed to radio featuring popular music and local commercials. The presentational format of two commercials, one advertising male products, the other female products, was manipulated: Persuasively relevant information was conveyed in declarative or interrogative-declarative form. In the latter form, curiosity-arousing questions preceded the presentation of factual information about products. Following exposure, respondents were subjected to a surprise test on information acquisition. Regardless of salience of products advertised (male products for men, female products for women), the presentation of factual information in interrogative-declarative format, compared to the presentation of that information in purely declarative format, produced superior information acquisition. The significance of the use of questions to gain attention to commercials under conditions of disinterest and distraction is emphasized.

The use of questions in efforts at evoking curiosity, enhancing information acquisition, or prompting desired attitude formation is common in advertising. Textbooks instruct practitioners to help draw consumer attention to their ads by using various types of questions in the headline and throughout the copy (Bolen, 1984; Faison, 1980; Jewler, 1992; Moriarty, 1991). Content analyses indicate that such instruction is followed faithfully: Questions are employed in approximately 20 percent of print ads (Howard, 1989), with utilization higher in more cognitively oriented texts and in magazines read by more highly educated audiences. The most common placement of questions in print advertisements is the headline (Myers and Haug, 1967).

Although there has been limited research on the specific effects of questions in advertising (Moore, Reardon, and Durso, 1985; Howard, 1986, 1989), several studies have investigated the impact of questions on information acquisition (Burnkrant and Howard, 1984; Kantor, 1960; Lumsdaine, May, and Hadsell, 1958; MacLachlan and Jalan, 1985; Tamborini and Zillmann, 1985; Zillmann and Cantor, 1973) and persuasion (Petty, Cacioppo, and Heesacker, 1981; Swasy and Munch, 1985; Zillmann, 1972; Zillmann and Cantor, 1974). It has been shown, for the most part, that the use of questions does indeed enhance information acquisition and persuasion, particularly in messages with strong arguments. Instead of using the format, "This is so and so," for instance, research has shown that it is more persuasive to employ questions such as "Isn't this so and so?" or "This is so and so, isn't it?" Analogously, and more important to the present investigation, research has shown information acquisition to be superior for question-and-answer sequences like "How is it? So and so." than for the purely declarative format "It is so and so." The research, however, has focused almost exclusively on situations of high attention, such as with captive audiences in classrooms or in settings where respondents have been specifically instructed to listen to the radio (Howard, 1986). The impact of questions in situations of low attention, in contrast, has been neglected. Such neglect is surprising, in light of the fact that conditions of semi-attention and incidental learning typify the circumstances under which much advertising is received and processed.

The elaboration likelihood model or ELM (Petty and Cacioppo, 1986), commonly used to examine persuasion and communication processes, suggests that the influence of questions on information acquisition would differ in situations of high and low attention. ELM distinguishes between central and peripheral routes of information processing. Central processing is inferred when attitude change appears to be based on the receiver's diligent consideration of information contained in a message. Processing resulting from less diligent methods implies the peripheral route. Central processing is viewed as characteristic of high-involvement and high-attention communication situationsCfor example, when an issue is of high personal relevance or when there is significant external motivation for processingCand generally results in enhanced recall of processed information. Peripheral processing is viewed as characteristic of low-involvement or low-attention situations and is often illustrated by non-message-oriented processing. For example, under circumstances of low involvement, recipients may focus more on source characteristics, such as credibility or attractiveness, than actual message content.

The ELM suggests, then, that questions, depending on the amount of attention afforded the ad by the message recipient, have varying degrees of influence on the amount of information processed and retained from an advertisement. It is expected that questions, by drawing attention to the message, enhance consideration of the content of this message, but only in low-involvement settings where recipients are not inclined to devote much effort to thinking about the message. When the topic of the message is personally relevant and represents a situation of high-involvement, recipients are considered more likely to process and elaborate the content of a message (Chaiken, 1980; Petty and Cacioppo, 1979; Petty, Cacioppo, and Goldman, 1981). Under these conditions, it would be unlikely that the use of questions could enhance elaboration further. In fact, it has been suggested that for an advertisement of high personal relevance, the presence of rhetorical questions might actually interfere with recipients' thought processes (Munch and Swasy, 1988; Petty, Cacioppo, and Heesacker, 1981).

Given these considerations, for advertisements that use declarative or interrogative-declarative formats, but that present identical factual information, the following hypotheses are proposed:

H1: For advertised products and services low in salience to recipients, because of minimal interest and motivation to elaborate, questions draw attention to the message, shift processing from peripheral to central, and consequently produce superior information acquisition.

H2: For advertised products and services high in salience to recipients, because of adequate interest and motivation to elaborate, the attention-getting capacity of questions is immaterial; therefore, a difference in information acquisition should not be expected. In fact, considering the argument by Petty, Cacioppo, and Heesacker (1981) that questions may be distracting under these circumstances, it could be expected that in a situation of high salience, the declarative format results in superior information acquisition.

Alternatively, it has been argued (Zillmann, 1972) that individuals, being continually rewarded for providing answers to questions and punished for failure to do so, develop strong habits of responding with answers to questions. This conditioned response tendency is thought to generalize to rhetorically posed questions. They are presumed to foster increased attention and result in a covert linguistic response. It is this covert response, because it focuses information processing on the contiguous, relevant parts of the message, that is expected to mediate superior information acquisition. In situations of poor attention, then, where declarative formats fail to reach the audience, interrogative-declarative formats are thought to play on deep-rooted information-processing mechanisms and trigger attention to the message. The process is perhaps best illustrated by dichotic listening: During experimentation in which competing messages were presentedCone to the left, the other to the right earCrespondents were readily induced by questions to one ear to favor the message received on that ear (Zillmann and Cantor, 1973). This process of quasi-mechanically attracting attention should also operate under conditions of sufficient and high attention.

Such reasoning leads to the following hypothesis:

H3: Regardless of the salience of advertised products and services to recipients, questions, because they prompt a conditioned tendency in individuals to pay attention, produce heightened alertness and enhanced information processing that ultimately results in superior acquisition of question-related information.

METHOD

Overview

Ostensibly while waiting, students listened to two experimental radio advertisements. The advertisements featured declarative or interrogative-declarative formats. They were edited into actual radio programming consisting of both music and actual commercials. Following exposure, students were subjected to a surprise recall test. They completed a questionnaire testing their recall of the information presented in the experimental commercials. In a mixed-measures factorial design, format of message (declarative, interrogative-declarative) and respondent gender (male, female) were independent-measures factors, and product salience (male, female) was a repeated-measures factor.

Respondents

Ninety-five undergraduate students, 42 males and 53 females, were recruited from introductory communication classes. They received class credit for participation in the study.

Procedure

When students arrived at the 22-seat theater, they were asked to sign-in and sit quietly while the session administrator finished preparing the study materials. After two to three minutes, students were informed there would be an additional short delay because a videotape needed for the study had not yet been delivered. They were told that, for their convenience, the radio would be turned on for them while they waited. They were not specifically instructed to listen to the radio.

Four different audio tapes were prepared to sound like a portion of an actual local radio broadcast popular with college students. The exposure material began in the middle of a song, continued with an actual local commercial, then followed with the first experimental advertisement, another song, and the second experimental advertisement, ending with music. One experimental commercial advertised male products, the other female products. The order of the two experimental commercials was altered systematically. However, respondents in each session heard both commercials either in declarative or interrogative-declarative format.

Approximately 30 seconds into the final song, the session administrator shut off the tape and informed students that the study had actually already begun, that exposure to the radio music and commercials was part of an investigation. Respondents were asked to complete a 16-item questionnaire testing their recall of the information presented in the two experimental commercials. They were asked to complete the questions to the best of their ability, even if they had not paid much attention to the broadcast. After completion of the questionnaire, the students took part in an unrelated investigation. They were eventually debriefed and thanked for their participation.

Advertisement Variations

Two 60-second radio commercials for actual local department stores were specially written. The commercials were similar in content and presentation to actual local advertisements heard on the radio. Both the narration and background music were typical of that used in actual commercials.

One commercial featured female-oriented products such as lingerie and women's aerobic wear, whereas the other commercial featured male-oriented products such as men's dress and athletic shoes. This was done to effect a variation in salience. Male products were assumed more salient for men than women. The reverse was assumed to be the case for female products.

Two versions of each of the gender-oriented commercials were prepared. One version presented all pertinent information in statement format. The other presented the same information in a question-and-answer format.

For example, information in the male-products commercial in question-and-answer format was presented as follows:

What fantastic deal is McRae's offering this week? A special price on Cole-Haan dress shoes for men.

Why is this deal so special? Because, for a limited time, you can get a pair of these high-quality Italian leather dress shoes for just $109Cthat's a whopping $70 off the regular price.

The same information was presented in the declarative format as follows:

McRae's fantastic deal this week is a special price on Col-Hahn dress shoes for men.

This deal is so special because for a limited time, you can get a pair of these high-quality Italian leather dress shoes for just $109Cthat's a whopping $70 off the regular price.

Likewise, information in the female-products commercial in question-and-answer format was presented as follows:

What great lingerie bargains do we have for you this week? A special sale on Vanity Fair robe and nightgown sets.

And just how ridiculously low are Gayfers' prices? A spectacular 40 percent off! They're regularly $60, but at Gayfers you can get both pieces for just $36.

How long do these unheard of prices last? Only through Saturday.

The same information was presented in the declarative format as follows:

We have great lingerie bargains for you this week like a special sale on Vanity Fair robe and nightgown sets.

Gayfers' prices are ridiculously lowCa spectacular 40 percent off! They're regularly $60, but at Gayfers you can get both pieces for just $36.

But these unheard of prices last only through Saturday.

Measurement of Information Acquisition

Respondents completed eight questions (five unaided and three aided) for each of the two experimental advertisements. An example of an unaided question is: "Which store advertised specials on men's shoes?" The answer was to be written onto a prompt line. An example of an aided question is: "How much were the athletic shoes on sale for?" One of multiple choices was to be marked. Acquisition of information was tested for the name of the department store, product brand names, store prices, amounts of discount, specific types of bonuses offered, etc. The number of correct responses defined the measure of information acquisition.

RESULTS

The information acquisition scores were subjected to a mixed-measures analysis of variance with presentational format (declarative, interrogative-declarative) and respondent gender as independent-measures factors and product salience (higher for men than women, higher for women than men) as a repeated-measures factor.

The analysis yielded a highly significant main effect for presentational format: F(1, 91) = 7.60, p < 0.01. The main effect of product salience approached significance: F(1, 91) = 3.15, p < 0.10. The gender main effect was utterly negligible (F<1). So were all pertinent interactions (F<1), except for the nonetheless negligible interaction between respondent gender and product salience: F(1, 91) = 1.55, p < 0.25.

The findings thus reveal a uniform effect of presentational format: Information acquisition in the declarative condition was M = 2.02; in the interrogative-declarative condition it was M = 3.14. Information acquisition was, therefore, significantly superior in the interrogative-declarative condition.

The significance-approaching main effect of product salience merely indicates that information about male products (M = 2.85) tended to be better remembered than information about female products (M = 2.32), this tendency applying to both respondent genders.

The absence of interactions is striking and significant from a theoretical perspective. In this context, if credence were given to the p < 0.25 interaction between respondent gender and product salience, the effect pattern would still be irrelevant to the theories tested. The rather inconsequential finding would be that men, as might be expected, tended to learn more about the male than the female products advertised (M = 2.98 and M = 2.08, respectively), but that women failed to learn more about the female than the male products advertised. If anything, women tended to learn more about male than female products (M = 2.72 and M = 2.55, respectively).

DISCUSSION

The findings give strong support to the proposal that the use of rhetorical question-and-answer sequences for the conveyance of persuasively relevant materials, as compared to the conveyance of such materials in purely declarative form, results in the superior learning of these materials in audiences that are not otherwise motivated to pay close attention. Questions, then, appear to have the capacity to draw attention to a message, and thus engage listeners, when such attention is impaired or lacking for reasons of disinterest or, perhaps more important, distraction and interference from happenings competing for attention. As radio commercials are often received under conditions of poor attentional focus, such as while driving an automobile, during the routine performance of chores, or in the midst of family interactions, the demonstration that questions can help reach an otherwise inattentive audience should be of considerable practical significance.

It should be recognized that the incidental-learning conditions created in this investigation were rather severe. Learning was, first of all, truly incidental in that respondents were not instructed to pay attention to the commercials; respondents were, in fact, led to believe that the radio was played for their entertainment. It must be assumed, in addition, that these respondents were greatly distracted by the research environment and the examination-like investigation in which they were to take part. It should, therefore, not surprise that information acquisition was extremely poor for declarative commercials and, although significantly better, far from perfect for interrogative-declarative commercials.

Regarding formal hypotheses, only H2 receives unequivocal support. As predicted, the use of question-and-answer sequences produced better information acquisition than the use of statement sequences, and this effect was independent of product salience. This effect pattern is consistent with the assumption of quasi-mechanical responding to questions.

The findings of this investigation give no support to the proposal, suggested by the elaboration likelihood model and expressed in H1 and H2 , that questions induce different levels of attention and information acquisition in situations of low and high product salience. Counter to prediction, the effect of the use of questions proved to be the same at the two levels of salience. It did not diminish with increased salience, as predicted. Moreover, an effect reversal from low to high salience, as suggested by the distraction rationale (Petty, Cacioppo, & Heesacker, 1981), is without any support from the findings.

It might be argued that such assessment is premature in light of the fact that a variation in salience was assumed rather than empirically demonstrated. It is conceivable that the male and female products involved in the commercials were of similar subjective importance to both male and female respondents. In fact, the nonsignificant interaction between product-gender and respondent-gender could be interpreted as indicating that products failed to exert gender-specific attention-motivating appeal. Moreover, it will be recalled that, if anything, women acquired less information from the female than from the male commercial. Could this mean that to female respondents female products may have been less salient than male products? If so, the experimental findings would not constitute an appropriate test of the ELM, and the findings could not disconfirm predictions based on this model.

In order to eliminate this interpretational dilemma, a post-test was conducted with respondents drawn from the population of respondents for the experiment, but without involving respondents who had taken part in the experiment. Twenty-two respondents were simply asked to rate, on 11-point scales ranging from "not at all" at zero to "extremely" at 10, the subjective importance that various products had to them ("When you go shopping, how important are the following products to you?"). All products of the two commercials, interspersed with yet other products, were presented in a random sequence. For analysis, the ratings were averaged across advertised products within the male and female commercials. A mixed-measures analysis of variance produced a highly significant interaction between product and respondent genders: F (1, 20) = 119.59, p < 0.001. It carried with it a significant main effect of product: F (1, 20) = 19.56, p < 0.001. The main effect of respondent gender was not significant, however (p > 0.10).

The product main effect shows that female products (M = 2.48) were deemed less salient than male products (M = 4.04) by both men and women. More importantly, the interaction shows salience to differ between genders as had been assumed: For male respondents, male products (M = 6.40) were significantly (p < 0.001 by t-test) more salient than female products (M = 1.67). For female respondents, in contrast, male products (M = 1.07) were significantly (p < .01) less salient than female products (M = 3.89).

These findings, then, vindicate the choice of male products as more salient to men than to women, and of female products as more salient to women than to men. More importantly, they uphold and strengthen the interpretation that, in the effect of interrogative-declarative presentations, product salience was of no consequence. It certainly did not exert the influence on information processing that the elaboration likelihood model projects.

It might prove beneficial in future research to further examine the impact of product salience on the effectiveness of questions in advertising. Such studies could feature commercials advertising products which represent varying levels of salience to consumers, thus providing more specific information about the effectiveness of the interrogative format. It could also be useful to investigate the impact of questions in television advertisements, which, like those heard on the radio, are often consumed in situations of poor attentional focus. Such investigations could help clarify the impact of questions in situations of incidental learning.

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