Special Session Summary Really-Low Involvement Consumer Learning

Michel Tuan Pham, Columbia University
[ to cite ]:
Michel Tuan Pham (1997) ,"Special Session Summary Really-Low Involvement Consumer Learning", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 121-122.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 121-122



Michel Tuan Pham, Columbia University

Thirty years have passed since Krugman (1965) urged us to study advertising effects from the perspective of low involvement learning. Most promotional messages indeed receive minimal levels of attention, active processing and elaboration. Yet, in the past three decades advertising effects have been examined almost exclusively under conditions of moderate to high involvement. Even in the "low involvement" condition of the typical persuasion experiment (e.g., Petty, Cacioppo and Schumann 1983), the exposure context and instructions call for substantial deliberate processing. Given that consumers generally do not want to process promotional messages, much is left to be learned as to how advertising operates under conditions of really low involvement. Obviously, a theoretical understanding of how communication works under such conditions also has important managerial implications.

Two reasons seem to explain the field’s lack of attention to really low involvement learning. The first reason lies in the fact that, historically, persuasion research in marketing and consumer behavior has been strongly influenced by work in social psychology. After all, concepts such as source credibility and fear appeal were originally introduced by social psychologists (Hovland, Janis, and Kelley 1953)Cthe so-called "Yale School" of communication. The notions of cognitive responses (Greenwald 1968) and elaboration likelihood (Petty and Cacioppo 1981) also emanated from social psychology. Given the type of issue that social psychology usually examines (e.g., racial prejudice), it should come as no surprise that consumer persuasion research that was inspired by social psychological theorizing has assumed moderately high audience involvement. The second reason is essentially methodological. It is simply difficult to produce really-low involvement in a lab. For instance, creating such conditions almost always raises issues of demand characteristics; it also requires delicate stimulus calibrations.

Departing from earlier research on consumer persuasion, the three papers presented in the session explore the processes through which consumers learn from exposure to marketing communications under conditions of minimal involvement. The researchers used different methodologies to create incidental exposure to various promotional stimuli (advertising claims, brand names, and fragments). A common thread among the papers is that they all involve measures that isolate the subtle memory processes underlying really-low involvement learning. A second commonality is that they all attempt to delineate the conditions under which such learning effects can be observed.

In the first paper, Holden and Vanhuele explored the possibility of dissociations between explicit and direct measures of memory (e.g., recognition) and implicit measures of memory (e.g., response facilitation in a lexical task). They argued that incidentally exposed information may result in learning effects that cannot be detected through direct measures of memory but can be uncovered with indirect measures. They also hypothesized that the sensory modality match between exposure and retrieval (auditory /auditory vs. auditory/visual) would have differential effect on implicit vs. explicit memory measures. These propositions were tested in an experiment that, in combination with an innovative probabilistic modeling approach, decomposes implicit and explicit memory effects (Vanhuele 1995). The findings replicated the "false fame" effect (Jacoby, Kelley, Brown and Jasenchko 1989), in that incidental exposure to unknown brand names caused these names to be mistaken for well-known brands. The experiment also yielded an intriguing pattern of results about the effect of sensory modality match on implicit vs. explicit memory measures. Contrary to the authors’ expectations, sensory modality match influenced the explicit measure without affecting the implicit measure.

In the second paper, Hawkins, Meyers-Levy, and Hoch elaborated on their earlier work on the "truth effect." Hawkins and Hoch (1992) had shown that (1) repetition of a statement increased people’s belief in the truth of this statement, (2) this effect was stronger under lower involvement (initial exposure with comprehension v. truth rating task), and (3) memory for the claims mediates the impact of repetition on belief. In the experiment presented at the session, Hawkins, Meyers-Levy, and Hoch examined whether similar effects are observed with exposure to related feature claims all of which suggest a common benefitCan issue that maps onto "variations on a theme" advertising (e.g., Schumann, Petty and Clemons 1990; Unava and Burnkrant 1991). They reported that exact repetition of a single claim does increase belief in that feature claim, but it does not increase belief in the general benefit implied by the feature claim. On the other hand, exposure to more related feature claims does not increase belief in a target feature claim, but it does increase belief in the general benefit. An explicit test of mediation confirms that belief in a general benefit can be increased by exact repetition of a specific feature claim (the truth effect) and related repetition of more feature claims (the inference effect).

In the third paper, Vanhuele and Pham discussed the communication effects of what they call advertising "fragments" (i.e., minimal messages often restricted to a brief mention of the brand name). These types of messages are increasingly pervasive in today’s communication landscape (e.g., event sponsorships, product placements in movies, brand logos on the Internet, tv program endorsements; see, e.g., Pham 1992). They presented an experiment which examined whether brief exposures to fragments carrying only brand names (e.g., "Marlboro") can result in instantiation of the brands’ core associations (e.g., masculinity). The experiment manipulated the number of exposures to the fragments and whether attention to these fragments was focal or nonfocal. Instantiation of the core brand association was assessed through a reaction-time methodology. The results suggest that even brief exposures to advertisingfragments carrying only brand names may increase the accessibility of core brand associations, thereby perhaps sustaining brand equity. The findings also indicate that this "extended reactivation" effect follows a threshold pattern. The effect appears only after a minimum number of repetitions; the required number of repetition being lower under focal attention than under nonfocal attention. Once the threshold has been reached, additional repetition does not appear to further increase the effect.

The discussion was lead by Terence Shimp, who is well known for his research on classical conditioning (e.g., Shimp, Stuart, and Engle 1991)Canother paradigm of low involvement learning. He agreed with Holden and Vanhuele’s thesis that the "false-fame" effect is an interesting phenomenon to study in order to understand the role of implicit memory in consumer behavior. He pointed out that the stimuli used in the Holden and Vanhuele studyClargely meaningless multisyllabic pharmaceutical namesCmaximized the chances for confusion. One could therefore wonder whether a false-fame effect would also have been uncovered, had simpler and more concrete brand names (e.g., soap names such as Irish Spring) been used. It would therefore be useful to replicate the findings with simpler and more meaningful brand names. He also noted that the Holden and Vanhuele study reinforced the fact that multiple marketing communication methods are mutually reinforcingCa point also raised by Vanhuele and Pham. Regarding Hawkins et al.’s study, Shimp stressed the importance of the finding that beliefs in general brand benefits is augmented with multiple repetitions of related (rather than exact) feature claims. This results represents an important extension of Unava and Sirdeshmukh’s (1994) research on the encoding variability hypothesis, which demonstrated that memory for brand messages increases when multiple pathways are created via (1) use of multiple media, or (2) variation of the advertising message. With respect to Vanhuele and Pham’s paper, Shimp remarked that the concept of "fragments" fits nicely with the integrated marketing notion of contacts. He added that the increasing usage of "blib-type" forms of communication justifies serious academic research on the topic of advertising fragments. Shimp suggested that the Vanhuele and Pham results were interesting, both from a practitioners’ viewpoint and for implicit memory theory. However, he stressed that in this study, there was an actual match between the learning context and the testing context (both were conducted using individual computers). Citing the encoding specificity hypothesis, he suggested that the match between learning and "retrieval" contexts may have improved subjects’ implicit memory performance. Given that in the real world fragments are often processed in rather unique environments, it may be useful to manipulate the match between learning and testing contexts.

The discussion was then opened to the general audience. A lively exchange followed, as numerous questions were asked and very helpful suggestions were offered by the audience. For instance, one person wondered how the Vanhuele and Pham results would vary depending on whether the brand is very well-known or less familiar. Another raised the issue of statistical error in studies of false fame effects, where subjects are tested on dozens of stimuli. Based on the session’s attendance and the audience’s high involvement, there appears to be much interest in the issue of really-low involvement consumer learning. Interested readers are strongly invited to contact the authors directly.


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