Country-Of-Origin Stereotypes and the Processing of Ads: a Tomato-Field Experiment

Peeter W.J. Verlegh, Erasmus University Rotterdam and Wageningen University
[ to cite ]:
Peeter W.J. Verlegh (2002) ,"Country-Of-Origin Stereotypes and the Processing of Ads: a Tomato-Field Experiment", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 166-167.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 166-167


Peeter W.J. Verlegh, Erasmus University Rotterdam and Wageningen University

Extensive research in marketing and consumer behavior has shown that the country of origin of products has substantial impact on consumer product evaluations (Verlegh and Steenkamp 1999). The main premise of these studies is that country of origin provides consumers with information about the quality and other aspects of a product. Maheswaran (1994) has found that country of origin can serve as a cognitive shortcut ("heuristic") that enables consumers to save time and effort when evaluating a product. In line with this, he found that the impact of country of origin on product evaluations decreases with consumers’ ability to process information. In addition however, several studies show that country of origin can moderate the influence of other product information on product evaluations (e.g., Johansson, Douglas and Nonaka 1985, Maheswaran 1994). In a series of experimental studies, Hong and Wyer (1989, 1990), and Li and Wyer (1994) showed that country of origin may activate a mental image that affects consumers’ interpretation of other product information.

Based on these findings, we propose that there are two ways in which country of origin can influence product evaluations, namely by serving as a piece of information, and by moderating the influencing of other product information on product evaluation. In line with Goldberg and Hartwick (1990) we use the term "source effect" to refer to this moderating influence of country of origin. This term is commonly used in communication research and attitude psychology, where a distinction is made between "source variables" and "message variables", although it is not uncommon for a single cue to play both roles at the same time (Eagly and Chaiken 1993, Petty, Wegener, and Fabrigar 1997).

We develop a conceptual framework that allows us to understand how and when country of origin stereotypes function as "source variables" that affect the processing of product information, for example presented in advertising messages aimed at improving the image of products from a given country. Our theorizing is based on the framework that is provided by dual-process models of information processing, such as the Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty and Cacioppo 1986) and the Heuristic Systematic Model (Chaiken, Liberman and Eagly 1989), combined with the literatures on stereotyping, information integration and source effects.

As a source variable, country of origin affects consumers’ evaluation of advertising claims. In line with the conceptualizations of corporate (source) credibility that hav been proposed by Brown and Dacin (1997), and Keller and Aaker (1992) we propose that the country’s credibility as a source is determined by consumers’ general image of the country’s products within a category. When consumers have a favorable image of a country’s products within a category, the source credibility of the country of origin is high for this category. Inversely, when consumers have an unfavorable image of a country’s products within a category, the country’s source credibility in this category is low. We argue that the impact of source credibility depends on the level of message involvement. When involvement is low, extremely favorable claims are more persuasive than moderately favorable claims. Higher levels of involvement result in greater persuasiveness of moderately favorable claims. Extremely favorable claims however, are less persuasive with increased involvement.

This interaction can be understood as follows: Both ELM and HSM propose that under higher levels of message involvement, consumers will elaborate on the content of a message, and carefully examine the arguments or claims that are made in an ad. This "extensive thinking about the merits of an ad’s claims" (Miniard, Bhatla and Rose 1990, p. 293) might lead consumers to question the reliability of extremely favorable claims, especially when such claims are made by a source that is low in credibility. Depending on the strength of this latter interaction effect, the net effect of claim favorability on product evaluation may be positive, neutral or even negative.

This notion is examined in a field experiment (N=786) that was conducted among German consumers. We used a 2 x 2 x 2 experimental design (manipulating country of origin, task involvement, and claim favorability) to create different versions of a print ad that promoted tomatoes from different origin countries. Our data reveal a significant main effect of country of origin on product evaluations, as well as a significant three-way interaction. When consumers hold an unfavorable country-of-origin stereotype, moderately favorable claims lead to more favorable evaluations in high involvement conditions than in low-involvement conditions. Though not significant, a reversal of this effect was found for extremely favorable claims, which lead to more positive evaluations under low involvement conditions than under high involvement conditions. When consumers hold a favorable country-of-origin stereotype, the results show that higher levels of involvement are paired with less positive evaluations of products advertised with moderately favorable claims. This set of results is in line with Rossiter and Percy’s (1997) notion of underclaiming and overclaiming in advertising.

Our results show that country of origin may play a role in determining the optimal trade-off between the favorability and the credibility of advertising claims. When consumers have less favorable impressions of a country’s products, marketers may be in danger of overclaiming the product’s merits. The advice to "proceed with caution" does not apply to all situations. We find that if consumers hold a (very) favorable country-of-origin stereotype, modest claims might do more harm than good. To avoid both underclaiming and overclaiming (cf., Rossiter and Percy 1997, p. 252), marketers should establish the favorability of consumers’ generalized impressions of a country’s products, and use this as a benchmark for advertising claims.


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