Exploring Cross-Cultural Differences in Cognitive Responding to Ads

Sharon Shavitt, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Michelle R. Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
?Rose Mei Len Yuan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
ABSTRACT - This study explored differences in cognitive response content across two cultures and the role of these responses in predicting advertising effectiveness. In laboratory experiments, subjects from the United States (an individualist culture) and Taiwan (a collectivist culture) listed thoughts toward ads and then evaluated the ads on a series of attitude scales. Thought content was coded into categories reflecting product-oriented or ad-related cognitions. It was found that the types of thoughts that were listed and those that were the most relevant for predicting attitudes varied with cultural orientation. Whereas the U.S. subjects focused more on product-related claims in the ads, Taiwanese subjects were more persuaded by their "ad evaluation" thoughts about the appropriateness of the ads than by their product thoughts. These findings suggest that persuasion may be mediated by different cognitive processes across cultures. In addition, substantial correlations between thoughts and attitudes in both cultures supported the validity of using cognitive response methods cross-culturally.
[ to cite ]:
Sharon Shavitt, Michelle R. Nelson, and ?Rose Mei Len Yuan (1997) ,"Exploring Cross-Cultural Differences in Cognitive Responding to Ads", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 245-250.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 245-250

EXPLORING CROSS-CULTURAL DIFFERENCES IN COGNITIVE RESPONDING TO ADS

Sharon Shavitt, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Michelle R. Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

?Rose Mei Len Yuan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

ABSTRACT -

This study explored differences in cognitive response content across two cultures and the role of these responses in predicting advertising effectiveness. In laboratory experiments, subjects from the United States (an individualist culture) and Taiwan (a collectivist culture) listed thoughts toward ads and then evaluated the ads on a series of attitude scales. Thought content was coded into categories reflecting product-oriented or ad-related cognitions. It was found that the types of thoughts that were listed and those that were the most relevant for predicting attitudes varied with cultural orientation. Whereas the U.S. subjects focused more on product-related claims in the ads, Taiwanese subjects were more persuaded by their "ad evaluation" thoughts about the appropriateness of the ads than by their product thoughts. These findings suggest that persuasion may be mediated by different cognitive processes across cultures. In addition, substantial correlations between thoughts and attitudes in both cultures supported the validity of using cognitive response methods cross-culturally.

INTRODUCTION

"...in a time when people consume images, maybe we should... begin figuring out what people do with advertisingChow they respond to it, how they use it, how they develop relationships with brands based on their experience with it."

(Advertising Age, April 18, 1994, Banerjee, p. 23).

This study builds on a program of cognitive response research designed to better predict message effectiveness by understanding what people do with advertising (e.g., Nelson, Shavitt, Schennum and Barkmeier, in press; Shavitt 1990; Shavitt and Brock 1986, 1990). Here, we expand that focus to explore ad processing in cross-cultural contexts that differ in terms of a fundamental value orientation: individualism vs. collectivism (Hofstede, 1980, 1983, 1991; Triandis, 1989, 1990, 1994, 1995). This construct has received increased attention in recent years and offers a valuable theoretical approach to examining cultural differences.

In individualist cultures, individuals give priority to personal goals over those of the group and value an independent self, whereas in collectivist cultures, individuals focus on the needs of the group and value an interdependent self (Triandis 1994). These differences in cultural orientations hold crucial implications for cognitions and attitudes (Triandis 1989). For example, individualists tend to focus on self-direction and/or on stimulation and hedonism (Schwartz 1994). However, collectivists are more concerned with social appropriateness and building trust within relationships than are individualists (Triandis 1989).

Our research adopts this construct as a theoretical base for understanding differences in ad processing and persuasion between two cultures: the United States and Taiwan. Based on Hofstede’s study of individualism across 40 countries (Hofstede 1980), the United States is considered an individualist culture with the highest mean score of 91 and Taiwan is considered a collectivist culture with a mean score of only 17 (note: overall mean for the 40 countries was 51).

Previous advertising research in individualist and collectivist cultures by Han and Shavitt (1994) has shown that collectivists (in this case, Koreans) generally respond more favorably to ads that appeal to collectivist concerns, whereas individualists (Americans) prefer ads that appeal to individualist concerns. This research conforms to the notion that one’s underlying cultural values should help to predict one’s attitudinal responses. In another study, Miracle, Taylor, and Wilson (1995) compared the effectiveness of television commercials with varying levels of information content in the United States and in Korea. Their results indicated that Korean subjects tend to respond more favorably to low-information advertisements than do United States subjects.

Whereas the extent to which individuals prefer certain types of advertisements is certainly important information for advertising strategists, it is the process by which individuals evaluate those ads that may offer important psychological insights for predicting advertising effectiveness. In other words, what are individuals thinking while viewing the adsCand which of those thoughts are most helpful in predicting persuasion?

Consumer Processing of Ads

Although numerous advertising studies in industry (e.g., Leavitt, Waddell, and Wells 1970; McDonald 1993) and academia (e.g., Batra and Ray 1983; Chattopadhyay and Alba 1988; Lutz and MacKenzie 1982; Nelson, et al. in press; Shavitt 1990; Shavitt and Brock 1986, 1990) have examined the persuasion process via cognitive response measures, virtually all of these studies have been conducted with individuals from North America (but see Blackston, Bunten, and Chadwick 1993 for a noteworthy excepton). Our research seeks to discern whether cultural differences will affect cognitive responding and how these responses will relate to persuasion.

Indeed, as Miracle (1987) has suggested, information-processing differences may exist between cultures. In his observation of Japanese consumers’ responses to television commercials, Miracle questioned the appropriateness of applying the traditional Western-based "learn-feel-do" (cognitive, affective, conative) hierarchy of effects model (Lavidge and Steiner 1961) to all individuals. Instead, he suggested that a "feel-do-learn" sequence (see Vaughn 1980) may operate in some cultural contexts.

The feel-do-learn model of advertising processing contrasts with the learn-feel-do model in that it assumes the first goal is to "make friends with the target audience, prove that you understand their feelings and show that you are nice" rather than to show "how you or your product is different or why your product is best" (Miracle 1987, p. R75), which is the goal assumed by traditional models. For instance, in Japanese advertisements, the name of the particular brand or company is often not known until almost the end of the commercial (Miracle 1987).

In this way, the company seeks first to build trust or create a relationship with the consumer and then to sell them the product. "Japanese consumers...may select a brand when they feel familiar with, or can relate to, the brand or advertiser in a way that assures them that they can depend on the brand or advertising" (Miracle 1987, p. R76). This dependency is reflective of the emphasis on ingroup relationships and consensus-seeking prevalent in collectivist cultures such as Japan.

In contrast, consumers from individualist cultures may generally "tend to process information about a product or company and use it to make up their minds..." (Miracle 1987, p. R76). This emphasis helps individualists to make their own independent judgments based on cognitive processing of product attributes.

These proposed processing differences suggest that different types of thoughts might be generated to an ad by members of individualist versus collectivist cultures and that these thoughts might differ in their importance in the persuasion process. For example, thoughts related to the product (e.g., "will this detergent get my clothes brighter?") might be more prevalent and more predictive of attitudes for individualists, whereas thoughts related to elements of the ad itself (e.g., "The spokesperson seems trustworthy") might be more common and more predictive of attitudes for collectivists.

Other researchers have examined cultural differences between individualists and collectivists in the communication process in general. Triandis (1994) suggests that whereas collectivists emphasize process ("what is said, done, and displayed," p. 190), individualists focus on goals ("what we are supposed to get done," p. 190). Similarly, Gudykunst (1983) advises that collectivists pay more attention to context (e.g., emotional expressions and the "whole picture") than individualists do when they communicate (see also Hall, 1976, 1987). These differences are consistent with the proposed emphasis on the advertiser and advertisement itself for collectivist consumers in a feel-do-learn model and the emphasis on the product for individualist consumers in a learn-feel-do processing model.

Our study set out to examine differences in cognitive responses to explore (and compare) the processes by which individuals across cultures respond to persuasive communications. We wanted to discern whether different types of cognitive responses are more or less prevalent and predictive of brand attitudes in different culturesCand whether these differences are consistent with cross-cultural theories.

Cognitive Response Research

Listed-thought measures of cognitive response reflect the by-products of information-processing activityCthe reactions that one generats in the course of receiving an ad or other persuasive message, relating it to prior knowledge, and evaluating it (Petty, Ostrom and Brock 1981). The content of these thoughts typically provides a rich source of information about idiosyncratic responses to messages. Hence, listed-thought measures have become a commonly used method for determining individuals’ reactions to advertisements (e.g., Batra and Ray 1986; Chattopadhyay and Alba 1988; Leavitt, Waddell, and Wells 1970; Lutz and MacKenzie 1982).

Cognitive response researchers (e.g., Petty, et al. 1981; Shavitt and Brock 1986, 1990) have suggested that the cognitive responses elicited by a persuasive message contribute strongly to message effectiveness because such responses reflect enduring and personally relevant thought processes. Several different content-coding schemes for cognitive responses have been developed to investigate the degree to which different types of thoughts predict attitudes. For example, studies have shown that product-related cognitions (i.e., those that focus on the performance of the product or restate the selling idea) tend to be more persuasive than execution-related thoughts (i.e., those that refer to the ad’s layout or creative strategy) (Lutz and MacKenzie 1982; Swasy, Rethans, and Marks 1984). However, studies examining these types of thoughts were conducted only on subjects from the United States.

Based on the cultural differences outlined previously, we might expect that execution-related thoughts might be more prevalent and persuasive for members of collectivist cultures and product-related thoughts might be more prevalent and persuasive for members of individualist cultures.

METHOD

Subjects and Design

Subjects were comprised of university students from Taiwan and the United States. The 107 Taiwanese participants were from Ming Chi Technical Institute and from a Taiwanese orientation session for students planning to attend the University of Illinois. The 150 American participants were from the University of Illinois. American participants received extra credit in an introductory advertising course in exchange for participation and Taiwanese participants were given small gifts. All Taiwanese data were utilized for the analyses; however, 14 of the 150 subjects attending the University of Illinois were not included in the final analyses because they were not Americans.

We chose products relevant to the consumption habits of our student samples (washing powder, coffee, and greeting cards). Subjects in each culture were assigned randomly to one of six groups that differed in terms of target product and ad headline orientation (individualist vs. collectivist). Thus, product and ad orientation were between-subjects factors in the design [After responding to the first ad, subjects also viewed the second ad for the same product with a contrasting ad orientation and then reported their ad preferences. However, effects of ad order complicated interpretation of these responses, and thus the within-subject analyses are not reported in this paper. All data presented are based only on the first ad subjects saw and their thoughts and attitudes towards it.].

Advertising Stimuli

To avoid any effects of prior brand attitudes, the ads employed were for fictitious brands of the products. Ads contained only a headline and simple product visuals, so as to eliminate any bias created by more elaborate executions (i.e., ads did not contain any pictures of people or other elements suggesting a cultural context). This simple arrangement also helped to control and unify the type of advertising content used across products and to ease the back-translation process. Subjects were informed that the ads were considered "roughs" and were not in finished form.

Ad headlines were manipulated to reflect either an individualist (e.g., "Use Brighty, Your Clothes Will Be Bright and Clean") or a collectivist (e.g., "Use Brighty, Your Family’s Clothes Will Be Bright and Clean") claim. In most cases, only a single word was changed to vary the claim.

Using the back-translation scheme proposed by Miracle (1988), the hadlines were first written in English and then translated into Chinese (the language used in Taiwan) by a bilingual speaker. A second bilingual speaker then independently translated the new Chinese version of the headlines back into English. The two versions were matched to ensure that the middle versions (in Chinese) were equivalent to the source headlines (original English version).

Procedure and Dependent Measures

In both countries, subjects participated in groups of approximately 30 in classroom settings. Subjects were given the experimental materials and were told they were participating in an advertising research study. After viewing the target ad, subjects read standard thought-listing instructions (Cacioppo and Petty 1981) and were given approximately three minutes to list their thoughts on forms on which six boxes were printed. Next, subjects were asked to rate each of those thoughts according to whether the thought was favorable, unfavorable, or neutral toward the product, on a scale from -2 (very unfavorable) to +2 (very favorable). Subjects then rated their attitudes toward the advertised product they had seen using three semantic differential scales anchored by -4 to +4 (good-bad, desirable-undesirable, and satisfactory-unsatisfactory), and completed some additional measures.

TABLE 1

ADVERTISING HEADLINES

Thought Coding

In order to assess the types of thoughts listed by subjects, native-speaking judges read through all of the responses written by members of their culture to look for meaningful distinguishing categories. After examining the thoughts, it became apparent that the majority of the thoughts listed by members of both cultures were concerned with the advertisement itself (e.g., "the wording of the headline seemed enticing") or feelings evoked by the ad. The second most common category of thoughts in both cultures focused on the product or its attributes (e.g., "should possess basic cleaning power"). These thought categories fit well with theoretical assumptions regarding differing persuasion processes in individualist versus collectivist cultures.

Thus, a coding scheme was developed that focused specifically on relevance of the thoughts to the product or to the ad itself. The product assertion (PA) category included comments that focused on the product and its desirability, experience of using/trying/buying, features of products, packaging comments, and ad claims about the product. The aesthetic experience/evaluation (AE) category included thoughts about the ad itself and how it looks or what feelings it evokes. These thoughts often concerned evaluation of layout, background, font and ad aesthetics, such as "fun," "boring," and "refined."

For the American subjects, coding was performed independently by two trained judges who were blind to the product and the orientation of the ad. They agreed on 92% of their classifications. Disagreements were resolved by a third judge. For the Taiwanese subjects, coding was performed independently by two trained native Chinese speakers from Taiwan (who also spoke English). Again, they were blind to the experimental condition. They agreed on 96% of their classifications. Disagreements were resolved by discussing and negotiating until they came to a consensus.

RESULTS

Attitude toward the Brand

Cronbach’s coefficient alpha levels for the set of three semantic differentials were .94 for the American subjects and .88 for the Taiwanese subjects. Thus, ratings from the three items were averaged to obtain an attitude score for each individual.

To test effects of culture, ad orientation, and product on brand attitudes, a 2 2 x 3 ANOVA was performed. No significant effects relevant to the purposes of this study were found. [A Significant interaction of sample and product emerged (F(2,231)=4.02, p<.05), reflecting the fact that Americans' overall attitudes toward each product differed significantly (F(2,130)=4.79, p<.05), whereas Taiwanese subjects' attitudes did not.] It appeared that, across all subjects, attitudes were somewhat more favorable for products advertised with collectivist appeals (mean=.24) than with individualist appeals (mean=.01), but this difference was not significant (F(1, 231)=1.11, n.s.). The same trend emerged to a nonsignificant degree among both the Taiwanese subjects and the American subjects.

Based on previous findings (Han and Shavitt 1994), we expected that attitude ratings for individualist and collectivist ad orientations would reveal cultural differences. However, it appears that all subjects generally preferred collectivist headlines. Perhaps this was due to the greater likability of the collectivist headlines used in this study or to the "match" between the collectivist headline and the products selected.

Product Assertions vs. Aesthetic Evaluation Thoughts Listed

Thoughts were coded according to whether they focused on product assertions (PA) or on the aesthetic evaluation of the ad (AE). Overall, across both the Taiwanese and the American subjects, the proportion of listed thoughts that were coded as AE thoughts was much greater (70%) than the proportion of listed thoughts coded as PA (26%).

More importantly, differences emerged when examining the types of thoughts listed in each culture. Arcsine transformations were performed on the proportion of listed thoughts coded into each category, and the transformed data were submitted to a 2 x 2 x 3 ANOVA. Results revealed that Americans listed a significantly smaller proportion (68%) of AE thoughts than did the Taiwanese (77%) (F(1, 242=8.30, p<.01). Conversely, for PA thoughts, Americans listed a significantly greater proportion (29%) than did the Taiwanese (19%) (F(1, 242)=6.65, p<.05).

TABLE 2

CORRELATIONS OF MEAN FAVORABILITY RATINGS OF AD-EVALUATION (AE) THOUGHTS, PRODUCT-ASSERTION (PA) THOUGHTS, AND OVERALL (OV) THOUGHTS WITH BRAND ATTITUDE

In addition, significant culture X product interactions emerged for both the proportion of AE thoughts listed (F(2, 242)=4.10, p<.05) and the proportion of PA thoughts listed (F(2, 242)=3.14, p<.05), reflecting the fact that the overall differences observed as a function of culture were particularly strong for thoughts listed toward the coffee ads [Also, there was a significant main effect of product for the proportion of AE thoughts listed (F(2,242)=8.30, p<.01) and the proportion of PA thoughts listed (F(2,242)=21.12, p<.001), as wee as a significant ad orientation X product interaction for the proportion of AE thoughts listed (F(2,242)=4.16, p<.05) and the proportion of PA thoughts listed (F(2,242)=4.58, p<.05). However, as these effects did not involve cultural differences, they are not relevant to the issues addressed here.].

Although the cultural differences we observed are relatively small, they are significant and are consistent with our expectations about processing differences between members of collectivist and individualist cultures. The Taiwanese listed relatively more thoughts about the ad itself than did the Americans and the Americans focused more on the product than did the Taiwanese.

Predictiveness of AE and PA Thoughts

A mean thought favorability index was created for PA thoughts and another for AE thoughts by averaging the self-rated favorability (on the -2 to +2 scale) of each subject’s thoughts for that category. These indices and the overall thought favorability index were then correlated with subjects’ brand attitudes to determine the degree to which subjects’ listed thoughts predicted their attitudes. It should be noted that these analyses included only those subjects who actually listed thoughts in a given category.

Across all subjects, ad evaluation thoughts (r=.63) and product assertion thoughts (r=.58) proved to be just as predictive of brand attitudes as the overall thought favorability index (r=.68) (i.e., the mean favorability of all of an individual’s thoughts). It is also interesting to note that, in general, correlations between thoughts and attitudes were substantial across cultures (ranging from .37 to .74, except for PA thoughts for Taiwanese at .09, see Table 2). These results suggest that both the Taiwanese and Americans are adept at listing thoughts that are predictive of their attitudes, supporting the validity of employing cognitive response techniques cross-culturally. Although most cognitive response research has been done on western samples in the past, hese data offer some promise for the use of cognitive responses in gauging advertising effectiveness across cultures.

Within the Taiwanese sample, ad evaluation thoughts predicted attitudes somewhat better (r=.54) than product assertion thoughts (r=.37), p<.10. This was particularly the case for individualist ads, where ad evaluation thoughts were significantly more predictive of attitudes (r=.69) than were product-assertion thoughts (r=.09), p=.01.

These findings are consistent with our hypotheses and with the inverted hierarchy of effects (feel-do-learn) model offered by Miracle (1987), which suggests that members of collectivist cultures process ads by first evaluating the aesthetic quality of the ad in order to form a relationship with the advertiser before (trying the product or) considering the product’s attributes. In the present study, Taiwanese subjects were more focused on listing thoughts about the ad itself or discussing the feelings evoked from the adCand these thoughts turned out to be better predictors of their attitudes.

It should also be noted that the superior predictiveness of AE thoughts in the Taiwanese sample seemed to depend on the ad type (individualist vs. collectivist); differences were significant only for individualist ads. Perhaps this is because members of this collectivist culture did not relate well to the individualist claims and therefore did not process the ads past the "feel" stage. However, when viewing collectivist ads, they may have felt a greater personal connection ("feel") and went on to process the ads by considering product trial ("do") or the product’s attributes ("learn").

Within the American sample, there were few differences emerging for the predictiveness of these types of thoughts. The AE and the PA thoughts appeared equally predictive of attitudes. These findings hold true for both individualist and collectivist ad types.

When examining predictiveness of thoughts for attitudes across samples, we note that Americans’ listed thoughts tend to be more predictive of their attitudes (r=.72) than the Taiwaneses’ thoughts (r=.58) overall (p<.05). However, this tendency was particularly strong for PA thoughts, where Americans’ listed thoughts showed correlations of .65 and Taiwanese showed .37 (p<.05). It should be noted that this difference was not found for AE thoughts. These findings provide evidence for the tendencies of individuals in individualist cultures to focus on product-related claims and to process ads differently than members of collectivist cultures.

DISCUSSION

This study is perhaps the first attempt to experimentally examine cognitive responses to advertising across cultures. Given the extensive amount of translation work involved in constructing equivalent ads and questionnaires and in coding individuals’ thoughts, it is understandable why this is the case. However, with the globalization of the world economy and the increased usage of advertisements across cultures, understanding cross-cultural differences in persuasion processes is becoming increasingly important.

Results from this study suggested that the types of thoughts that were listed in response to test ads and those that were most predictive of persuasion (attitude ratings) showed some variation with cultural orientation. U.S. subjects listed relatively more thoughts related to the product than did the Taiwanese and these thoughts were more predictive of attitudes for U.S. than for Taiwanese subjects. Conversely, Taiwanese subjects listed relatively more thoughts related to the aesthetic qualities of the advertisements and were somewhat more persuaded by these thoughts than by their product thoughts. Although these differences in proportion of thoughts listed or predictive ability of thought types were not dramatic, they are largely consistent with expectations derived from cross-cultural theoryand are suggestive of general differences in ad processing.

Our findings fit well with Miracle’s (1987) assertions regarding a feel-do-learn processing model for Eastern cultures. The results are also consistent with cross-cultural differences in communication suggested by Gudykunst (1983) and Triandis (1984), who have argued that members of collectivist cultures pay more attention to contextual cues and to the process of communication. Whereas Americans focused more on product-related thoughts than did the Taiwanese, the Taiwanese seemed more concerned with the aesthetic nature of the ads than were the Americans.

These findings hold significance for advertising creatives designing messages in individualist and collectivist cultures. Advertising practitioners need to understand how cultural differences may influence the way individuals process ads and form attitudes. For example, if individuals process ads in a manner congruent with feel-do-learn models of persuasion, more emphasis should be placed upon the aesthetic qualities of the ads in order to "win over" the audience before making a sales pitch. However, if individuals process ads in a manner congruent with a learn-feel-do model, greater attention should be placed upon conveying product information in the message. Our research offers preliminary evidence for how culture might affect such processing styles.

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