Special Session Summary It's News to Me: Framing Effects in New Categories and New Situations

Christina L. Brown, New York University
[ to cite ]:
Christina L. Brown (1996) ,"Special Session Summary It's News to Me: Framing Effects in New Categories and New Situations", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 455.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Page 455



Christina L. Brown, New York University

This session investigated context or framing effects that arise from consumers' attempt to assign a subjective value to a new, unfamiliar, or uncertain case. This issue is of interest because: (1) it addresses an important cause of context effectsCthe effect of uncertain values on evaluation and choice; (2) it sheds light on how a brand's competitive set impacts consumer evaluation of the brand; and (3) it examines how consumers may rely on the frame of reference provided by a category to reduce uncertainty about product values. This session considered such framing effects when a product is new-to-the-world (Dhar and Sawhney), when a product and/or its attributes are unfamiliar to the consumer (Brown and Carpenter), or when a new and different usage situation is proposed for an familiar product (Wansink and Jannsen).

The paper by Ravi Dhar and Mohanbir Sawhney demonstrated that consumers evaluate a new-to-the-world product (such as a new communications device) by comparing its attributes to a comparison category (such as cordless phones). In two studies, the authors demonstrated a framing effect in which relative preference for a new-to-the-world product is lowest when the category to which it is compared is superior on the more important attribute. Differences in attribute importance increased the effect of comparative frames, while familiarity with a product category decreased their effect. Explanations based on perceptual associations (i.e., change in perception of attribute importance) did not account for the effects.

The paper by Christina L. Brown and Gregory S. Carpenter considered why consumers confronted with an unfamiliar category sometimes treat minor attributes as though they were of major importance. For example, their choice of ground coffee may be affected by the shape of the crystal, which has no objective value. The authors proposed that, although such attributes appear objectively meaningless to researchers, consumers confer subjective value on them by inferring some additional positive or negative benefit to them, in order to solve otherwise intractable choice problems. In situations where a choice problem is easily and appropriately resolved by a more effective strategy, consumers have no motivation to make strongly-valenced inferences about trivial attributes; their choices are less likely to be affected. The authors call this process "strategic inference-making," since consumers will go to the trouble of making such inferences only when strategically necessary to solve a choice problem. An experiment demonstrated that consumers are more likely to choose a brand with a trivial attribute when low variance on more important attributes makes it difficult to discriminate clear superiority among the choice alternatives.

The paper by Brian Wansink and Paul D. G. Jannsen examined how changing one's frame of reference can cause changes in the foods one eats. They showed that, when considering a new use for a target product (such as eating mayonnaise with French Fries or drinking Coke in the morning), most people tend to focus on whether the attributes of this product are relevant for the target situation. This often biases consumers against the product's use. This bias can be overcome by redirecting one's frame of reference away the target product. A cross-cultural laboratory study, conducted in the U.S. and the Netherlands, indicated that subjects evaluated the target product more favorably when they did not focus on its specific attributes. This was true regardless of whether they focus instead on situation needs, the attributes of another product, or on something completely unrelated (commuting on the tram).

Our discussant, Eric Johnson, contrasted the various uses of the term "framing" appearing in the three papers and suggested more consistent uses of the term.