Areading@ Advertising and Awriting@ Identity

Susan Auty, Lancaster University Management School
Richard Elliott, Exeter University
ABSTRACT - Various studies have looked at self-monitoring as a mediator in the persuasion of message appeals, but there has been little attempt to disaggregate the 'reading’ and 'writing’ factors in this scale in order to explore the different approaches of high and low self monitors to fashion brands. In this study of 635 young men and women self-reported ownership of the main fashion brand is compared to the main store brand and perceptions of both are analysed according to personality factors based on completion of a modified self-monitoring scale. The paper concludes that while there are no differences in decoding meanings between high and low self monitors (the 'reading’ skill is cognitive rather than psychological), high self monitors have a propensity to conform to the identity depicted in ads and therefore enlist their 'writing’ skills to modify their self-presentation by buying the branded product. People with high sensitivity to fashion codes but low motivation to conform appear to need ther 'reading’ skills to avoid unwanted associations.
[ to cite ]:
Susan Auty and Richard Elliott (1999) ,"Areading@ Advertising and Awriting@ Identity", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 439-444.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 439-444


Susan Auty, Lancaster University Management School

Richard Elliott, Exeter University


Various studies have looked at self-monitoring as a mediator in the persuasion of message appeals, but there has been little attempt to disaggregate the 'reading’ and 'writing’ factors in this scale in order to explore the different approaches of high and low self monitors to fashion brands. In this study of 635 young men and women self-reported ownership of the main fashion brand is compared to the main store brand and perceptions of both are analysed according to personality factors based on completion of a modified self-monitoring scale. The paper concludes that while there are no differences in decoding meanings between high and low self monitors (the 'reading’ skill is cognitive rather than psychological), high self monitors have a propensity to conform to the identity depicted in ads and therefore enlist their 'writing’ skills to modify their self-presentation by buying the branded product. People with high sensitivity to fashion codes but low motivation to conform appear to need ther 'reading’ skills to avoid unwanted associations.


Sociological studies have moved away from Bourdieu’s (1984) depiction of consumption behaviour as "a systematic expression of a particular class of existence" to Bauman’s (1988) portrayal of product choice as an individual’s means of constructing and expressing a self-identity: "People define themselves through the messages they transmit to others by the goods and practices they possess and display" (Warde 1997). As society converges owing to less formal consumption codes, people become, on the one hand, less overtly aligned to a social group and, on the other, more likely to "create imagined communities, seeking to compensate for the lack of a sense of belonging associated with the excessive individualism of the modern condition" (Warde 1997). There is a tendency towards the creation of 'neo-tribes’, groupings to which people are intensely, if temporarily, attached by shared self-images. Thompson and Haytko (1997) go further and indicate that fashion discourse is a means of comprehending a confusingly dynamic world: "To speak of fashion is then to employ a system of cultural discourses for making sense of the complexities of self-identity, social relationships, and the rapidly changing diffusion of styles, images, and meanings that pervade consumer culture."

A commodity such as blue jeans is emblematic of this modern condition: jeans are almost universally worn, and are not immediately differentiable except by brand markings, which in turn become the only means by which people can express their sense of belonging (or alternatively their individuality by a refusal to conform with the prevailing fashion code). "With jeans as well as cars, we are now buying into so much more than the object or artefact. We are buying into the imagery that surrounds the object. . . . Our personal identity is created out of elements created by others and marketed aggressively and seductively." (Tomlinson 1990). He cites the example of the UK advertising war over jeans in the early 1980s, when the agency Bartle, Bogle, Hegarty relaunched 501s showing a young man stripping down to his boxer shorts in a 1950s launderette. The message so dramatically conveyed in that advertising was that 501s were the emblem of the James Dean generation: cool, rebellious and powerful. Levi’s ,10m investment paid off with an eight-fold sales increase and continued investment in imaginative advertising on the same theme has kept it in the dominant position in the UK ever since. Other brands have attempted to capture the high ground, but none has succeeded in reflecting and, more important, adapting the identity sought by the market in the same way that Levi’s has.

Self Monitoring

Psychological studies have identified self-monitoring as a means by which individuals align themselves (or not) to whichever social group has temporarily become the desired community. High self monitors regulate their self-presentation according to the requirements of the immediate situation or reference group. In a very real sense, they 'write’ their identity according to their 'reading’ of the social codes. The concept of self-monitoring (Snyder 1974) has been examined by marketing theorists as a means of distinguishing personality types that may have a bearing on message persuasion and consumption choice. Various studies have demonstrated the statistical significance of self-monitoring as a mediator in the persuasion of message appeals (Celuch and Slama 1995; Lammers 1991; Lavine and Snyder 1996; Snyder and DeBono 1985), but there has been little attempt to measure the meanings attached to products by different personality types 'reading’ advertisements from a different psychological perspective. The question arises, dolow SMs have a different reading of that image, or are they simply content to 'write’ a different image.

The theory behind the self-monitoring construct has been the subject of a great deal of discussion and empirical research since Snyder first formulated it in 1974. The debate has centred largely on the validity of the underlying construct, given the high correlation of the component factors with other constructs, such as Extraversion, and the low inter-item correlation within both the 25 item scale and the 18 item scale (Briggs and Cheek 1988), which was devised by Snyder and Gangestad (1986) to answer the original criticism.

After extensive analysis of Snyder’s 25 item scale, Lennox and Wolfe (1984) conclude that "two characteristics could fully represent self-monitoring: Ability to modify self-presentation, and sensitivity to the expressive behavior of others." The former is an identity 'writing’ skill and the latter a social code 'reading’ skill. They devised the Concern for Appropriateness Scale to measure "those components that cannot be subsumed by the self-monitoring construct because of their relationships with social anxiety: cross-situational variability and attention to social comparison information." Concern for Appropriateness may be regarded as the motivation for 'writing’ a socially acceptable identity.

Indeed, much research has focused on the need for discrete subscales. Briggs and Cheek (1988) conclude that the Concern for Appropriateness Scale and the Ability to Modify Self-Presentation may serve to discriminate more usefully between the two interpersonal styles of high and low self-monitoring than the Public Performing and Other Directedness factors in Snyder’s (1986) revised scale are able to do. However, Furnham (1989), while casting doubt on the discriminant validity of self-monitoring, notes that other psychological constructs rarely account for more than a fifth of the variance, thereby concluding with the possibility that self monitoring "has captured some unique variance between other major dimensions previously ignored." It would appear that research into self-monitoring still needs to determine if there is such a construct, but we may conclude that if there is, it is likely to be most useful in identifying a predisposition and ability to shape one’s social identity either to conform to or remain independent from one’s reference groups and immediate social circumstances.

Research done recently on the notion of anti-choice, that is, the conscious avoidance of association with particular 'consumption constellations’ (Englis and Solomon 1997; Hogg 1998; Hogg and Michell 1997), suggests that the motivation to conform is a prerequisite to actual behaviour. The present research is concerned with both the motivation and ability to align oneself with one’s chosen identity group. It makes use of the three factors defined by Lennox and Wolfe (1984), the two comprising their revised scaleCAbility to Modify Self Presentation (MSP), a 'writing’ skill, and Sensitivity to the Expressive Behaviour of Others (SEB), a 'reading’ skillCplus their Concern for Appropriateness scale (CFA), measuring motivation to comply with social norms, to see if any of these (or all of these together) account for discriminating differences in behaviour. Given the origin of these factors in the SM scale, differences were hypothesised to be in the same direction for each of them, so that people high on the 'reading’ skill were expected to show similar perceptions to those high on the 'writing’ skill.


H1  High self-monitors will perceive a greater positive difference between branded and store brande jeans than low self monitors will

H2  Those with high CFA will perceive a greater positive difference between branded and store branded jeans than those with low CFA

H3  Those with high MSP will perceive a greater positive difference between branded and store branded jeans than those with low MSP

H4  Those with high SEB will perceive a greater positive difference between branded and store branded jeans than those with low SEB

H5  Those with high scores on any or all of these scales are more likely than low scorers to own Levi’s, the brand leader for jeans


This study was building on previous research (Auty and Elliott 1998) in which two samples of people aged between 18 and 34 were shown a photograph of either branded or unbranded jeans (branded ones with markings removed digitally) and asked to complete a set of 27 semantic differential descriptions, along with Snyder’s 18 item self monitoring scale and some demographic and usage questions. Analysis of a respondent’s perceptions of the differences between branded and unbranded jeans was not possible. Moreover, difficulties were encountered both with the language and the true-false scaling of the self monitoring questions. Younger people especially had difficulty with the language.

In this study, a sample of 635 men and women in the UK aged between 14 and 34 were presented with two sets of 14 semantic differential descriptions using a seven point scale. A logo from Levi’s (the brand leader with 24% of the market) and Marks & Spencer (a store brand comparable to JC Penney with 6% of the market) (Retail Business 1994) each appeared at the top of a set. The sets were presented in randomised order. In the first instance a pilot survey of 92 students at a UK university was conducted, but only minor changes were made, mostly to the demographic and usage questions. The pairs were selected from those showing significant differences between the branded and unbranded samples in the first survey. In accordance with good practice, several of the pairs were presented with the putative 'negative’ along the left hand side, although these were recoded at the analysis stage so that all 'positives’ were along the low end of the scale.

The survey included a 14 item self-monitoring scale. Given the importance of adolescents to the jeans market, any scale used must be meaningful to them to ensure reliable findings. Pledger (1992) has adapted the self monitoring scale for use with adolescents of below university age. She found the Lennox and Wolfe Scale to be "reliable for adults, but not for younger populations." Her new scale was found to be reliable with young adolescents. Her version includes the two subscales of the Lennox and Wolfe revision, but it excludes CFA which Lennox and Wolfe acknowledge to be an important factor in the original self monitoring concept. Our version of the scale consisted of Pledger’s scale (minus one question believed to be overly repetitive) and four questions from the Lennox and Wolfe CFA scale. The four questions were chosen as 'high loaders’ on this scale. Pledger’s four point scale of Always, Usually, Sometimes, Never was adopted. Minor changes to the wording of the questions included removing 'usually’ from the statements in order to avoid the ambiguity of a double 'usually’.

The survey concluded with questions on demographics and usage. Respondents were asked how many pairs of jeans they owned, and which brand or store brand they owned most. In the event of a tie or ownership of only a single pair, the most recently purchased brand was elicited.

The Sample

The sample comprised an almost equal distribution of men and women, almost half of whom reside in the North of England with the rest evenly spread throughout the counry. Forty percent were between the ages of 18-24, with 30% below and 30% above. A 'polar extremes’ approach (Celuch and Slama 1995) was used to distinguish between high and low self monitors; the 45% who fell into the middle range of scores when the sample was split into 'thirds’ were included in the analysis but were no longer of primary interest (although their results were still considered when a linear conclusion has been drawn). This proportion was in line with the previous survey, where 50% fell into the middle group of self-monitors as measured by Snyder’s 18 point scale. The sample was most unrepresentative in its ownership of brands, with Levi’s claimed as the 'most owned’ brand by 46% of the sample. Marks & Spencer (M&S), in contrast, was exactly as expected, with 6.3%. This finding in itself is interesting, in that respondents might have wished to align themselves with the brand leader as a means of establishing a recognisable self-identity for the interviewer. The self-reported nature of the ownership, however, may be a limitation to this study.

After recoding the variables so that 'positives’ were all at the low end of the scale, new variables were calculated at the analysis stage. The difference between a respondent’s perception of Levi’s and M&S variables which could be judged as positive (thus excluding, for example, 'American’, 'expensive’) formed a new variable (lmdif). The same procedure was used again selecting only image-related variables (classy, desirable, stylish, convey an image, trendy=lmimdif).

'Reading’ and 'Writing’ Factors

Self monitoring (SM) scores were broken down into three separate scores for Concern for Appropriateness (CFA), Ability to Modify Self-Presentation (MSP) and Sensitivity to the Expressive Behaviour of Others (SEB). Factor analysis using the Oblimin rotation on SPSS confirmed the validity of this split (see Table 1), indicating moreover that this further revision of the scale possesses discriminant validity. Construct validity may also be claimed because, apart from SM6, the factors are clearly addressing the 'reading’ and 'writing’ capabilities and the predisposition to conform that they were intended to do. Only the statement 'When I am with a group of people, I can change the way I act if I think I should’ loads on more than one factor, although this loads above 0.5 on the MSP factor and below that on the CFA. Indeed, intuitively it makes sense for this item to fall into both categories. When using these subscales as scales in their own right, there is a slight but expected loss of reliability in terms of Cronbach’s alpha, from .79 for the complete scale to .73, .74 and .76 for CFA, MSP and SEB respectively. These figures compare favourably with those of the Lennox and Wolfe (1984) revised scale, where the alphas ranged from .70 to .77. For crosstabulations, respondents were divided into three groups of Low, Medium and High scorers for each of the personality score variables.




H1 is supported: high self monitors are more likely to perceive a large positive difference between Levi’s and M&S, the store brand. When only the image-related variables are considered, the difference between high and low self monitors is slightly more pronounced between the two groups. One-way analysis of variance using self-monitoring as the 'grouping’ variable indicates significant differences between the means of the low and high self-monitoring groups:

Variables                                      F-ratio              Significance

'Positive’Variables*                       6.78                      .001

Mean Difference of Low SM      1.43

Mean Difference of High SM     2.05

   *including quality, cut, fit, desirable and stylish

Image Variables**                         8.71                      .000

Mean Difference of Low SM       2.23

Mean Difference of High SM      2.94

  **including classy, conveys image, trendy, desirable, stylish

Closer inspection of the individual variables reveals that perception of Levi’s is significantly more positive for high self-monitors than low self monitors with regard to many of the image variables, but not the utilitarian ones. In the case of M&S, high self-monitors are more negative than low SMs only with regard to desirability, style and quality. Table 2 shows the magnitude of these differences between the two self-monitoring groups.

H2 is similarly supported. Concern for appropriateness (a 'motivation’ variable) appears to be an important discriminator with regard to positive perceptions of Levi’s and negative perceptions of M&S:

Variables                                          F-ratio          Significance

'Positive’Variables*                          12.90              .000

Mean Difference of Low CFA          1.39

Mean Difference of High CFA        2.20

  *including quality, cut, fit, desirable and stylish

Image Variables**                           13.66             .000

Mean Difference of Low CFA          2.27

Mean Difference of High CFA          3.11

  **including classy, conveys image, trendy, desirable, stylish

Interestingly, when individual variables are examined, there are more negative responses to M&S in the high CFA group than were seen in high SMs (see Table 3). Along with the expected differences in the image-related attributes, concern for appropriateness counterintuitively leads people to perceive positive differences in the fit of the branded jeans (a functional attribute) and negative differences in the quality of store branded jeans (an attribute not directly related to image)Ca 'horns’ as well as 'halo’ effectCwhich ties in with the notion of 'avoidance’ and 'approach’ consumption (Englis and Solomon 1997).

H3 is also supported, although differences are not as pronounced for those showing the ability to modify self-presentation (the 'writing’ variable) as they are among those with a concern for appropriateness:

Variables                                              F-ratio          Significance

'Positive’Variables*                              6.63                  .001

Mean Difference of Low MSP              1.45

Mean Difference of High MSP              2.02

   *including quality, cut, fit, desirable and stylish

Image Variables**                                8.59                  .000

Mean Difference of Low MSP             2.28

Mean Difference of High MSP            2.93

   **including classy, conveys image, trendy, desirable, stylish

Interesting differences emerge at the individual level: there are very few significant differences with regard to Levi’s, but negative perceptions of M&S are relatively high for those with high MSP (see Table 4). Again, perception of quality is affected, and avoidance consumption may be surmised.

H4 is not supported. Sensitivity to the Expressive Behaviour of Others (the 'reading’ variable) appears to have no bearing on positive or negative perceptions of jeans. While common sense supports the accuracy of this finding, SEB is an important component of the SM scale and as such it was expected to produce results in the same direction as the other factors.

Do perceptual differences between the self monitoring groups result in different purchase behaviour? Crosstabulations between the self monitoring variables and 'most owned’ brand (restricted for analysis to those stating either Levi’s or M&S) supports the significance of H5 with regard to MSP and CFA, but not SEB.

Factors                          MSP               CFA                 SEB

                                    (p<.000)          (p<.020)          (p<.233)

High Scoring Levi’s          96                  94                      93

Owners (%)

Low Scoring Levi’s         77                   83                     88

Owners (%)

Thus it may be that both groups are decoding the same meanings from advertisements and society, but those who exhibit both a propensity to conform and the skill to 'write’ their own images are more likely to buy the highly advertised fashion brand than those lacking in the desire or skill. Indeed, of those who 'own M&S jeans most’, 63% had a mean score for MSP and CFA in the lowest third.








Code 'Reading’ and Self Monitoring

The scale used in our study successfully discriminates self-monitoring (SM) tendencies and resulting differences in perceptions of the brand leader brand and a store brand of jeans. However, Concern for Appropriateness (CFA) and Ability to Modify Self-Presentation (MSP) are the only two operative factors in SM both in terms of correlations with perceptions and purchase behaviour. Sensitivity to the Expressive Behaviour of Others (SEB) does not discriminate usefully among perceptions or behaviour by different levels. Pledger’s findings suggest that SEB increases over the course of adolescence while MSP remains high throughout. Thus the code 'reading’ skill appears to vary with cognitive maturity whereas the 'writing’ skill does not. Our findings would suggest that having one capability or another for interpreting other people’s codes does not influence one’s desire to conform in social situations: it is simply a cognitive ability and not related to overt behaviour. Throughout the socialisation process young people are exposed to heavy 'doses’ of persuasive communications, many of which carry information on 'how to be cool’. Knowledge about these advertisements is important to young people as it helps them joinin social interactions with their peer group. It also helps them to form negative associations in order to avoid alignment with unwanted images ('naff’ in the UK, 'dorky’ or 'dweeby’ in the US).

O’Donohoe (1993) reports that advertisements were seen by her respondents as being facilitators to conversation. Her informants desperately tried to 'work out’ an ad’s meaning before it came up in conversation. Without a meaningful interpretation of an ad the individual finds him/herself in a weakened position to those who have been able to make sense from the text, as advertisements become as Willis (1990) calls them: "tokens in young people’s system of social exchange." Advertisements are an integral and vital part of the popular culture of young people (Fowles 1996) and although ads attempt to link style to brands, this may be achieved only at the level of belief rather than action: "Style makes statements, yet has no convictions" (Ewen 1988). Thus we can view the ability to read codes as a 'survival skill’ for young people, giving them at least some element of 'symbolic capital’ (Bourdieu 1984).

Perhaps, as McCracken and Roth (1989) suggest, "users of the code are. . . not always full participants in the process of communication." They attribute this unevenness to the distribution of the code, but it may well simply be that not all 'readers’ of the code wish to be 'writers’ and not all 'writers’ are necessarily good 'readers’. One may try to fit in and not be very good at it; it is the 'writing’ capability together with the predisposition to conform that determines the extent to which one is likely to be influenced by and try to emulate different 'looks’. One may 'understand’ the Levi’s code, but without the desire to look like a 'Levi’s person’ and the capability to modify particular aspects of self-presentation, one will be less likely to buy a pair of Levi’s. The avoidance of a particular brand involves the "desire to minimize potential consumption choices which could have [negative] symbolic or sociocultural associations" (Hogg 1998). One must therefore question the usefulness of the 'reading’ factor (SEB) in predicting consumption behaviour. It may, however, be important to measure this 'reading’ capability in order to determine how successful a person is likely to be in meeting the expectations of others: "Because of its cultural basis, this form of self-expression is predicated on the consumer’s ability to decode a culture’s Zeitgeist correctly" (Englis and Solomon, 1997).

Fashion and Anti-Choice

Simon-Miller (1985) discusses the difference between a 'pure fashion act’, which is "likely to be a highly individualising one" and a 'fashionable act’, which "stems from a dual desire: to stand apart from the crowd, but in a way that conforms to the higher authority of one or several designers." She then contrasts these with 'fashionable clothing’, which is "most often socially normative." Those who "opt for the compromise solution of fashionable clothing are motivated to seek difference, but a socially acceptable, and therefore limited difference." In this context, one can see that buying a pair of Levi’s (fashionable clothing) allows one to fit in while also adopting the image of the advertising, that of rebellious, cool, powerful, etc.

Snyder’s Self Monitoring scale may, as Furnham (1989) suggests, capture this compromise in its construct. But perhaps the internal predispositions which lead people to choose and act upon a self identity are too contradictory to be measured on any personality scale with validity. Once again, behaviour turns out not to follow a neat and logical pattern that is susceptible to linear modelling. The research makes it clear, however, that people do 'read’ social meanings into advertised fashion brands, and these readings do not vary greatly with sensitivity to message cues. Whether people act upon these readings will dpend both on their motivation and their ability to construct a socially acceptable image.

Anti-choice is a powerful fashion statement in its own right, and in order to be a genuine rebel (as opposed to a 'fashionable’ one), it is necessary to be acutely perceptive of fashion codes. Marketers should therefore bear in mind that with image-sensitive products, the skill of brand building lies in providing images with enough latitude to allow code readers to write their own identity within the definition of the brand. Many different identity groups can thus be accommodated by the brand. Hence the success of Levi’s and of Nike’s 'Just Do It’.


The fact that ownership was self-reported might be seen as a weakness of the study, given the likely 'overclaiming’ of Levi’s ownership. However, since we were trying to determine if factors such as concern for appropriateness affected perceptions and ownership of jeans, the effect of these factors should have been exaggerated, not minimised, among the overclaimers.

Further Research

Measures of personality factors that influence behaviour clearly need further research, since no one measure will account for the variance of a group’s behaviour, or even an individual’s. It may be that SEB correlates negatively with materialism, in that individuals high on SEB are primarily interested in other people rather than commodities and thus reject the connection between 'having’ and 'being’ (Fromm 1978). This research should be tested on actual consumption behaviour rather than hypothetical. It would be interesting to replicate parts of the current study using only first-time purchasers of Levi’s as a sample. An additional measure of interest might be Bearden’s Susceptibility to Interpersonal Influence (1989), which focuses on the acceptability of product choice to immediate reference groups. It is a more specific version of the CFA scale, and as such may enable us to identify the triggers of conforming consumption and its converse, avoidance consumption, more accurately.


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