Truth in the Meaning of Advertisements

K. Patrick Meline, University of Wisconsin-Madison
ABSTRACT - A review of the literature suggests that consumer research has not fully investigated the nature of various consumer meaning processes. This paper suggests that meaning is a simultaneous, two-stage process involving meaning construction (termed the nature of meaning) and an assessment of meaning validity (termed the truth in meaning). Contributions from traditional information processing and postpositivist perspectives are integrated in developing this perspective. The nature of meaning is explored and propositions are offered addressing the role of consumer goals and knowledge in the development of meaning. Finally, implications for consumer research are offered.
[ to cite ]:
K. Patrick Meline (1996) ,"Truth in the Meaning of Advertisements", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 237-241.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 237-241


K. Patrick Meline, University of Wisconsin-Madison


A review of the literature suggests that consumer research has not fully investigated the nature of various consumer meaning processes. This paper suggests that meaning is a simultaneous, two-stage process involving meaning construction (termed the nature of meaning) and an assessment of meaning validity (termed the truth in meaning). Contributions from traditional information processing and postpositivist perspectives are integrated in developing this perspective. The nature of meaning is explored and propositions are offered addressing the role of consumer goals and knowledge in the development of meaning. Finally, implications for consumer research are offered.


Advertisements often weave a complex tale incorporating elements of fiction such as metaphor, drama and tropes (Scott 1994) which extend beyond that of simple cues used by marketers to provide product information. Consumer researchers, however, have traditionally focused on the motivational elements of ads which relate to brand information and have treated other ad elements as distractions to processing which presumably have a limited impact on ad effectiveness (see e.g., Goodstein 1993). However, as advertisers push the creative boundary, it would seem reasonable to suggest that consumer researchers must strive to develop theory which will embrace consumer responses to both creative and informational components of ads. Toward this goal, postpositivistic researchers have begun to investigate the meanings of advertisements via literary theory (Scott 1994), semiotics (Mick and Buhl 1992) and cultural consumption (McCracken 1988).

This stream of literature has offered many insights about consumer response to ads, but has yet to integrate these findings with the traditional information approach characterized by a focus on product-specific cues (e.g., Batra and Ray 1986; Meyers-Levy 1991). This neglect is likely due to the difference in orientation of researchers. The information processing perspective has investigated consumer motivations, but results have appeared to view an ad as nothing more than a conglomeration of adjustable cues (MacInnis, Moorman and Jaworski 1991; Petty, Cacioppo and Schumann 1983) suggesting that ads predominantly act upon passive consumers. The meaning perspective has also focused on consumer motivations with results commonly identifying the situation of the consumer in terms of life themes (Mick and Buhl 1992) or social context (Scott 1994), conversely suggesting that intelligent, active consumers act upon ads. While this may be an oversimplified comparison, the current debate over these issues in the consumer research domain has been the impetus for the current work and others (see e.g., Friestad and Wright 1994; Scott 1994).

This paper suggests that these two perspectives may be successfully integrated by establishing meaning as the central process by which consumers make inferences about advertisements. Meaning is conceptualized as both the recognizable, personally-relevant representations which consumers ascribe to ads and also judgements of the perceived accuracy of these representations in relation to one's knowledge and goals. The former will be referred to as the nature of meaning and the latter will be called the truth in meaning. This simultaneous, yet two-stage, meaning construct is consistent with other conceptualizations of meaning (Lakoff 1987), but extends current work in the consumer research domain by offering an explicit definition of meaning which incorporates the consumer's natural quest for veridicality (Lakoff and Johnson 1980).

This approach to meaning highlights the contribution of both advertising text and personal beliefs and experiences in the development of meaning. The importance of this combination of text and person has been recognized by both information processing (Wright 1973) and postpositivist researchers (Scott 1994). However, relating these factors to the correspondence between meanings, goals and knowledge (i.e., truth in meaning) in a comprehensive fashion requires an integration of these two streams of research. In so doing, current definitions of consumer goals must be expanded to encompass both life thematic goals characteristic of postpositivistic research (e.g., Mick and Buhl 1992) and brand related goals characteristic of information processing research (e.g., Huffman and Houston 1993; MacInnis et al. 1991).

Another value of this conceptualization of meaning is the recognition that meanings of ads are directly compared to consumer goals and knowledge in order to form an accuracy judgement. This account of truth is inherent in meaning (Lakoff 1987) and is supported by research which suggests that a high correspondence between consumer goals or knowledge and consumer meanings for advertisements may result in enhanced motivation and deeper levels of processing (Markus and Nurius 1986; Mick and Buhl 1992; cf. Alba and Hutchinson 1987; Johnson and Russo 1984).


[To facilitate comparison and integration of ideas from both the information and meaning perspectives, this section intentionally presents a polarized view of these perspectives. The author acknowledges that not all studies in the domain are adequately characterized by this cut and dry view.]

The Information Approach

The traditional information processing perspective has construed ads as essentially composed of adjustable product-related cues which act upon passive consumers (McCracken 1987). Typical empirical investigations of advertising effectiveness measure recall of brand names and/or product features and most independent and dependent variables are operationalized at the product or brand level (e.g., MacInnis et al. 1991; Petty et al. 1983). According to this perspective, the primary goal of consumers is to gather product-related information which is subsequently used for the purpose of judging brands. Any non-product related information contained in ads is considered peripheral to the consumer's focus. Further, consumers are seen to be easily influenced by the adjustment of cues which direct the flow of information via limited persuasion routes (Mick and Buhl 1992).

Common constructs utilized in the information processing perspective include prior knowledge (Hoch and Deighton 1989), motivation, opportunity and ability (MacInnis et al. 1991). These factors have commonly been associated with the level of ad processing undertaken by the consumer (e.g., Goodstein 1993; MacInnis et al. 1991). Wright (1986b) skeptically evaluates the widely accepted attitude toward the ad (Aad) construct by questioning a global assessment of an ad's impact as an accurate measure of an individual's reactions to an ad's content. Wright proclaims that the "original interest in attitude toward the ad arose from these ideas: (1) ads contain stimuli other than those assertions and pictures that convey information about the advertised product, and (2) people might have affective or emotional reactions to those "other" stimuli that, through some process, modify their global evaluation of the advertised product per se" (p. 108).

Wright (1986b) concludes that Aad does not achieve the goal of investigating peripheral content in ads and it leaves us wondering how respondents interpret its items with respect to multiple ad-related reactions. As suggested by Wright (1986a), although consumers may understand the intended message of an ad and evaluate it as good and highly entertaining, no particular correspondence between ad meanings and the individual's goals and knowledge would necessarily result in that evaluation since it is unclear what particular meanings global evaluations are measuring. This paper asserts that a focus on the meaning process will address these concerns.

The Meaning Approach

Although the information approach is prevalent in consumer research, some researchers have begun to move away from the advertising as information perspective and have instead examined advertising as meaning. Mick (1986) has eloquently asserted that researchers should ask the question "What do people do with advertising?" instead of asking "What does advertising do to people?" The focus suggested by these researchers and others (e.g., McCracken 1988; Scott 1994) is on the meaning of advertisements construed by the individual. This emerging stream of research has emphasized that a consumer actively assigns meaning to advertising cues rather than simply drawing information from the ad (see McCracken 1987 for a detailed discussion).

This emphasis on meaning explicitly acknowledges its subjective nature. Interpretations of ads can vary on an intra and inter-individual basis because of the socioeconomic background, cultural and personal experiences or complex motives of the consumer (Hirschman 1980; Mick and Buhl 1992). This is not to say, however, that each individual will construct completely unique meanings for ads. On the contrary, it is because of common life experiences that meanings may be shared among individuals (Scott 1994; Thompson, Pollio and Locander 1994).

The meaning approach has also emphasized the multidimensionality of meaning. In this view, consumers construct multiple meanings for advertisements. Meaning is viewed as a constructive, dynamic process (Mick and Buhl 1992) by which meaning can be constructed for multiple elements of a stimulus. In this respect, as consumers continue to process an ad new meanings are likely to be developed, some meanings may be more important than others (Wright 1973) and changes in meaning may occur (Friestad and Wright 1994).


A synergy between the information and meaning perspectives is suggested to result in a simultaneous, two-stage meaning process by which consumers may construct multiple meanings for informational and non-informational elements of an ad. Concurrently, this paper suggests that a validity assessment of meaning (termed the truth in meaning) is constructed through comparison of constructed meanings to an individual's goals and knowledge.

The Nature of Meaning

This paper asserts that meaning is the central process by which consumers make inferences about advertisements. An encompassing view of the meaning process must take into account both the meanings assigned to informational components of an ad related to the product or brand and the meanings consumers ascribe to the creative elements of an ad. This view has several important assumptions.

First, this view assumes that the consumer of ads actively assigns meaning to both informational and non-informational components of ads. The product-level approach to meaning characteristic of the information perspective and the life-thematic approach to meaning, characteristic of the meaning perspective, are integrated by taking this view of a consumer. Second, this view assumes that the nature of meaning is inherently subjective. Specifically, it recognizes that the intended meanings of ads as conceived by the advertiser are not necessarily the meanings constructed by the individual. [This is simply the encoding/decoding process recognized by most models of the communication process.] Concurrently, this view recognizes that ascribed meanings are individually constructed, but bounded by one's social context.

Third, this view assumes that the nature of meaning is multidimensional. Because of the multiple responses consumers will make and the dynamic nature of meaning we must consider the possibility that conflicting meanings will be constructed and ascribed to an ad, some of which may be more or less important than others and therefore given more or less weight by the individual. A full explication of the meaning process must address how a consumer will cope with conflicting, weighted meanings.

Truth In Meaning

The element of meaning proposed to most directly affect a consumer's motivation to process is the truth in meaning. In this context, truth [As noted by one reviewer, the word truth may involve "nasty ontological and epistemological connotations." In the current context, however, every effort was made to emphasize the individual construction and subjective nature of ascribed meanings bounded by a social construction of reality.] is meant to represent the correspondence or fit between one's nature of meaning and the goals and knowledge of the individual. For example, a consumer watching a commercial for an exercise machine which shows an extremely fit model working out may form the intended meaning of "This machine will help me get in shape like that person." Assuming that getting in shape is a goal of this consumer, the correspondence between meaning and goal would be high.

However, the same consumer may also construct the unintended meaning of "This ad is trying to mislead me by using sex appeal." The fit between this meaning and the individual's knowledge of appropriate marketing tactics would be low since deception is not a desirable characteristic of advertisers for most consumers. This view is highly compatible with recent information processing research which regards consumers of advertising (and persuasion attempts, in general) as actively involved with assessing the motives of advertisers based on an individual's knowledge of marketing tactics (Friestad and Wright 1994).

Similar notions of correspondence have been examined in the consumer research domain. Meyers-Levy and Tybout (1989) investigates the level of congruity between a product and its corresponding product category schema. Their findings suggest that moderate incongruity will lead to the most favorable product evaluations. Goodstein (1993) extends their work by demonstrating that ad typicality, brand goals and prior category affect influence ad processing. Mick and Buhl (1992) also demonstrates the importance of fit between meaning and goals upon an individual's desire to process an ad.



Scott (1994) suggests that the passive consumer stereotype prevalent in consumer research (see e.g., Petty et al. 1983) has been the result of misinterpretations of Wright's (1973, 1975, 1986a) stream of research with respect to cognitive responses and schemer schema. Scott (1994) calls for the replacement of this stereotype with that of an active, skeptical consumer by refocusing on reader resistance to ads and recognizing ads as truth-telling fictions. By investigating the multiple meanings of ads defined in this manner we can better appreciate how consumers may interpret and understand advertising without necessarily believing it.


Figure 1 illustrates the meaning process proposed by this paper. The diagram indicates the important role multi-level goals and knowledge play in the meaning process. A common assumption in the consumer research literature is integrated into the process and emphasizes that meanings are individually derived and socially shared meanings may be constructed. An assessment of truth in meaning is proposed to influence consumer motivation to process the ad. The following proposition results:

P1: Consumers assess an advertisement via a process of comparing constructed meanings ascribed to the ad with the individual's relevant goals and knowledge, resulting in an assessment of the truth in meaning.

The Effect of Consumer Goals and Knowledge on Meaning Processes

Previous research has restricted consumer goals to product-related information (e.g., Huffman and Houston 1993; MacInnis et al. 1991). This approach provides an easier means of assessment, but does not take advantage of research which has investigated consumer goals from a more holistic approach (e.g., Mick and Buhl 1992). To facilitate the integration of these perspectives, consumer goals are defined here as a hierarchial set of inter-related acquisition, consumption, or disposition motives which a consumer maintains through a continual process of redefinition. This view of consumer goals is drawn from a wide base of consumer research and other relevant literature which suggests such a consumer goal hierarchy (see e.g., Huffman and Houston 1993; McGuire 1974; Mick and Buhl 1992). Product benefits can be the means through which consumer goals are momentarily sufficed (Huffman and Houston 1993). Likewise, the processing of information contained in an ad can be a means by which consumer goals are satisfied. However, the concept of consumer goals is expanded here to encompass both basic wants and higher-order goals.

Current research highlights the importance of consumer goals in direct relation to meaning. Mick and Buhl (1992) developed a meaning-based model of advertising experiences by identifying life themes and life projects (life themes representing profound existential meanings and life projects representing meanings related to the self and extended self) as goals used to make sense of an advertisement. In effect, Mick and Buhl (1992) found that these consumer goals are a driving force behind the actualized meanings an individual ascribes to an ad.

Huffman and Houston (1993) investigated lower-level consumer goals defined at the level of the product class and presented subjects with a common goal in a task-oriented experiment. While their objective was to investigate the role of consumer goals in the learning process, a major contribution of the article was to demonstrate that knowledge is organized according to the goals of the individual. Thus, the interpretation of information (and therefore meaning) is inherently affected by the goal orientation of the consumer.

Consumer goals are hierarchial in that some goals will have a more pervasive and enduring impact upon a person's life. This type of life goal will influence an individual's daily goals in a top-down processing fashion (Mick and Buhl 1992). This view of consumer goals is necessary to accurately describe meaning construction. For the most part, humans do not merely process information in relation to a goal of gathering information. Rather, consumers selectively receive and process information in relation to the relevant goals of their life at a particular point in time (i.e., in a particular context or situation). Thus, the same information will likely have a different meaning if it were to be processed in relation to a different goal or set of goals. The following proposition results:

P2: The nature of meaning is influenced by the hierarchial set of goals which a consumer brings to any given persuasion attempt,

As stated by Friestad and Wright (1994), "One of the consumer's primary tasks is to interpret and cope with marketers' sales presentations and advertising. Over time consumers develop personal knowledge about the tactics used in these persuasion attempts. This knowledge helps them identify how, when, and why marketers try to influence them. It also helps them adaptively respond to these persuasion attempts so as to achieve their own goals." This type of knowledge is considered by Friestad and Wright to be hovering in the consumer's mental framework, ready to be used in the interpretation, evaluation and response to persuasion attempts.

The Persuasion Knowledge Model incorporates product-related knowledge (topic knowledge) with knowledge about a marketer's goals (agent knowledge) and inference-type knowledge of a marketer's tactics (persuasion knowledge) (Friestad and Wright 1994). Consider, for example, a consumer who is highly skeptical about an ad. The individual may point to various tactics utilized by a spokesperson or perhaps to creative elements of the ad which seem misleading. These may be viewed as meanings ascribed by the consumer using agent or persuasion knowledge, respectively. Tactical knowledge of persuasion attempts can readily be seen as distinct from product-related knowledge and agent knowledge, but the relative importance among these knowledge domains with relation to the meanings ascribed to an ad will vary from situation to situation. The following proposition results:

P3: The nature of meaning is influenced by the multiple knowledge structures utilized by a consumer in any given persuasion attempt.

Although consumer knowledge plays an important role in meaning [The conventional distinction between objective and subjective knowledge (Brucks 1985; Park, Mothersbaugh and Feick 1994) could prove to be enlightening with respect to the construction of meaning, but it is sufficient here to note that both types of knowledge will have an impact.], recent evidence suggests that consumer goals are a more basic, driving force behind the construction of meaning (Huffman and Houston 1993; Mick and Buhl 1992). The following proposition results:

P4: Meanings congruent with goals of the individual will be more relevant to the individual than meanings congruent with the knowledge of the individual.


Mick (1986) in his seminal piece introducing semiotics to the consumer research domain notes, "And yet consumer researchers, with few exceptions, have characteristically avoided detailed and systematic inquiry into meaning processes. Perhaps this reflects the shortcomings of current theory and methodologies in consumer research. Or perhaps the role of meaning appears obvious, but also ineffable or intractable" (p. 201). As Levy (1986) suggests, however, it may be unfair to say that consumer researchers (information processing researchers, in particular) have not investigated meaning. An argument could be made that research on attitudes, perceptions, values, involvement and even cross-cultural factors implicitly deals with consumer meanings for products and brands. By not dealing with meaning explicitly, however, these research streams and the few positivistic studies which have dealt specifically with meaning (e.g., Gutman and Reynolds 1986) leave one with the impression of "seven blind men exploring an unfamiliar elephant" (Levy 1986, p.275).

By drawing on research from both traditional information processing and postpositivist traditions, a two-stage process of meaning construction has been developed and propositions addressing the role of goals and knowledge in the construction of meaning have been offered. Because of different researcher orientations, it should not be surprising that only certain aspects of consumers processes have been highlighted in previous research; much like looking at different sides of the same coin. By integrating the meaning and higher-order goals streams of research characteristic of postpositivistic research (e.g., Mick 1986; Mick and Buhl 1992) and the lower-order goals and motivation research characteristic of information processing research (e.g., Huffman and Houston 1993; MacInnis et al. 1991) a richer explanation of consumer responses to ads results.

By identifying the meanings ascribed to ads and the truth inherent in those meanings, the advertising researcher has the ability to delineate multiple responses to ads in terms of various consumer goals and knowledge structures. Free-response recording as utilized in Wright (1973) and the categorization and interpretation methods used by postpositivistic researchers may bring to light ascribed meanings which impact advertising effectiveness and cannot be construed from the global indicators often relied upon. Further, identification of culturally shared meanings of the audience would provide advertisers with powerful tools to capture an audience's attention (Scott 1994). However, advertisers must be mindful of the idiosyncracies of an ad which will influence consumer responses (Wright 1986a).

Future research into the nature of meaning should explicitly attempt to investigate the multiple meanings which consumers ascribe to advertisements. Change in meaning over time has been addressed by relatively few researchers (Olson 1986; see e.g., Belk 1986; Friestad and Wright 1994; Levy 1986) and could have important implications for studying the effectiveness of advertising campaigns. Changes in meaning could also occur as a result of changes in an individual's concept of self, but explicit research in this area has been neglected with few exceptions (Olson 1986; see e.g., Gutman and Reynolds 1986; Mick and Buhl 1992).

Finally, future research should investigate how various levels of what has been termed in this paper truth in meaning will affect an individual's motivation to process, the level of comprehension and attention achieved and the route (i.e., central or peripheral) through which persuasion may occur. It may be fruitful to investigate situations in which multiple meanings are ascribed to an ad and how the correspondence between these meanings, goals and knowledge provides conflicting signals to the consumer. Exploration of situations in which the truth in meaning is extremely low may also prove interesting.


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