Quantitative and Qualitative Differences in Older and Younger Consumers' Recall of Radio Advertising

Catherine A. Cole, University of Iowa
Nadine M. Castellano, University of Iowa
Donald Schum, University of Iowa
ABSTRACT - In this experiment consumers listened to a radio program with either one or three repetitions of three embedded test commercials. In the commercials, we manipulated either the level of background noise or the presence of a disclaimer or the level of within message claim repetitions. Older adults had lower recall for claims made in advertising than younger adults. In addition, the format of the test commercials improved younger adults recall more than older adults recall. We also found preliminary evidence that older adults tended to recall advertising in different ways than younger adults.
[ to cite ]:
Catherine A. Cole, Nadine M. Castellano, and Donald Schum (1995) ,"Quantitative and Qualitative Differences in Older and Younger Consumers' Recall of Radio Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 617-621.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 617-621


Catherine A. Cole, University of Iowa

Nadine M. Castellano, University of Iowa

Donald Schum, University of Iowa

[Acknowledgements: Nadine Catellano is supported by the University of Iowas Center on Aging through NIA Grant #AG00214. The subject money was supported by a grant from the Marketing Science Institute.]


In this experiment consumers listened to a radio program with either one or three repetitions of three embedded test commercials. In the commercials, we manipulated either the level of background noise or the presence of a disclaimer or the level of within message claim repetitions. Older adults had lower recall for claims made in advertising than younger adults. In addition, the format of the test commercials improved younger adults recall more than older adults recall. We also found preliminary evidence that older adults tended to recall advertising in different ways than younger adults.

Prior literature has unveiled age differences in responses to advertising in a variety of media(Cole and Houston 1987, Gorn et al 1991, Stephens and Warrens 1983/1984). In this experiment, we examine how three advertising characteristics (level of background noise, presence of disclaimer and level of within message repetitions) affect older and younger consumers' recall of radio advertising. The first two factors have been unstudied with respect to older adults. Although message repetitions have been studied, within message repetitions of the same claims have not. These factors may differentially affect elderly adult's recall when compared to that of younger adults. Consequently, the first major contribution of this research is to investigate age differences in learning under three specific advertising formats.

We focus on one medium, the radio. Researchers have not studied radio advertising as much as they have studied television and print advertising. Interestingly, because radio is only an audio medium, theories developed to understand how television and print advertising work may not generalize to radio advertising. Consequently, an additional contribution of this research is to enhance our understanding of how radio advertising works.

Much of the previous research investigating age differences in advertising focuses on quantitative differences in recall. Qualitative difference, however, may reveal additional insights into how the elderly process information contained in advertisements. Following Adams, et al (1990) recall protocols are analyzed for differences in recall content. Analysis of the data from this experiment is thus both quantitative and qualitative, fulfilling our final objective of expanding the way we measure age differences in recall.


In order to study the three advertising factors of background noise, within message repetitions and disclaimer presence, we must first investigate the process by which adults recall aurally presented information. Current models of speech processing recognize that speech must be processed "on-line" as it is presented, thus requiring continuous processing in working memory; (Stine and Wingfield 1987). Even though working memory is partially cleared so that sentences can be processed, some information must be retained to determine the coherence of the speech. (Baddeley, Lodge, Nimmo-Smith and Bereton 1985). The listener uses linguistic context and world knowledge to frame and interpret auditory input.

In summary, when decoding speech, we first interpret relatively small chunks of information. Then we integrate each chunk with previously processed information (Stine and Wingfield 1987). Impairments of prose comprehension result whenever the capacity of the working memory buffer is exceeded. Researchers have documented age differences in this process. They often attribute such age differences to age-related declines in working memory speed (Light and Burke 1988). In our research, we ask about conditions that might affect age differences in processing of radio advertising.

Previous work suggests that age differences in performance on speech perception tests tend to be greater in noisy conditions than in less noisy conditions (Hutchinson 1989). Hutchinson speculates that this may occur because background babble has a masking effect on acoustic cues that aid in understanding. Gorn et al (1991) extend this research by predicting that background music in television commercials may impair learning among elderly consumers. They argue and find that music distracts the elderly from attending to and processing relevant information. Recall of product claims was lower for elderly exposed to the commercial with background music than when compared to elderly exposed to the same commercial without background music.

Based on this literature, we predict:

H1: Older adults will recall more from a message without background music than from a message with background music, but the presence or absence of background music will not affect younger adults' recall levels.

Another important variable is repetition level. The relationship between repetitions and learning has been well established through years of research in verbal learning and in studies on advertising effects. Consequently, we expect that as commercial repetitions go from low to moderate consumers will recall more about the commercials. Although one would expect this to be true of both younger and older adults, one would expect that age differences might diminish at moderate levels of repetition because older adults, starting from a lower recall level, would experience a disproportionately high increase in learning. The aging studies literature indicates that increasing repetitions of word pair associates reduces age differences in recall (Kausler 1982). Thus we hypothesize:

H2: Both older and younger consumers will recall more as commercial repetitions increase, but older consumers will benefit more than younger consumers from the increased repetitions.

A related, but not as well studied, issue is whether increasing the number of within message repetitions of key claims affects learning. Sewall and Sarel (1986) find that as the number of brand name mentions increases, the level of brand name recall increases in a population of varying ages. Thus, not only do we predict that increasing the number of within message repetitions of key claims will increase learning, but we also predict that it will differentially benefit older consumers:

H3: As the number of within message repetitions of key claims increases, both older and younger consumers will recall more, but older consumers will benefit more from the increased repetitions.

A final factor we looked at was the presence or absence of a disclaimer at the end of a commercial. In order to correct a misleading commercial, the Federal Trade Commission requires the advertiser to produce subsequent commercials with explicit warning messages. In this article, we are interested in whether the presence or absence of a disclaimer affects older and younger adult's recall of the commercial. Generally the disclaimer will add to the amount of information in the commercial because the advertiser generally wants to communicate specific claims, whether or not a disclaimer is present. We hypothesize that younger adults will recall more when more information is present. Thus we hypothesize the following:

H4: A disclaimer at the end of a commercial will increase younger adults, but not older adults, claim recall.

Age Differences in Content of Recall

The first four hypotheses concentrate on whether or not the amount of recall differs between older and younger subjects. An important question is does the content of recall vary by age. The marketing literature abounds with studies which assess advertising effectiveness by awarding points for every claim recalled by the subject (e.g., Cole and Houston 1987, Singh, Rothschild and Churchill 1988, Unnava and Burnkrant 1991). However, in the gerontology literature Adams and her colleagues (Adams, Labouvie-Vief, Hobart and Dorosz 1990) suggest that traditional measures of recall emphasize ability to reproduce propositions contained in text, while devaluing text evaluation and interpretive processes. Thus, these traditional measures favor younger adults whose main developmental task is to acquire and store the information and knowledge systems of their culture. (See Adams et al. 1990.) In contrast, older adults may take text based information and encode it into more integrative units of meaning. Such an encoding style would be consistent with the older cohorts developmental task, which is to find efficient means of storing information and for transmitting cultural knowledge.

H5: Older adults recall protocols will include smaller percentages of exact or gist listings of claims and larger percentages of integrative ideas than younger adults' recall protocols.


Experimental Design

The research design was a 2 age group (21-64, 65-88) x 2 repetition level(1 or 3 repetitions) x 2 format between subject design. Each subject heard 45 minutes of programming with three embedded test commercials and two embedded filler commercials.


We tested subjects in groups of five to twenty persons each. First, a pure-tone hearing screening was completed on each subject under earphones in a quiet room. Hearing was screened at 30 Db HL at the octave frequencies from 250 through 4000 HZ. In order to be included in the study, each subject needed to pass the hearing screening at all frequencies in at least one ear. The use of a screening level of 30 Db HL in combination with the presentation level for the speech material of 75 Db SPL insured that the signal from the recorded broadcast was fully audible in at least one ear of each listener.

If the subject failed the hearing test she was still allowed to participate in the experiment, but her questionnaire was marked for removal from the actual analysis. After every subject had completed the hearing test, she learned that we wanted consumers to evaluate two different radio programs. We then played the tape version dictated by the randomization procedure. After listening to the tape, subjects completed the questionnaires. They were paid ($7.00 per person) and then were free to leave. It took about one and a half hours for subjects to complete the study.


We recruited 170 consumers from parents groups and senior centers, but included in the analysis only the 157 who passed the hearing screening test. We conducted our analysis by comparing two age groups of consumers: those under the age of 65 and those 65 and over. The average age for the younger subjects was 40 (S.D.=8.8 years); the average age for the older subjects was 74 (S.D.=6.6). The younger consumers had more education than the older consumers (t=3.17, df=144, p<.05). Both groups were equally likely to have radios in their houses; both estimated that they listened to the radio about 14 hours a week.

Stimulus Material and Radio Programming

From two radio stations outside the test market, we obtained tapes of regular morning drive talk shows. We then edited the programs to insert our own music and advertisements. The first show included an opening and then an interview with a representative from Sea World and Bush Garden. The second show also had an opening and then played music. To make sure that the music would appeal to subjects of all ages we edited in 3 top hits from 1992, 1936 and 1946. We prepared different versions of our radio show tape by embedding three test and two filler commercials. The format and repetition level of the commercials varied across versions.

To select commercials we acquired tapes of commercials from ad agencies. One format manipulation was the number of within message repetitions of key claims. We had a bank cash card ad that made 3 claims during the 30 second commercial. We professionally added a tag line at the end of the ad in which the announcer said "Remember folks...." and then repeated the claims. Another format manipulation involved the subtraction of background noise. We had an ad for a business pages book that had a persistent scratchy violin in the background throughout the 30 second commercial. In our tape editing facilities, we hired actors to redo the ad without the scratchy violin as background noise. Another format manipulation involved the creation of a new commercial. We perused the FTC records for cases of deceptive advertising and found one for a product that starts cars with dead batteries. We then created two versions of a commercial for this product, one with and one without a disclaimer required by the FTC.

Dependent Variables

1. Claim Recall. To obtain recall measures we asked participants to write down what was said about a specific product in each commercial. Following the traditional means of measuring recall, we compared this response against an actual list of claims in the commercial. Two separate coders recorded the number of claims recalled (either gist or verbatim recall was acceptable). They agreed on 96% of their counts. We arbitrarily selected the first coder's count in the cases of disagreement.



2. Content Analysis of Recall Protocols. We also analyzed these responses according to a classification scheme specified by Adams, et al. (1990). First, we divided each recall protocol into separate idea units. An idea unit is "a combination of words in the text that conveyed a single complete idea" (Adams et al. 1990). Using an example from a Swiss Airlines commercial, if the subject stated that "There was a man asking a passenger at Heathrow airport which airline flew the most often to Switzerland, but the passenger couldn't get it." Four idea units would be identified. These idea units consist of (1) the concept of a man asking a passenger questions, (2) the fact that it took place at Heathrow airport, (3) the concept that the question was which airline flew most often to Switzerland, and (4) the passenger didn't understand. Each identified idea unit was assigned to one of the following four response categories (again following Adams, et al. 1990): (a) Text-based listings, (b) Addition listing, (c) Integration listing, and (d) Interpretation of story. Statements not falling in these categories (false and irrelevant statements) were ignored. We coded an idea unit as a text-based listing if it was a basic repeating of the text in the ad. (For example, see the first three idea units in the Swiss Airlines example above.) An addition listing would incorporate a single idea from outside the actual advertisement. We coded an idea unit as an integration listing if it condensed and summarized the information in the advertisement. (See the fourth idea unit in the Swiss Airlines example above.) An interpretation would occur if the coder could not tie the response directly to any aspect of the advertisement per se, but found it relevant to the story as a whole. In addition, interpretations included some type of personal judgment or opinion. There was very high agreement between the independent coders (95%) about how to classify each idea unit.


Claim Recall

Table 1 contains the mean and standard deviations for claim recall scores; Table 2 contains the individual ANOVA results for each advertisement.

1. Car Starter Ad. Elderly adults recalled significantly fewer claims from the Car Starter ad than younger adults (F(1,147)=33.25, p<.01). Also, all adults recalled more claims after hearing the message three times than after hearing it once (F(1,147)=4.94, p<.02). Although this finding is partially consistent with hypothesis H2, which notes that as repetitions increase claim recall should increase, it is inconsistent with the notion that older adults should differentially benefit from increasing repetitions when compared to younger adults.

The significant format effect is qualified by the age by format interaction. After young adults heard the message with the disclaimer, they recalled significantly more claims than after hearing the message without the warning (p<.06), but message format did not affect how much older adults recalled (p<.24). This result is consistent with Hypothesis H4 which suggested that a disclaimer would differentially increase the recall of younger consumers.

2. Bank Card Ad. The significant main effects for claim recall for the Bank Card ad are qualified by significant two way interactions: the age by repetition interaction (F(1,154)=4.8, p<.03) and the significant repetition by format interaction (F=3.4, p<.06). There were no significant age differences in claim recall when listeners heard the message only once (p<.23), but when repetitions increased to 3, younger adults recalled more claims (p<.01), while older adults did not recall significantly more claims (p<.20). This pattern meant that at three repetitions a significant age difference in recall emerged (p<.01). Contrary to H2, younger adults, not older adults, were differentially benefited by increasing repetitions.

The repetition by format interaction is interesting from an advertising perspective. At one repetition, there was no difference in recall levels between the messages with and without repetitions of key claims (p<.41), at 3 repetitions, the commercial with more repetitions generated significantly stronger recall levels (p<.01) for both age groups. This offers partial support for Hypothesis H3 which predicts that as within message repetitions increases, recall should increase.





3. Business Pages Ad. There were two significant main effects and no interactions. Older adults recalled significantly less than younger adults and repetitions increased recall. Thus, we have no support for hypothesis H1 predicting that background music would differentially affect older adults. This results offers partial support for H2 which predicts that recall increases as repetitions increase.

Content Analysis of Recall

We next analyzed the recall protocols of our consumers. The percentages of idea units that fell into each thought category for each advertisement for each age group are shown in Table 3. It appears that older adults (when compared to younger adults) tend to produce a smaller percentage of listings and a larger percentage of integrations and interpretations in their recall protocols. However no differences were statistically significant. Thus we have weak support for hypothesis H5 which predicts age differences in the content of recall.


At the outset, we stated that we wanted to develop a better understanding of how radio advertising works. We found that increasing the number of repetitions of a commercial from low to moderate increases claim recall, regardless of commercial format. (For the Car Starter and the Business Pages Ads increasing repetitions improved claim recall for both age groups, for the Bank Card Ad increasing repetitions improved claim recall only for the younger consumers.)

We expected to find and found that older consumers recall less from radio advertising than younger consumers. We had also expected that our format manipulations (designed to facilitate processing) would differentially benefit older adults. Instead, we found that either both age groups benefited equally or that younger adults benefited more. For example, increasing repetitions of the bank card ad improved commercial recall for younger adults, but not older adults.

We also investigated whether the emphasis on literal or gist recall overstated the size of age differences in recall by content analyzing older and younger adult's recall protocols. We found no significant differences in percentages of types of thought. However, we found trends suggesting that elderly adults tend to generate more integrative and interpretive idea units than younger adults. We can speculate that at higher levels of repetition, where more elderly consumers recall the commercials, more differences in the content of recall protocols may emerge.

We were concerned that an alternative explanation for our results may be that older adults were less interested or involved with the test products than younger adults. At the end of the questionnaire, we collected involvement measures for the three product classes for the test items. We tested for age differences in level of involvement with the three product classes and found one: older adults were more interested in a new way to start a disabled car (the car starter product) than younger adults (t=2.05, p<.04). Notice, however, that if involvement affects recall levels, the involvement results bias our data toward not finding age differences in recall.

This research provides insight into how radio advertising in remembered. It follows up on Sewall and Sarrel's (1986) by manipulating radio commercial format factors and evaluating impact on recall. In addition, Adams's method for measuring recall seem to indicate that traditional claim recall measures may not capture all the information that older adult's remember.


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