Over-Reading Into the Visual Print Ad: the Development of Weak Implicatures Among Consumers From the United States, Spain, and the Philippines

Michael A. Callow, Morgan State University
Leon G. Schiffman, Saint John=s University
[ to cite ]:
Michael A. Callow and Leon G. Schiffman (2002) ,"Over-Reading Into the Visual Print Ad: the Development of Weak Implicatures Among Consumers From the United States, Spain, and the Philippines", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 49.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Page 49


Michael A. Callow, Morgan State University

Leon G. Schiffman, Saint John=s University

Although visual images are becoming increasingly popular in global advertising, very little is known about the effect that cultural differences have on processing these types of messages. From a strategic perspective, it is dangerous to assume that uniform visual content will elicit uniform interpretation globally. Thus, global advertisers and academics alike need to better understand and predict cross-cultural variations in decoded meaning. This paper examines how visual metaphors depicting social (in)activity are interpreted among audiences from the United States, Spain, and the Philippines. In particular, we develop a conceptual model using Hall’s (1989) contextual communications typology and Brewer’s (1991) social identity theory to explain differences in weak implicature development across the three countries.

An implicature is information that is implicitly communicated to an audience (Sperber and Wilson, 1986; Phillips, 1997). Weak implicatures require a greater degree of cognitive processing compared to strong implicatures, since the metaphor that is created requires a higher amount of implicit information. Hall’s contextual communication framework suggests that some cultures are able to process implicit information better than others. We therefore hypothesize that consumers from high-context cultures such as the Philippines are more likely to develop weak implicatures when compared to consumers from low-context cultures such as the United States and medium-context cultures such as Spain. In addition, Spanish consumers should be more able to develop weak implicatures compared to American consumers.

Brewer’s social identity theory states that a person’s social identity develops out of a compromise between interdependent and independent needs. Individuals therefore vary in terms of their relative need to assimilate with others and their relative need to differentiate from others. The motivation literature indicates that these needs are often used to "instinctively" interpret meaning. In other words, the creation of implicatures from visual messages is in part shaped by the consumer’s motivational framework. In particular, the type of weak implicature that is developed from non-congruent explicit messages reflects these needs. We therefore hypothesize that independent minded consumers are more inclined than non-independent minded consumers to develop weak implicatures relating to independence from an image that explicitly depicts interdependence. Conversely, we argue that interdependent minded consumers are more likely than non-interdependent minded consumer to develop weak implicatures relating to interdependence when shown an image explicitly communicating independence.

In order to test these hypotheses, a quasi-experimental design was run using data collected from Spain, the United States, and the Philippines. The explicitly independent visual stimulus consisted of an image of a woman celebrating by herself. The explicitly interdependent visual stimulus depicted women interacting with one another. Both pictorial ads were promoting a fictitious brand of perfume for women. Female respondents were asked to register the relative importance of independent and interdependent appeals for each image. They then completed a social identity scale developed by Singelis, Triandis, Bhawuk, and Gelfand (1995). Analyses were run using Manova.

The results indicated general support for the contextual effect hypothesis. As expected, respondents from the Philippines were better able to develop interdependent appeals from explicitly independent visual images and vice versa compared to their Western counterparts. It is interesting to note that the Filipino sample was able to create higher levels of personal achievement appeals from the interdependent stimulus compared to the other two samples despite being a collectivist culture. There was no difference between the Spanish and American respondents, which may be explained by similarities in contextual communication styles. As for the social identity effect, results provide strong support for the ability of independent minded individuals to develop independent oriented appeals from explicitly interdependent visual images. However, interdependent minded individuals were no more able than non-interdependent minded individuals to create interdependent implicatures from explicitly independent visual images. This may reflect the fact that it is easier to remain independent when among a crowd of people than it is to remain interdependent when you are all alone.

This paper highlights the role that sociocultural forces play in a person’s ability to "over-think into" the meaning of visual images in print advertisements. In particular, it seems that contextual communication styles determine the extent to which audiences are able to develop weak implicatures. High-context audiences are more likely to go beyond the explicit meaning of the message to unearth different levels of meaning when compared to low-context audiences. At the same time, the types of weak implicature that are developed reflect the individual’s motivational frame of mind. In our study, the consumer’s social identity played a role in the development of independent and interdependent metaphors from visual images depicting social (in)activity. Strategic implications from these findings relate to the appropriateness of developing standardized visual images in global advertising campaigns. Whereas these global ads can elicit strong universal implicatures, the ability of some cultures to go beyond the universal meaning and search for other socioculturally relevant meanings suggests that there is no such thing as a universal Esperanto in visual information.


Brewer, M. B. (1991), "The social self: On being the same and different at the same time," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17 (5), October, 475-482.

Hall, Edward T. (1989), Beyond Culture, Anchor Books: New York.

Phillips, Barbara J. (1997), "Thinking Into It: Consumer Interpretation of Complex Advertising Images," Journal of Advertising, 26, 2, Summer, 77-87.

Singelis, Theodore M., Harry C. Triandis, Dharm P. S. Bhawuk, and Michele J. Gelfand (1995), "Horizontal and Vertical Dimensions of Individualism and collectivism: A Theoreticaland Measurement Refinement," Cross-Cultural Research, 29 (3), August, 240-275.

Sperber, Dan and Deidre Wilson (1986), Relevance: Communication and Cognition, Blackwell: Oxford, UK.