Sponsorship and Congruity Theory: a Theoretical Framework For Explaining Consumer Attitude and Recall of Event Sponsorship

Emma Jagre, University of Canterbury
John J. Watson, University of Canterbury
John G. Watson, Saint Bonaventure University
ABSTRACT - Sponsorship as a marketing communication tool has increased remarkably over the past two decades. Drawing from research in social psychology, a conceptual framework which affords a clearer understanding of the appropriate sponsoring of events when objectives are to improve consumer attitudes and increase recall is developed. The framework suggests that companies sponsoring events that provide a moderately inconsistent Afit@ to their company will be viewed more favorably by consumers.
[ to cite ]:
Emma Jagre, John J. Watson, and John G. Watson (2001) ,"Sponsorship and Congruity Theory: a Theoretical Framework For Explaining Consumer Attitude and Recall of Event Sponsorship", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 439-445.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 439-445


Emma Jagre, University of Canterbury

John J. Watson, University of Canterbury

John G. Watson, Saint Bonaventure University


Sponsorship as a marketing communication tool has increased remarkably over the past two decades. Drawing from research in social psychology, a conceptual framework which affords a clearer understanding of the appropriate sponsoring of events when objectives are to improve consumer attitudes and increase recall is developed. The framework suggests that companies sponsoring events that provide a moderately inconsistent "fit" to their company will be viewed more favorably by consumers.


Corporate sponsorship as a promotional acivity has increased remarkably over the past two decades and has been acknowledged as an increasingly important element of the communication strategy used by marketing-driven corporations in order to reach their customers. In 1996 sponsorship expenditure reached $13.5 billion worldwide (Sandler and Shani 1998) and is expected to reach $19 billion in 1999, making sponsorship the fastest growing area of promotion (Taylor 1999; Ukman 1995). Notably, more companies are involved in sponsoring leisure activities such as sports and music, while fewer are involved in the science, education, culture and charities (Klincewicz 1998). For example, in 1996, North American businesses spent 66% of the total sponsorship dollars on the sponsorship of sports alone (Meenaghan 1998b).

Sponsorship has come to be viewed as a cost-effective alternative promotion strategy with an ability to transcend national and cultural barriers (Meenaghan 1998b). Additional reasons for the growth in sponsorship of leisure activities is the greater media coverage of these events combined with the rising cost of media advertising and increasing public indifference to conventional forms of communications (Meenaghan 1991b; Sandler and Shani 1998). Sponsorship involves two main activities: 1) an exchange between a sponsor and a sponsoree whereby the latter receives a fee and the former obtains the right to associate itself with the activity sponsored and 2) the marketing of the association by the sponsor (Cornwell and Maignan 1998). Sponsorship may be defined as investments in causes or events to support corporate or marketing objectives (Gardner and Shuman 1998, p. 44). The objectives primarily concern increasing awareness, enhancing image, improving goodwill, improving profitability and reaching otherwise unreachable customers, although sales objectives are sometimes specified and achieved (Hoek, Gendall, and West 1990; Meenaghan 1998b; Ukman 1996).

Consumer awareness of sponsorship status has been measured by the ability to both recognize and recall sponsors of an event (Sandler and Shani 1989), but the sponsorship literature has been limited in assessing its effectiveness in reaching this objective. The studies that have been conducted on consumers’ recall of sponsors have not had encouraging results, and many sponsors have been unsuccessful in creating awareness (Cornwell and Maignan 1998; Crimmins and Horn 1996; Sandler and Shani 1998). For example, D’Alessandro (1998) reports that 55% of the respondents in one study correctly identified Reebok as an Olympic sponsor at the Atlanta Games, but 70% thought non-sponsor Nike was in fact a sponsor. Explanations for these results include the large amount of clutter, ambush marketing, and confusion which is due to the many layers of sponsorship within events (Meenaghan 1998a).

Despite the allocation of resources to sponsorship, a recent review of the literature reported that the processes underlying sponsor identification are poorly understood and that scholars have not adopted any specific theoretical framework guiding investigations of consumers’ memory, recall, and attitude toward sponsorship (Cornwell and Maignan 1998; Johar and Pham 1999). An additional issue in the sponsorship literature concerns the importance of "fit" among the sponsoring company, the event, and the company’s target audience when trying to reach sponsorship objectives (Kate 1995; Sandler and Shani 1998; Taylor 1999). Some researchers espouse ideas that are in direct contrast to the findings reported in cognitive psychology of memory.

For the purposes of this paper, we will attempt to answer two questions:

1. Can the congruity perspective developed in social psychology be applied to sponsorship in the development of a conceptual framework of "fit"?

2. Can the congruity perspective help explain and predict the right "fit" between sponsorand event when the goal is to reach objectives such as increased awareness and enhancement of image?

In order to answer these questions, we will first provide a brief synthesis of congruity theory and how it has been applied to person memory and attitude formation in social psychology. Next, we will examine how the theory has been applied to consumer behavior and advertising, as well as how it can be applied to sponsorship. Propositions which focus on the perception of fit between the companies sponsoring events and the actual events being sponsored, and the subsequent effects these relationships have on viewer recall and attitudes are then put forward. The final section concludes with a discussion of theoretical and managerial implications of the proposed framework.


Congruity (congruence) theory has been applied in social psychology to the investigations of memory as well as for explaining attitude formation. According to the principle of cognitive consistency, people value harmony among their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and they are motivated to maintain uniformity among these elements (Solomon 1996). Researchers conducting studies on incongruity have used a variety of terminologies interchangeably such as congruent/incongruent, expected/unexpected, and consistent/inconsistent (Heckler and Childers 1992).

The congruity model was originally formulated as a specific explanation for the attitude change that occurs when a source is connected to a particular attitude object. The statements that sources make about objects are associative when the statement implies a positive connection and dissociative when the statement implies a denial of a connection. The third element of congruity theory is the evaluation placed on both the source and the object by the person whose attitude is being considered (Shaver 1987). The theory predicts that the value of the more negatively valued element will rise when linked to a positively valued one (Solomon 1996).




Congruity theory also suggests that the storage in memory and retrieval of information is influenced by prior expectations. A major aim of social psychologists has been to investigate the ways "expectancy-driven" processing influences social memory. These studies have investigated how social expectations influence when and how behavioral and trait information that is congruent or incongruent with expectations about persons or groups is stored in and retrieved from long-term memory (Stangor and McMillan 1992). Stangor and McMillan (1992) reported the most recent review of the social developmental literatures of schema-based expectancy theory of memory for expectancy-congruent and expectancy-incongruent memory. Schemas are "representations of experiences that guide action, perception and thought. These are developed as a function of the frequency of encounters with relevant instantiations where new encounters are evaluated against existing schemas" (Mandler 1982, p. 3).

Some studies in social cognition have found that generally congruent information is remembered better than information incongruent or irrelevant with existing schema. Yet other studies have found that incongruent information is better remembered; Stangor and McMillan (1992) conducted a meta-analysis of models from social psychology with competing predictions of how social memory will be influenced by social expectations. The results of this meta-analysis indicated that memory is better for expectancy-incongruent than expectancy-congruent information on recall and recognition measures (Stangor and McMillan 1992). Thus, the theoretical framework we outline is based on the notion that expectancy-incongruent information leads to better recall and recognition.


Attitudes have been defined as relatively stable opinions containing a cognitive element and an emotional element (Wade and Tavris 1996). Consideration has also been given in social psychology to the question of whether or not schemas elicit affect. Fiske (1982) suggested that if an item is congruent with an existing schema, it will receive the affect linked to that schema. Fiske also proposed that with irrelevant or incongruent items, where a match does not occur, this transfer of affect to the item does not take place.

Madler (1982) expanded the concept by including elaboration as a moderating variable when examining how congruity is linked to affect. He further supported the concept proposed in the associative network model, that congruent relationships are not very noteworthy and therefore do not prompt extensive elaboration or get deeply processed. Consequently, Mandler (1982) proposed that the thoughts generated after elaboration in the congruent condition are favorable because people like objects that conform to their expectations and allow predictability. He added that these thoughts are typically mild rather than extreme.

Mandler (1982) also argued that whether an evaluation of an inconsistent relationship is relatively more favorable or more unfavorable is a function of how readily the processor can satisfactorily resolve the incongruity. Positive valuation and affect is enhanced when the increased elaboration leads to resolution of the incongruity. These resolutions occur for congruity, as well as for moderate incongruity, but not for extreme incongruity. These proposed relationships are depicted in Figure 1 and will be applied to sponsorship. Extreme incongruity is defined as incongruity that requires extensive elaboration that cannot be resolved and thus leads to frustration which elicits more negative evaluations. In contrast, moderate incongruities are regarded as "interesting and positively valued" (Mandler 1982, p. 22), thereby leading to more positive affect than elicited by either extreme incongruity or congruity, toward which response will only be mild.

Congruity Theory and Consumer Behavior

Consumer researchers have focused on building a theoretical understanding of the processes involved in consumers’ comprehension and memory of ads (Heckler and Childers 1992), while advertising practitioners have been applying this knowledge so creative efforts can be optimized (Ogilvy 1983). Practitioners hope to increase the amount of attention given to an advertisement and hence, the degree to which the information being presented is processed (Heckler and Childers 1992). In support of the theories developed in social psychology, results of incongruity research applied to consumer behavior demonstrate that when information is somehow incongruent with prior expectations, individuals will engage in more effortful or elaborative processing which resulted in superior recall and recognition (Heckler and Childers 1982; Myers-Levy and Tybout 1989; Wansink and Ray 1996).

Attitude. Within consumer behavior, attitudes have been defined as individuals’ internal evaluations of objects such as brands, products or companies where affect refers to the way people feel about an object (Mitchell and Olson 1981; Solomon 1996). Meyers-Levy and Tybout (1989) examined how the presentations of congruent versus incongruent information about soft drinks affected the development of attitudes toward those products. Their experiments provided support for Mandler’s (1982) hypotheses that schema congruity influences evaluations and that moderate schema incongruity enhances evaluations. Moderate schema incongruity led to more favorable evaluations than either schema congruity or extreme schema incongruity. Also in support for Mandler’s hypotheses, Wansink and Ray (1996) found that when the goal of advertising strategies is to increase usage frequency, the greater cognitive effort required for processing extremely incongruent information leads to unfavorable attitudes toward the source when incongruity remaied unresolved.

Congruity has also been applied to advertising and consumer behavior when addressing how attitudes are affected when a person, such as a celebrity, is linked to an object, such as a brand or company (Solomon 1996). The central tenet of the celebrity-endorser advertising stream has been that the use of celebrities is a way to cut through the clutter of commercials and gain consumers’ attention. Celebrities are also used to transfer the endorser’s positive attributes, such as physical attractiveness and trustworthiness, to the product they endorse (O’Mahone and Meenaghan 1997/1998; Walker, Lanmeyer, and Langmeyer 1993). The simple presence of a celebrity increases the odds for higher recall, but does so because of an effect on attention, not brand linkage (Lukeman 1991). In this research stream, arguments are supportive of the need for congruence between the celebrity and the product in order for the message to be perceived as credible and believable. For example, celebrities who endorse beauty products are typically perceived as attractive in order for the message to be believable and lead to favorable product attitudes. Likewise, for a message to be perceived as credible, celebrities that endorse technical products must be perceived as having expertise with the products they endorse in order to create favorable product attitudes (Kamins 1990; Kamins and Gupta 1994; Lukeman 1991; O’Mahone and Meenaghan 1997/1998; Walker, Lanmeyer, and Langmeyer 1993). In sum, these findings (with respect to the transfer of affect) are inconsistent with the theories of incongruity in social psychology.

Congruity Theory and Sponsorship

While practitioners in the area of consumer research have focused on building a theoretical understanding of the process involved in consumers’ comprehension and memory of ads, there is a lack of such a theoretical framework in the sponsorship literature with regard to both memory and attitudes toward companies sponsoring events.

Although the expectancy-congruent and expectancy-incongruent memory models in social psychology were developed to explain encoding, storage, and retrieval for person perception, they have been applied successfully to advertising and consumer behavior for explaining both recall and attitude formation. Thus, these models may be equally applicable to building a theoretical understanding with regard to sponsorship. Although the results of the congruity research applied to celebrity endorser advertising have not supported the relationships between incongruity and affect, we will argue that when developing this conceptual framework the findings related to celebrity endorser advertising are probably not generalizable to sponsorship.

Sponsor-Event "Fit" as Consistent or Inconsistent

It is clear that the sponsorship literature is lacking a conceptual framework that adequately explains "fit" relationships among a sponsoring company, an event, and a company’s target audience (D’Alessandro 1998; Kate 1995; Taylor 1999). As no clear definition of "fit" has been proposed in the sponsorship literature, scholars discussing fit actually do not distinguish between two different types of fit. Some scholars have highlighted the ability of sponsorship to target a wide and/or specific range of audiences and the relationships between the characteristics of events and the demographics, lifestyle, and AIO (activities, interests, and opinions) of the attendees or viewers (Cornwell and Maignan 1998; Nicholls, Roslow, and Laskey 1994). This is the first type of fit, and it occurs when the sponsoring company’s target audience attends the event; it is the fit between the audience and the company’s customers of interest. The second fit is between the sponsoring company’s brand, product or service, and its perceived closeness with an event, based on consumers’ perceptions and expectations. This fit is referred to as fit between the sponsor and the event and is the type of fit of interes to us.

A limited amount of research has focused on the compatibility and congruence between the attributes of the sponsor and the sponsored event in order to maximize the communication potential (Ferrnand and Pages 1996; Gwinner 1997; Martin 1994). These studies have proposed that the process of a positive image transfer from an event to the sponsoring company is similar to the process of meaning transfer from celebrity-endorsers to the products they endorse. The focus of these studies has been to establish that there exist multiple aspects within the image of sports. However, these research streams have not assessed this impact on reaching communication objectives.

The question of fit or congruence between the sponsor and the event is a very new area of research and only two studies, Johar and Pham (1999) and McDaniel (1999) have addressed the effects of congruence on recall and attitudes by empirical testing. McDaniel (1999) used a schema-based approach to examine the brand/sport matchups effect on attitudes toward the sponsoring brand as a persuasive influence. He suggested that the theory of meaning transfer in celebrity-endorser advertising may be applicable to sponsorship, but he did not focus on whether the brand-event relationships were consistent or inconsistent; he only focused on the attributes of sporting events, such as whether the sport is perceived as negative or positive. However, McDaniel (1999) found no support for his propositions that brands sponsoring more negatively perceived sports such as bowling would have significantly lower post-test attitudes toward the brand than brands sponsoring more positively perceived sports such as hockey or an Olympic team. Such a finding leads to questions about whether celebrity-endorser advertising is actually generalizable to event marketing. While celebrity-endorser advertising is concerned with the transfer of specific attributes such as attractiveness and credibility, event marketing is more concerned with the transfer of the general positive valence the audience has for the event as a whole. In addition, celebrity-endorser advertising is likely to be more effective for new products or ones with low awareness and when specific attributes such as attractiveness and credibility are of great importance for the persuasiveness of the message (Howard and Crompton 1995).





The second study of fit between sponsor and event was conducted by Johar and Pham (1999). They investigated how the brand-event relatedness relationship operates in sponsor identification. Johar and Pham (1999) proposed that "in sponsor identification tasks, consumers rely on the semantic overlap between features of the event and those of potential sponsors" (p. 300), and as a consequence, sponsor identification is biased toward brands that are semantically related to an event. Their study provides additional support for what is established within social psychology of memory, that when assessing recognition, subjects make response biases toward expectancy-congruent information due to subjects engaging in guessing strategies (Stangor and McMillan 1992). However, Johar and Pham failed to discuss some of their more intriguing findings, such as the fact that 91.5% of the unrelated sponsors compared to 60.5% of the related sponsors were recalled. Obviously, such a result is contrary to hypotheses of relatedness but supports the argument that unrelated or inconsistent fit results in higher recall.

To assess how to most effectively invest sponsorship resources in event marketing when the objectives are to increase awareness and enhance image, we have developed a conceptual framework that incorporates the contributions of the incongruity research developed in social psychology. Figure 2 depicts our proposed framework. In the following section, we will describe this framework by presenting three types of sponsor-event relationships with respect to consistency or fit. We will then put forward proposals concerning each relationship’s relative effectiveness in reaching the objectives of recall and enhanced attitudes toward the sponsoring company.

Sponsor Event Fit as Consistent, Extremely Inconsistent, and Moderately Inconsistent

Schemas were discussed previously with regard to social psychology and can also be applied to event sponsorship. New encounters, such as new sponsors of events, are evaluated against existing schemas of events, acquired through experience from attending them in person and/or viewing them on television where the interaction between an event and a schema determines the perception of new relationships. These schemas might also contain product categories that are typically part of fans’ event experience (McDaniel 1999). When new information is received, individuals will tend to use existing schemas to process the relevance or congruence of this new information (i.e., fit with existing schema).

Incongruity refers to the extent that structural correspondence is achieved between entire configuration of attribute relations associated with the sponsor and the event and the configuration of attribute relations associated with the sponsor and the event and the configuration specified by the existing schema (Meyers-Levy and Tybout 1989). An inconsistent fit between a sponsor company and an event can be operationalized by the degree to which the relationship is perceived to be incongruent with viewer expectations and pre-existing knowledge structures associated with the theme (Heckler and Childers 1992). Thus, a fit between an event and a sponsor is expected when an individual’s knowledge of the sponsor’s functional similarity or image-related similarity with the event is consistent, but not expected when the relationship is inconsistent with existing knowledge structures and schema.

An example of sponsorship fit that is "expected and consistent" would be Adidas sponsoring a sporting event or Montana wine sponsoring a wine and food festival. An "unexpected and inconsistent" fit would be the Bank of America sponsoring a sporting event or Nike sponsoring a wine and food festival. Figure 3 depicts examples of these different types of relationships for Nike.

In practice, the (in)congruity between a sponsor and its associated event may lie between the extremes of a perfect match or mismatch. The distinction between moderate and extreme incongruity can be operationalized by the ease with which anomalies can be resolved (Mandler 1982). As noted above, research has reported that information which is incongruent with prior expectations will result in individuals engaging in more effortful or elaborative processing resulting in superior recall (Heckler and Childers 1992; Mandler 1982; Meyers-Levy and Tybout 1989; Wansink and Ray 1996). In the situation of a consistent fit between sponsor and event, viewers should not engage in elaborate processing. On the other hand, extreme incongruity between sponsor and event should result in the audience getting surprised due to the unexpectancy of the relationship, which in turn would result in the largest amount of elaboration and processing. Whether a fit is congruent, moderately incongruent, or extremely incongruent can only be determined from the viewpoint of the audience’s expectations. As each sponsor-event relationship will be processed and elaborated upon to different extents, it is these differences in processing that would lead to differences in recall and attitude (Wansink and Ray 1996).

Awareness and Recall

As mentioned earlier, one of the main objectives of companies engaging in sponsorship is to increase awareness. Awareness is created as events, and consequently corporate sponsors, intrude on the consciousness of event audiences (Meenaghan 1998a). In general, memory measures in social psychology have either been based on recognition or on recall paradigms (Stangor and McMillan 1992). Recognition measures assess the ability of the individual to identify whether previously presented information has been seen before or not. One danger with this measure of memory is that it is easily contaminated by response biases; individuals are more likely to guess that an item that is congruent with an expectation rater than an item which is incongruent with that expectation (Stangor and McMillan 1992). In the second memory measure, that of free recall, subjects are asked to list the information that comes to mind, requiring subjects to retrieve the item from memory.

The results of the meta-analysis of social psychology showed that overall, memory was better for expectancy-incongruent than for expectancy-congruent information on recall and recognition measures (Stangor and McMillan 1992). Taking into account the vast amount of support this framework has received in advertising and consumer behavior may make it equally applicable to the development of propositions in the area of sponsorship.

Audiences that attend events will have expectancies of the type of companies that usually sponsor these events. Such expectations will be based on experience. Presented with a new sponsor that does not fit into the present schema is likely to result in increased elaboration and processing as the novelty of the incongruency increases arousal (Mandler 1982). This more effortful, elaborative processing should result in superior recall (Graesser 1981; Hastie 1980; Heckler and Childer 1992; Srull 1981). During sponsor-event relationships that are characterized by extreme incongruity (low fit), the novelty of the new relationship will result in the largest increase of elaboration and result in the greatest increase of recall of the sponsor. For this reason, extremely inconsistent relationships between sponsor and event should result in the most extensive elaboration, leading to the most superior recall of the actual sponsor. The opposite should hold when the sponsor and event relationship is completely congruent (high fit). Consequently, the following propositions are made:

P1: Companies that sponsor events which are extremely inconsistent with viewer expectations (low fit) will have significantly higher recall rates than companies that sponsor events that are either completely consistent (high fit) or moderately consistent (moderate fit) with viewer expectations.

P2: Companies that sponsor events that are completely consistent with viewer expectations (high fit) will have significantly lower recall rates than companies that sponsor events that are either extremely inconsistent (low fit) or moderately inconsistent (moderate fit).


Another objective for companies engaging in sponsorship is to increase the company’s image or consumer attitudes toward the company (McDaniel and Kinney 1998; Howard and Crompton 1995). Attitudes may be considered relatively stable and enduring predispositions to behave and should be useful predictors of consumers’ behavior toward products and services (Mitchell and Olson 1981). Enhanced sponsor image derives from the fact that the association of the sponsor with the event results in a rub off or transfer of values from the event to the sponsor (Meenaghan 1983). When evaluating the effect of consistency between a sponsor and an event, most research indicates that a completely consistent fit leads to a transfer of affect from the event to the sponsor which does not occur under conditions of extreme incongruity. However, Mandler (1982) proposed that as congruent relationships between sponsor and the event are not very note-worthy, the thoughts that are generated are likely to be favorable but typically mild rather than extreme.

Applying this rationale to sponsorship would suggest that an extremely inconsistent fit between a sponsoring company and an event would increae elaboration to such an extent that it would lead to difficulty in resolving the incongruity. In turn, consumers’ frustration would increase and when it was not possible to resolve the incongruity, consumers would generate unfavorable thoughts of the relationship and have negative attitudes toward the sponsor (Mandler 1982; Wansink and Ray 1996). However, when Mandler’s (1982) idea of moderate incongruity is introduced, the incongruity may be regarded as interesting and positively valued, thereby leading to more positive affect than ones elicited by either extreme incongruity or complete congruity. It may therefore be proposed that:

P3: Companies that sponsor events which are extremely inconsistent with viewer expectations (low fit) will produce lower attitude ratings from consumers and lead to less favorable sponsor evaluations than companies that sponsor events that are either completely consistent (high fit) or moderately consistent (moderate fit) with viewer expectations.

P4: Companies that sponsor events which are moderately inconsistent with viewer expectations (moderate fit) will produce significantly higher attitude ratings from consumers and lead to more favorable sponsor evaluations than companies that sponsor events that are either completely consistent (high fit) or extremely inconsistent (low fit).


This paper has set forward a number of research propositions that are consistent with our proposed conceptual model. Obviously, the propositions are in need of empirical validation. The biggest challenge in the empirical testing of these propositions will likely be the measurement development of the "fit" construct. Consequently, managers considering sponsorship would benefit from the development of a scale measuring degrees of "fit" for guiding choice of sponsor-event relationships.

The process underlying sponsor identification is poorly understood and scholars have not adopted a conceptual framework that can guide research concerned with recall and attitude toward sponsors. Practitioners have assumed for example, that sponsoring events consistent with a product or company will increase awareness and result in positive attitudes toward the sponsor. To date, there is little evidence that supports this argument. As was articulated in the paper, the tendency to sponsor events that provide a consistent "fit" with a company may not in fact result in significant levels of awareness and may not be an effective way to enhance the company’s image.


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