The Persuasive Effects of Evaluation, Expectancy and Relevancy Dimensions of Incongruent Visual and Verbal Information

Charles S. Areni, Texas Tech University
K. Chris Cox, Texas Tech University
ABSTRACT - Though research on memory processes has addressed the influence of incongruency between visually and verbally presented information in advertisements, little is known regarding the effects of visual-verbal incongruency on persuasion processes. Moreover, the consumer behavior literature has examined only a subset of the various dimensions of incongruency. A review of the literature on schema theory suggests expectancy, evaluation, and relevancy as important dimensions of visual-verbal incongruency. The persuasion literature further suggests several testable research propositions regarding the effects of each dimension of incongruency.
[ to cite ]:
Charles S. Areni and K. Chris Cox (1994) ,"The Persuasive Effects of Evaluation, Expectancy and Relevancy Dimensions of Incongruent Visual and Verbal Information", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 337-342.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 337-342

THE PERSUASIVE EFFECTS OF EVALUATION, EXPECTANCY AND RELEVANCY DIMENSIONS OF INCONGRUENT VISUAL AND VERBAL INFORMATION

Charles S. Areni, Texas Tech University

K. Chris Cox, Texas Tech University

ABSTRACT -

Though research on memory processes has addressed the influence of incongruency between visually and verbally presented information in advertisements, little is known regarding the effects of visual-verbal incongruency on persuasion processes. Moreover, the consumer behavior literature has examined only a subset of the various dimensions of incongruency. A review of the literature on schema theory suggests expectancy, evaluation, and relevancy as important dimensions of visual-verbal incongruency. The persuasion literature further suggests several testable research propositions regarding the effects of each dimension of incongruency.

With the exception of the radio medium, most advertisements present the audience with visual and verbal information. However, until recently, most of the approaches to studying the persuasive impact of advertising focused on the impact of product attribute claims (c.f., Lutz, 1975). Fortunately, Mitchell and Olson (1981) introduced a new direction for research by demonstrating that visual elements in ads influence brand attitudes independently of verbal attribute claims.

Subsequent research attempted to identify the various processes by which visual elements influence attitude change. Visual information was found to influence persuasion via its ability to: (1) elicit a positive attitude toward the ad (Mitchell & Olson, 1981; Miniard, Bhatla, & Rose, 1990), (2) induce simple judgment heuristics (Petty & Cacioppo, 1981b; Petty, Cacioppo, & Schumann, 1983), and (3) influence brand attribute perceptions (Petty & Cacioppo, 1981b; Edell & Staelin, 1983). However, these studies continued to view visual and verbal elements in advertisements as influencing persuasion independently of one another. Yet, most print and television ads are designed so that visual and verbal elements interact to produce the overall message (Nylen, 1986), suggesting the need for a more integrated approach.

Research regarding the impact of advertising on memory has adopted a more integrated perspective with respect to the impact of visual and verbal elements (Kisielius & Sternthal, 1984; Houston, Childers, & Heckler, 1987; Heckler & Childers, 1992). Houston et al. (1987), borrowing from schema theory, identified the degree of incongruency of visual and verbal elements as an important influence on the recall and recognition of various information presented in an ad. Although originating in the memory literature, Heckler and Childers (1992) have recently proposed the incongruency construct as a useful conceptual basis for examining the persuasive effects of visual and verbal advertising components.

While the marketing literature has tended to adopt a unidimensional view, the literature on schema theory suggests multiple dimensions of visual-verbal incongruency. Based on a review of this literature, the present study adds evaluation to the expectancy and relevancy dimensions suggested by Heckler and Childers (1992). Research examining the elaboration likelihood model of persuasion (Petty & Cacioppo, 1981b, 1986) and the heuristic-systematic model of persuasion (Chaiken, 1980, 1987) suggests that the relevancy dimension of visual-verbal incongruency influences the process by which visual elements persuade an audience, whereas the evaluation and expectancy dimensions influence the nature and amount of thought devoted to visual and verbal elements, thereby moderating their persuasive impact. Formal research propositions are derived regarding the role of each form of visual-verbal incongruency in persuasion.

SCHEMA THEORY

The theoretical foundation for much of the work regarding incongruent visual and verbal elements stems from schema theory (Houston et al., 1987). A schema is a cognitive structure that comprises an individual's knowledge about a given domain (Taylor & Crocker, 1981). One of the basic principles underlying all conceptualizations of schemas is that they represent expectations that guide the processing of incoming information from the environment (Schank & Abelson, 1977). For a given knowledge domain, then, incoming stimuli can be thought of as being consistent, inconsistent, or irrelevant to an existing schema (Hastie, 1981).

Early research in the area of schema theory focused on memory for schema congruent and incongruent information (c.f., Hastie, 1981; Srull, 1981). Many of these studies produced apparently conflicting results until Srull (1981) made the distinction between investigations employing recall tasks and those entailing recognition tasks. He argued, persuasively, that schema incongruent information would be better recalled because it necessitates greater elaboration to resolve the inconsistency, thus creating a larger number of associative links in memory. These associative links, then, provide a greater number of potentially successful cues, increasing the likelihood that the incongruent information will be recalled. However, in recognition tasks the cues are present in the environment, so self-generation is unnecessary. Congruent information is easily linked to the schema representation during encoding, facilitating later recognition.

Houston et al. (1987, p.362) suggest that in the context of processing information in an advertisement, visual elements provide hypotheses or expectations as to the nature of the verbal appeal. These expectations are either confirmed or disconfirmed. They demonstrated that ads presenting incongruent visual and verbal information produced greater recognition and recall when the picture and the brand name were interactive (i.e., related semanticallyCsee Lutz & Lutz, 1977). More importantly, given the purpose of the present study, Heckler & Childers (1992) demonstrated that, in the absence of an interactive picture, recall and recognition of incongruent visual information is superior to that for congruent visual information. Their research is also important because, unlike previous research, it presented a multidimensional view of visual-verbal incongruency. However, a review of the schema theory literature suggests that only a subset of the dimensions of incongruency necessary for understanding persuasion have been identified in the consumer behavior literature.

EVALUATIVE AND THEMATIC DIMENSIONS OF INCONGRUENCY

Several researchers have discussed multiple forms or dimensions on which incoming information can be incongruent with an existing schema. The most basic distinction, however, is between thematic (or descriptive) and evaluative dimensions of schema incongruency (Felipe, 1970; Wyer & Gordon, 1982; Fiske & Pavelchak, 1986).

Evaluative Incongruency

Srull and Wyer's (1989) model of person schemas includes multiple forms of evaluative incongruity. They identify three types of information that may exist within a schema: specific behaviors, personality traits, and evaluative concepts. If these personality traits are evaluatively consistent, then an overall evaluative concept of the person is formed and the specific behaviors of an individual are linked to the concept. If, on the other hand, the personality traits are evaluatively inconsistent, then an evaluative concept cannot be formed, and the specific behaviors remain linked to disjoint personality traits. Research suggests that individuals elaborate more and have superior memory for evaluatively incongruent information (Wyer & Gordon, 1982; Wyer & Martin, 1986).

The notion of evaluative incongruency can easily be adapted to the context of visual and verbal information in an advertisement. For example, a progressive, college educated, twenty-five year old female might find the photograph of a scantily clad female model in a sports car ad distasteful. However, the verbal claims regarding specific features of the car may, nevertheless, persuade her that the car is an exceptional value. Thus, her evaluations of these two ad elements are evaluatively incongruent; that is, valenced in opposite directions. IN fact, many investigations in the persuasion literature have employed experimental ads in which the evaluative implications of visual (i.e., endorser attractiveness) and verbal (i.e., desirability of product attributes) elements were manipulated orthogonally (Petty & Cacioppo, 1981; Miniard et al. 1991).

Thematic Incongruency

With respect to the processing of visual and verbal information in ads, Heckler and Childers (1992) have discussed thematic dimensions of congruity in terms of the consistency of pictorial e ments with the central appeal of the copy. Based largely on the ork of Goodman (1980), thematic incongruency is further separated into relevancy, which refers to material pertaining directly to the copy theme, and expectancy, which refers to the degree to which incoming stimulus information fits some predicted pattern evoked by the copy theme. [Heckler and Childers' use of the term relevancy is different from that of Hastie (1981), who labels congruent and incongruent information relevant, and reserves the term irrelevant for information unrelated to the schema.] The beautiful female model in the aforementioned sports car ad, for instance, would be expected but certainly not relevant. On the other hand, a recent Honda CRX ad emphasizing the theme of speed and power showed the car taking off vertically like a rocket. This visual element was unexpected but relevant to the copy which stated, "The Honda CRX...it's a rocket."

This distinction has proven to be useful for understanding the impact of incongruity between visual and verbal information in ads on memory. Visual elements that are highly relevant are recognized and recalled more easily than irrelevant elements, whereas visual elements that are highly expected are more difficult to recall and recognize than unexpected visual elements (Heckler & Childers, 1992). As elaborated below, the distinction between expectancy and relevancy is useful for understanding the role of visual-verbal incongruency in persuasion as well.

To summarize, the literature on schema theory and the marketing literature on advertising suggest relevancy, expectancy, and evaluation as important dimensions or forms of incongruency between visual and verbal elements of an ad. Although these studies offer insights regarding the impact of each dimension in memory processes, there is very little research explicitly examining the impact of each form of incongruency on the persuasive process. However, several investigations in the advertising and persuasion literature do suggest testable propositions.

VISUAL-VERBAL INCONGRUENCY AND PERSUASION

Independent Effects

Based on a review of the literature on advertising and attitude change, a number of research propositions are derived below regarding the persuasive impact of each dimension of visual-verbal incongruency acting independently of the other two dimensions. hese propositions fall into two categories. The first concerns the influence of each type of incongruency on the direction of audience elaboration. Specifically, the distinction is made between thoughts directed at the execution of the ad and thoughts directed at brand related arguments (see Lutz, 1985). Next, predictions are offered regarding the moderating influence of each dimension on the persuasive impact of visual and verbal elements in an ad.

Relevancy. Petty and Cacioppo's (1981a, 1986) development of the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) of persuasion provides insights regarding the persuasive effects of the relevancy dimension of visual-verbal incongruency. The ELM posits that the nature of the attitude change process is dependent upon the level of elaboration the audience devotes to a persuasive communication. The endpoints of the elaboration continuum are associated with two distinct routes to persuasion, with high elaboration corresponding to the central route and low elaboration representing the peripheral route. The central route to persuasion occurs when the individual diligently processes issue or object relevant information, whereas the peripheral route results when the audience associates the attitudinal object with some positive or negative cue in the persuasion context.

Experimental research on the ELM typically entails a manipulation of the audience's level of elaboration. Communication elements affecting attitudes in the low elaboration condition are termed peripheral cues, and those influencing attitudes in the high elaboration condition are labeled central arguments. Initial research seemed to suggest that information regarding the source of a communication produced attitude change via the peripheral route (i.e., Petty & Cacioppo, 1979; Chaiken, 1980). However, Petty and Cacioppo (1981b) found that the physical attractiveness of visually presented sources in an ad influenced subjects' brand attitudes for a fictitious brand of shampoo in the high elaboration condition of the experiment. This finding, they reasoned, was due to the relevance of the appearance of the models in the ad for evaluating the product. Rather than acting as a simple positive or negative cue, the attractiveness of the models' hair served as a central argument regarding the effectiveness of the shampoo.

Importantly, Petty and Cacioppo's conceptualization of relevance differs from that of Heckler and Childers (1992). Heckler and Childers discuss the relevance of visually presented information in terms of the degree to which it identifies or clarifies the theme or primary message communicated in an ad, whereas Petty and Cacioppo refer to relevance as the extent to which visually presented information is central to evaluating the attitudinal object.

Miniard et al. (1991) provide a more diagnostic assessment of the role of the relevancy dimension, as defined by Goodman (1980) and Heckler and Childers (1992), in persuasion. They manipulated the visual content of an ad for Sunburst, a fictitious brand of soft drink. The theme of the ad emphasized that the Sunburst was a healthy soft drink. In the relevant visual information condition the ad featured a photo of sliced oranges, whereas in the irrelevant visual information condition the ad presented a photo of three puppies. A manipulation check measure showed that the two photos differed according to how "relevant" and "appropriate" they were, but not with respect to their overall attractiveness. While photo attractiveness influenced subjects' attitudes under conditions of low elaboration, photo relevance dominated picture-based persuasion in the high elaboration condition. Measures of product attribute beliefs suggested argument based thought mediated the persuasive impact of the picture manipulation in the high elaboration condition.

Taken together, these results suggest that relevancy guides the route or process by which visual information drives persuasion. The following research propositions follow from this conclusion.

P1: The relevancy dimension of visual-verbal incongruency has a stronger influence on attitude change at higher levels of audience elaboration.

P2: At higher levels of audience elaboration, relevant visual information induces more brand/argument related thought than does irrelevant visual information.

P3: At higher levels of audience elaboration, relevant visual information induces less ad/execution related thought than does irrelevant visual information.

Expectancy. Schema theory suggests that unexpected information "interrupts" the processing of additional information until the discrepancy can be successfully interpreted (Schank & Abelson, 1977). In an advertising context, the presentation of an unexpected visual element would distract the audience from processing additional information in an ad. Since most advertisements present information in order to induce favorable brand evaluations (MacInnis & Jaworski, 1989), the presentation of unexpected visual information would distract an audience from engaging in brand related thought. The audience might instead direct its thought to the ad itself, attempting to resolve the discrepancy by determining the meaning or purpose of the unexpected visual element. An early study by Bither and Wright (1973) provides evidence of such a distraction effect.

Bither and Wright found that for subjects having a low level of self-esteem the congruent version of the ad produced more positive attitude shifts than either the moderately incongruent version or the highly incongruent version. Subjects having either a moderate or a high level of self-esteem formed the most favorable attitudes when they were exposed to the moderately incongruent version of the ad. Additionally, as intended, the manipulation of visual-verbal incongruency induced three levels of self-reported distraction. Although the mediating role of distraction was not assessed, these results suggest that highly unexpected visual information distracted the subjects from considering the highly favorable verbal claims. When subjects were able to process these claims, they formed positive brand attitudes.

However, Heckler and Childers (1992) demonstrated that while the increased elaboration induced by unexpected visual information enhanced recall and recognition of the visual elements in the ads, memory for verbal claims was unaffected. Why, then, did Bither and Wright find that distraction moderated the persuasive impact of the verbal claims? This apparent disparity can be resolved by distinguishing between thoughts regarding the execution of the ad and thoughts directed at brand attribute arguments (Lutz, 1985). The distraction effect produced by unexpected visual information might actually increase thoughts about the selection of the copy in an ad (i.e. execution related thought) in order to resolve the inconsistency. Thus, it does not necessarily follow that recall and recognition of verbal information will be inhibited by the presentation of unexpected visual information; it does, however, suggest that thought directed at evaluating the product will be "interrupted" by the presentation of unexpected visual information.

P4: Unexpected visual information induces more ad/execution related thought than does expected visual information.

P5: Unexpected visual information induces less brand/argument related thought than does expected visual information.

Evaluation. The most relevant research regarding the persuasive impact of the evaluation dimension of visual-verbal incongruency stems from Chaiken's (1980, 1987) development of the Heuristic-Systematic Model (HSM) of persuasion. The HSM distinguishes systematic processing, an analytic orientation in which the audience accesses and scrutinizes all of the available information to assess its relevance to the judgment task, from heuristic processing, which entails the examination of only a subset of the information that allows the use of simple inferential rules to complete the judgment task. An audience member attempts to meet a sufficiency threshold, or desired level of confidence, in forming his or her attitude.

In the context of the HSM, evaluative incongruity between two elements of a persuasive communication increases an individual's sufficiency threshold by creating uncertainty regarding the appropriate judgment (Maheswaran & Chaiken, 1991). This uncertainty increases the level of thought devoted to all of the incongruent elements in order to resolve the inconsistency. Maheswaran and Chaiken (1991), for instance, found that subjects presented (verbally) with evaluatively incongruent consumer consensus and product attribute information (i.e., low consensus-strong claims, high consensus-weak claims) devoted more thought to evaluating a fictitious telephone answering machine than did subjects receiving congruent information. More importantly, the increased amount of thought enhanced the persuasive impact of the product claims manipulation. These same principles may be applied to HSM studies involving the presentation of visual and verbal information (c.f., Chaiken & Eagly, 1983). Unlike the expectancy dimension, which appears to distract an audience from evaluating the featured product, evaluative incongruency increases the amount of thought devoted to evaluating the product by increasing the audience's uncertainty as to the "correct" attitudinal position.

P6: Visual information that is evaluatively inconsistent with the verbal information in an ad induces more brand/argument related thought than does evaluatively consistent visual information.

P7: Visual information that is evaluatively inconsistent with the verbal information in an ad induces less ad/execution related thought than does evaluatively consistent visual information.

Interaction Effects

For purposes of clarity, the preceding discussion focused on the persuasive effects of each type of visual-verbal incongruency operating in isolation. However, it is quite likely that the visual nformation presented in a given ad varies on more than oneincongruency dimension. Hence, it is important to qualify the persuasive effects presented in Propositions 1-7 with the moderating effects of the other dimensions.

Based largely on the research of Maheswaran and Chaiken (1991), Propositions 6 and 7 asserted that evaluatively incongruent visual and verbal information induces more brand/argument related thought, and less ad/execution related thought. However, most of the HSM studies employing evaluatively incongruent verbal and nonverbal stimulus information have failed to detect, or at least report, "elaboration" effects (Chaiken & Eagly, 1983; Axsom et al. 1987). Perhaps evaluative incongruency alone is insufficient for producing these results. Though much more research is needed before all moderating variables are identified, if this "elaboration" effect is driven by increased uncertainty regarding the appropriate judgment, then it should be more pronounced when the evaluatively incongruent visual information is considered equally, or close to equally, relevant. That is, a greater level of uncertainty should be created when relevant, rather than irrelevant, visual information is evaluatively incongruent with the attribute claims in the copy of the ad. Thus:

P8: Evaluatively incongruent visual information tends to induce more brand/argument related thought when it is relevant to the verbal information presented in an ad.

P9: Evaluatively incongruent visual information tends to inhibit ad/execution related thought when it is relevant to the verbal information presented in an ad.

Maheswaran and Chaiken (1991) found that the presentation of evaluatively incongruent information enhanced the persuasive impact of verbally presented arguments because it was perceived as being more diagnostic of the correct judgment than was the consensus information. However, highly relevant visual information presented in an ad could be perceived as being more diagnostic than verbally presented attribute claims. An obvious example would be an automobile ad emphasizing style as the dominant theme and presenting a photograph of the car. The photograph, if judged to be evaluatively incongruent with the verbal claims, would dominate the audience's assessment of the stylishness of the car, thereby reducing the persuasive impact of the verbal claims. Thus, when evaluative incongruency is high, and the visual information in an ad s highly relevant, the persuasive influence of verbally presented arguments may be enhanced or reduced depending on their perceived relative diagnosticity.

A related issue concerns the persuasive impact of relevant visual information. Propositions 1-3 stated that relevant visual information influences persuasion at high levels of audience elaboration by increasing the amount of brand/argument related thought, and decreasing the amount of ad/execution related thought. While a number of exogenous variables induce high levels of audience elaboration, unexpected or evaluatively inconsistent visual information may elicit high levels of elaboration, potentially moderating the impact of relevant visual information.

The prediction regarding the impact of evaluative incongruency is easily derived from the preceding propositions. Since both high relevance and evaluative inconsistency increase brand/argument related thought (P1 and P6, respectively), and decrease ad/execution related thought (P3 and P7, respectively), the following propositions also hold:

P10: Relevant visual information tends to stimulate more brand/argument related thought when it is evaluatively incongruent with the verbal information presented in an ad.

P11: Relevant visual information tends to inhibit ad/execution related thought more when it is evaluatively incongruent with the verbal information presented in an ad.

The influence of the expectancy dimension of incongruency on the processing of relevant visual information is more complex. Propositions 2 and 3 state that at high levels of audience elaboration, relevant visual information induces more brand/argument related thought, and less ad/execution related thought, respectively. Further, Propositions 6 and 7 posit a direct effect of expectancy wherein unexpected visual information induces less brand/argument related thought, and increases ad/execution related thought, respectively. Thus, for an audience predisposed to a high level of elaboration, the relationship between relevancy and expectancy is straightforward.

P12: When an audience is predisposed to a high level of elaboration, relevant visual information induces more brand/argument related thought when it is expected.

P13: When an audience is predisposed to a high level of elaboration, relevant visual information induces less ad/execution related thought when it is expected.

Audiences predisposed to a low level of elaboration that subsequently encounter relevant but unexpected visual information, according to Propositions 3 and 4, will engage in more brand/argument related thought, and less ad/execution related thought. However, the unexpected visual information induces higher levels of elaboration by distracting the audience, which decreases brand/argument related thought (P5), and increases ad/execution related thought (P4). Since these effects are in direct conflict, for an audience predisposed to a low level of elaboration, the moderating effect of expectancy on the persuasive impact of relevancy is indeterminate.

DISCUSSION

At least two issues must be addressed before the propositions offered above can be examined empirically. The first concerns the conceptualization of evaluation, expectancy, and relevancy as orthogonal dimensions of visual-verbal incongruency, hence the suggestion that each dimension can be manipulated independently of the others in experimental ads (Miniard et al., 1991; Heckler & Childers, 1992). However, given that individuals possess schemas regarding the nature of visual stimuli typically presented in advertising (Wright, 1986), this conceptualization is problematic. For example, ads usually present positive visual stimuli in hopes that they will become associated in some way with the advertised product (Cohen & Areni, 1991). This implies that negatively valenced visual material (i.e., evaluatively incongruent) would be considered unexpected as well. Likewise, advertisers typically employ visual elements that support the verbal claims in an ad (Nylen, 1986). Thus, irrelevant visual material may also be somewhat unexpected. While such interrelatedness does not invalidate the conceptual distinctions drawn here, it should inform both the design and analysis of future empirical work.

CONCLUSION

The notion of schema incongruency provides a conceptual basis for assessing the degree to which visual and verbal elements operate synergistically in an advertising context. While our analysis suggests expectancy, relevancy, and evaluation as key dimensions on which visual and verbal information are related, other dimensions may prove useful for understanding the interaction of visual and verbal advertising elements in persuasion. However, examining the propositions offered above would seem a useful starting point.

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