Effects of Personality on Persuasive Appeals in Health Communication

Mohan Jyoti Dutta, University of Minnesota
Bastian Vanacker, University of Minnesota
ABSTRACT - Current research demonstrates a large gap between the budget allocated to public health campaigns and the effect achieved through the implementation of such campaigns. This paper argues that health communicators need to look at personality as a segmentation variable for audience selection and message designing purposes. It establishes the importance of two personality traits, idiocentrism and self-monitoring, in understanding persuasive communication issues in public health. Both idiocentrism and self-monitoring affect preference for appeal types. A linear trait interaction model is suggested in this paper.
[ to cite ]:
Mohan Jyoti Dutta and Bastian Vanacker (2000) ,"Effects of Personality on Persuasive Appeals in Health Communication", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 119-124.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Pages 119-124


Mohan Jyoti Dutta, University of Minnesota

Bastian Vanacker, University of Minnesota


Current research demonstrates a large gap between the budget allocated to public health campaigns and the effect achieved through the implementation of such campaigns. This paper argues that health communicators need to look at personality as a segmentation variable for audience selection and message designing purposes. It establishes the importance of two personality traits, idiocentrism and self-monitoring, in understanding persuasive communication issues in public health. Both idiocentrism and self-monitoring affect preference for appeal types. A linear trait interaction model is suggested in this paper.


The AIDS pandemic continues to expand despite community-level, national and international prevention and education efforts (Mann and Tarantola 1996). One reason for this expansion ma be that early AIDS campaigns tended to focus on rational rather than emotional arguments (Brinson and Brown 1997; Friemuth, Hammond, Edgar, & Monahan 1990). As Flora and Maibach (1990) argued, emotional AIDS messages may be more memorable and may create more of a desire to seek further information. Empirical evidence points out that emotional messages are generally more memorable than rational messages (Friestad & Thornson 1985). Current research needs to clearly address this ongoing debate between rational and emotional appeal types.

Moreover, traditional social and commercial marketing approaches, including approaches to AIDS preventive behaviors, have focused on general characteristics such as demographics, geographics, psychographics, behaviors and socioeconomic status (Frankenberger & Sukhdial 1993). Although much discussed and sometimes used in consumer marketing, personality, as a measure of audience characteristics, has been neglected in health communication. This paper suggests that personality is a pivotal mediator of the persuasive effects of messages. It looks at different types of image appeals and their relationships with different trait constructs, and shows that personality does play a critical mediating role in message reception.

Image Strategies

In the context of commercial marketing, communicating a clearly defined brand image to a target segment has always been regarded as a focal objective (Gardner and Levy 1955; Grubb and Grathwhol 1967; Moran 1973; Park, Jaworski and MacInnnis 1987; Reynolds and Gutman 1984; White 1959). As Roth (1995) argues, developing a needs-based image strategy provides the foundation for marketing program development and enables the brand to create a clear and distinct position within its category. This argument can be extrapolated to the arena of social marketing where campaign designers vie to grab attention and persuade consumers to adopt and implement certain behaviors. Selecting and managing an appropriate image is pivotal to the success of such a program.

Brand Images may be classified within different frameworks. The normative model proposed by Park, Jaworski and MacInnis (1986) is one of the most comprehensive and most widely used models in current literature (Roth 1995). According to this model, brand images may be classified as functional, social, and sensory.

Functional needs motivate the search for products and/or services that solve consumption-related problems. Therefore, a functional brand image strategy focuses on problem solving or problem prevention. This type of brand image approach is similar to the utilitarian approach discussed by Shavitt, Lowrey and Han (1992). Utilitarian attitudes, focussing on the inherent qualities and benefits of the product, maximize the rewards and minimize the punishments obtained from objects in one’s environment. Therefore, behavior is guided in a direction that obtains the benefits associated with the objects (Katz 1960; Shavitt et al. 1992).

Social brand image strategies, on the other hand, focus on fulfilling internally generated needs for self-enhancement, role position, group membership and affiliation, or ego-identification (Park, Jaworski and MacInnis 1986; Roth 1995), clustered together as the social identity function (Shavitt 1989, 1990). Such strategies are in concurrence with image based attitudes that focus on the impressions created by using the product (Debono and Parker 1991; Snyder and DeBono 1985, 1987; Shavitt 1989, 1990; Shavitt et al. 1992). In this context, attitudes function in the service of one’s public image and self-expression. According to Smith et al. (1956), attitudes help gain social acceptance by mediating relationships with other people. They also symbolize and express one’s identity by promoting identification with reference groups.

The third category, sensory images build around the novelty, variety seeking, and sensory gratification needs. The importance of experiential needs in consumption has been illustrated by work on variety seeking (McAlister 1979, 1982; McAlister and Pesemier 1982), consumer aesthetics, and experiential consumption (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982; Holbrook and Hirschman 1982; Holbrook et al. 1984).

Traditional health communication theories such as the health belief model, the theory of planned action, self efficacy model, and the theory of reasoned action have consistently focussed on the functional needs, without paying attention to other need types. As already discussed, most of these models have not provided strong predictions (Strebel 1997). The normative model provides a more holistic approach to the understanding of the persuasive processes in health communication. It also provides an alternative approach to health communication. Under this framework, persuasive strategies can be studied and designed in the context of functional, social and sensory appeal types, optimizing the effectiveness of the public health messages.

Personality: After all, What role does it play?

As pointed out earlier, most health communication is based on the information-processing model. This model assumes that human beings process information before making a decision and behavior change is a result of objective information to adjust negative attitudes and alter misperceptions (Strebel 1997). Also, traditional social and commercial marketing approaches, including approaches to AIDS preventive behaviors, have tended to focus on general characteristics such as demographics, geographics, psychographics, behaviors and socioeconomic status (Frankenberger & Sukhdial, 1993).

Commercial marketing and consumer behavior literature demonstrates a considerable wealth of research in the field of personality (DeBono and Packer 1991; Shavitt, Lowrey and Han 1992; Slama and Singley 1996; Snyder and DeBono 1985). Also, there has been a growth of interest in the functions served by attitudes and the identification of personality variables that affect these attitude functions (Pratkanis, Breckler, and Greenwald 1989; Shavitt et al. 1992). A large part of the above-mentioned literature shows strong interaction between personality and product favorability. Assuming findings from the commercial marketing literature can be extrapolated to the domain of health and social marketing, it may be argued that personality plays an important role in shaping the effectiveness of a particular strategy.

Considerable work has been done with self-monitoring and its relationship with attitude functions in advertising and product purchase. Self-monitoring is a personality trait that conveys the extent to which an individual is likely to monitor and control his/her expression in situations which contain reliable cues to social appropriateness (Snyder, 1974). High self-monitors are typically concerned with projecting social images that allow them to meet the varying needs in various social situations. They are concerned with being the right person in the right place at the right time, and therefore are sensitive to images of self that they project in social situations. On the other hand, low self-monitors are more concerned with being consistent with their internal feelings and preferences rather than with social appropriateness. They do not attempt to mold their behavior to fit situational and interpersonal considerations (Snyder and DeBono 1985; Snyder and Monson 1975). The behavior of low self-monitors is often a reflection of their predisposition to act on the basis of relevant inner sources such as attitudes, feelings, and dispositions (Snyder and DeBono 1985; Snyder and Tanke 1976).

High and low self-monitors differ in responsiveness to brand image appeals that they are responsive to (DeBono and Packer 1991; Snyder and DeBono 1985;Shavitt et al. 1992). High self-monitors are especially attentive to and influenced by advertising messages about the images that can be acquired and projected through consumer products. They are concerned with the self-presentational significance of products. Thus image-based advertisements, focussing on impressions created by using the product, are especially effective for high self-monitors (DeBono and Packer 191; Snyder and DeBono 1985, 1987; Shavitt et al. 1992). As discussed earlier, the image-based advertisement category serves social identity functions and is in concurrence with the concept of social brand image strategy introduced by Park, Jaworski and MacInnis (1986). On the other hand, low self-monitors are particularly responsive to advertisements that feature appeals to product quality (Snyder and DeBono 1985). Information about product quality is interpreted by low self-monitors in terms of their underlying attitudes, values, and other evaluative reactions. This type of quality-based orientation is a reflection of the utilitarian attitudes of low self-monitors and is analogous to the functional brand image orientation discussed earlier. This analysis leads to the following hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: High self-monitors will display stronger positive attitude toward social appeals than toward functional/sensory appeals.

Hypothesis 2: Low self-monitors will like utilitarian, functional appeals as compared to social appeals.

These differences in high and low self-monitors have been repeatedly obtained across a wide variety of products and advertisements (Shavitt et al. 1992). The consistent support for this observation suggests that self-monitoring is a pivotal construct that controls the motives of individuals in terms of their differing orientations toward products and advertisements.

Similar studies of brand image at the cultural level have suggested yet another set of parameters to consider (Roth 1992, 1995). These parameters, introduced by Hofstede (1984) in his work on cross-cultural value systems, are classified as power distance, uncertainty avoidance and individualism. Power distance describes the extent to which a culture fosters inequality. Therefore, cultures high in power distance emphasize the importance of prestige and wealth in shaping boundaries or vertical relationships between social and economic classes. Uncertainty avoidance hinges on the cultural pattern of seeking stability, predictability, and low stress rather than change and new experiences (Hofstede 1984). Therefore, high uncertainty avoidance cultures are characterized by risk-averse people who are resistant to change and variety seeking, and have a low tolerance for ambiguity. Individualism pertains to people’s tendency to value personal and individual time, freedom, and experiences (Hofstede 1984; Parsons and Shils 1951; Reisman, Glazer and Denney 1953; Roth 1995). People in high individualism cultures tend not to follow social norms. They form relationships, make decisions, and initiate behaviors independent of others. Of all these cultural indices, individualism has been shown to have particular significance in the context of brand image (Roth 1992; Han and Shavitt 1994; Zhang and Gelb 1996).

Individualists view self as a relatively autonomous, self-sufficient entity independent from its surrounding interpersonal context (Geertz 1984; Triandis 1989). An Individualist strives to become independent of others by attending to his or her private qualities and cultivating and expressing those inner attributes that uniquely distinguish him or her from others (Markus and Kitayama 1991; Suh, Diener, Oishi, and Triandis 1998). The Individualists, putting a high value on the internal features of self, perceive samples of subjective thoughts and feelings as more diagnostic of their true self than observable behavior (Anderson 1984; Anderson and Ross 1984; ; Suh, Diener, Oishi, and Triandis 1998). On the other hand, Collectivists are more focussed on maintaining harmony with others by coming to terms with their needs and expectations (Suh, Diener, Oishi, and Triandis 1998). If necessary, Collectivists subordinate their personal feelings and wishes to the goals of their in-group.

Roth (1995) demonstrated that high Individualism had a positive and marginally significant impact on the market share of functional and sensory brand images. On the other hand, there was a strong correlation between low Individualism (also termed as Collectivism) and social brand image. Thisobservation was also supported by other research (Han and Shavitt 1994; Zhang and Gelb 1996). Subjects in individualistic cultures were persuaded by advertisements emphasizing personal benefits, weighing individual likes and dislikes and perceived costs and benefits (Han and Shavitt 1994). Members of collectivist cultures stress social norms, roles, and values, and therefore, find social brand images that reinforce group membership and affiliation more attractive.

Current research has also focussed on the manifestation of individualism at the individual level (Kim 1994; Triandis 1994). The concepts of individualism have been shown to apply to the description of both societies and individuals. Individuals within cultures vary in their degree of individualism/collectivism (Lay, Fairlie, Jackson, Ricci, Eisenberg, Sato, Teeaar, and Melamud 1998). Triandis (1989) coined the termed idiocentrism to describe individualism at the individual level. Based on the findings of Roth’s (1995) research, it may be expected that high idiocentrics will have a stronger preference for functional and sensory appeals while low idiocentrics will prefer social brand appeals. More formally, idiocentrism is hypothesized to affect brand image as follows:

Hypothesis 3: High idiocentrics will have a more positive attitude toward functional appeals as compared to social appeals.

Hypothesis 4: High idiocentrics will have a more positive attitude toward sensory appeals as compared to social appeals.

Hypothesis 5: Low idiocentrics will demonstrate a more positive attitude toward social appeals as compared to functional and sensory appeals.

In addition to studying the individual effects of self-monitoring and idiocentrism, this research proposes to study the interaction between these two traits in terms of their role in the determination of attitude. A simple linear interaction predicts the model shown in Table 1.

This linear model further assumes that when both idiocentrism and self-monitoring reinforce a particular type of appeal, that appeal will be expressed more strongly within that specific interaction category.






Subjects: The 93 respondents were undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 28. Participants received extra credit in their respective courses in exchange for participation.

Message Appeal: The advertisements were created instead of being selected from those available in order to avoid recognition bias and any other effects of prior attitudes. Also, it was important to create mutually exclusive slogans that appropriately represent each of the categories. Advertisements contained three headlines, labeled A, B, and C, each representing a particular appeal type, and a simple body copy to eliminate any bias created by more elaborate executions. Headlines were manipulated to reflect functional, social, and sensory appeal types. Initially, nine advertisement headlines were designed by one of the authors, each appeal type being represented by three headlines. Three judges viewed all the 9 headlines and independently classified them as functional, social or sensory. Based on the scores assigned by the coders and the agreement among these scores, three headlines were picked, each representing a particular category. The three judges agreed on 100% of their headline classification for the three selected headlines. The three headlines are listed in Table 2.

Presentation of Ads: Each subject read and responded to all the three advertisement headlines. The three headlines were arranged beside a simple and neutral body copy. In order to eliminate order effect, the arrangement of appeals was counterbalanced so that a functional advertisement was read frst for one set of questionnaires, a social appeal was read first for another set, and a sensory appeal was read first for the rest.

Independent Measures: The subjects were measured in terms of their degree of idiocentrism, using the individualism instrument created by Triandis (1995). A reliability test yielded a Chronbach’s alpha of .78. Based on the median score, respondents were classified as high and low idiocentrics. Self-monitoring was measured using Snyder’s (1974) self-monitoring scale. Chronbach’s alpha was at .84. On the basis of a median split, half of the respondents were classified as high self-monitors and half as low self-monitors. Idiocentrism and self-monitoring demonstrated no correlation (R=.03, non-significant), thus supporting the assumption of independence of the two variables.

Dependent Measures: Subjects rated each of the advertisement headlines on a 7-point Likert scale including items such as pleasantness, appeal, attractiveness, excitement, interesting, fascinating and meaningfulness. These items served as a measure of attitude toward the headlines. The multi-item attitude scale was factor analyzed and the factor analysis resulted in one factor (Chronbach’s alpha=.73). Therefore, the items were aggregated to measure attitude toward the ad.




Traditional health communication approaches toward AIDS have focussed on a rational, functional perspective (Johnson et al. 1997). As discussed earlier in the theoretical section of this paper, the lack of success in the traditional health approaches calls for an alternative lens to look at the issue of health communication. Attention needs to be paid to appropriate issues, thus targeting the right message to the right audience. This was supported by the observation that there wasn’t any significant difference in the overall rankings of functional, social, and sensory slogans, when considered comprehensively. Similarly, there wasn’t any significant difference in the overall attitude toward the three appeal types.

Each of the individual hypotheses were tested by running repeated measures ANOVA to compare attitudes toward the different types of image appeals for each personality type. Low self-monitors demonstrated significant (F(2,84)=3.53, p<.05) preference for functional (M=24.83) appeals as compared to the other appeal types ( Social=23.3; Sensory=20.0), supporting hypothesis 2. High self-monitors, on the other hand, preferred social appeals (M=24.18) over functional appeals (M=21.13), although no significant effect was demonstrated. Also, hypothesis 3 was significantly supported (F(2,90)=5.45, p<.01), demonstrating that high idiocentrics had a higher preference for functional appeals (M=24.8) over social appeals (M=21.8). Furthermore, low idiocentrics preferred social appeals (M=23.03) over functional (M=21.39) and sensory appeals (M=20.40), although the effect wasn’t significant. The self-monitoring, idiocentrism combination for attitude is shown in Table 3.

The linear model of interaction between self-monitoring and idiocentrism was partially supported. As the table points out, high self-monitoring, high idiocentrism is the only combination that produced significant effect on the attitude toward the advertisement. High self-monitors, who are also high idiocentrics have a highly positive attitude toward functional appeals as compared to the other types. Low self-monitoring, low idiocentrics and low self-monitoring, high idiocentrics partially support the nomological network.


The present research examined the role played by certain personality traits in determining the effectiveness of health campaigns. This is a shift away from traditional health communication prspectives that have ignored personality and instead focussed on segmentation variables such as demographics, psychographics and geographics in making campaign decisions.

The current study demonstrated that there were not any significant effects when the attitudinal effects were considered comprehensively. However, attitude toward the ad demonstrated significance when studied in the context of self-monitoring, idiocentrism and the interaction between the two. Therefore, the results clearly reflected the contention that personality indeed serves as an important factor for predicting the attitudinal reactions to various appeals. Personality can be used as a pivotal segmentation variable when designing health campaigns.

Idiocentrism demonstrated a strong effect on appeal preference. Hypothesis 3 and 4 were significantly supported while hypothesis 5 exhibited the predicted trend though the results weren’t statistically significant. These results suggest that idiocentrism definitely serves as a good index to predict the effectiveness of a particular appeal type. They also support the existing nomological network, contending that high idiocentrism leads to a preference for functional appeals, followed by sensory and, subsequently, social appeals. On the other hand, low idiocentrism leads to a preference for social appeals.

As predicted by the theoretical framework, self-monitoring turned out to be an important predictor of attitude. Hypothesis 2 was supported, reflecting the strongest attitude toward functional appeals among the low self-monitors.

It’s worth noting that both low self-monitors and high idiocentrics demonstrated significant effects in their appeal preferences. It may be argued that these individuals have an internal orientation and are clear about their likes and dislikes, demonstrating marked preferential differences. On the other hand, low idiocentrics and high self-monitors care about what others will think and therefore, do not demonstrate marked preferences for a particular appeal type.

The results provide a good picture of the interaction between self-monitoring and idiocentrism. According to the linear relationship model, the effects of self-monitoring and idiocentrism just add up and therefore, the overall effect can be predicted from the individual effects of self-monitoring and idiocentrism.

In agreement with the epistemological framework, low self-monitoring, low idiocentric respondents had the strongest positive attitude toward social and functional advertisements, although the results weren’t statistically significant. Low idiocentrism contributes to the preference for social appeals while low self-monitoring contributes to the preference for functional appeal, supporting the linear interaction model.

Low self-monitoring, high idiocentric respondents demonstrated their liking for functional appeals followed by social and sensory appeals. This could be explained by the fact that both low self-monitoring and high idiocentrism contribute to the preference for functional appeals, leading to highest preference for functional appeals.

The high self-monitoring, high idiocentrism combination produced significant results, exhibiting the preference for functional appeals, followed by social and sensory appeals. The preference for functional appeals originates from the high idiocentrism characteristic, while high self-monitoring contributes to the preference for social appeals, supporting the linear model. In this particular case, idiocentrism has a stronger effect than self-monitoring.

The high self-monitoring, low idiocentrism respondent preferred sensory headlines, followed by social and functional ones, at a non-significant level. Although the result wasn’t significant, it is worth discussing because of its anomalous nature. Both low idiocentrism and high self-monitoring are expected to lead to the preference for social appeals instead of sensory appeals. To these respondents, the sensory and sophisticated appeal of "indulging in the pleasures of life safely" is a status symbol that gives them social acceptance. They rocess this type of sensory advertisement at the cognitive level and evaluate it in terms of its location within the social discourse instead of indulging in their hedonistic affect-oriented nature. A similar argument may be used when a high self-monitoring, low idiocentric person prefers functional appeals for the socially significant nature of the appeal. At the same time, these respondents may be aware of their highly social nature and may demonstrate a suppressor effect when they see a clearly social appeal targeted at them, giving the lowest ranking to the social appeal. This particular interaction is worth studying in the future.

As discussed earlier, idiocentrism is the manifestation of individualism at the individual level. Various researchers have looked at individualism at the cultural level and have shown its significant effect on the persuasion process (Han and Shavitt 1994; Roth 1995; Shavitt et al. 1997; Zhang and Gelb, 1996). The present study demonstrated significant effects of idiocentrism on attitude toward persuasive messages related to prevention. Further research should be done to look at the effect of individualism/collectivism on the effectiveness of health campaigns at the cultural level.

One of the limitations of the present study is the lack of significant results for each one of the interaction effects. We expect that a larger sample size will lead to statistically significant results for some of those categories. Future research must be done with larger sample size to test the interaction effect. Also, future message-design research must explore the role of other personality traits in shaping the preference for particular image appeals. Involvement as a moderating construct should be studied along with personality.


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