Special Session Summary Understanding Processes Underlying Consumer Inferences

Zeynep Gurhan-Canli, University of Michigan
Rohini Ahluwalia, University of Kansas
[ to cite ]:
Zeynep Gurhan-Canli and Rohini Ahluwalia (2002) ,"Special Session Summary Understanding Processes Underlying Consumer Inferences", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 489-491.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 489-491



Zeynep Gurhan-Canli, University of Michigan

Rohini Ahluwalia, University of Kansas


Understanding Processes Underlying Consumer Inferences

Consumer researchers have long been interested in inference generation (e.g., Broniarczyk and Alba 1994; Kardes 1998; Simmons and Lynch 1991). Previous research suggests that inferences can be generated spontaneously when inferential cues are salient to consumers at the time of the decision making (Broniarczyk and Alba 1994; Dick, Chakravarti, Biehal 1990) and when involvement, ability (e.g., expertise) or need for cognition is high versus low (Kardes 1988). This session extends previous research by focusing on inferential processes that have received relatively less attention. Specifically, the session identifies new theoretical perspectives (e.g., resource matching theory, categorization) and moderators (e.g., cognitive resources and perceived variability) that can affect the process by which consumers generate inferences. The papers in this session extend previous research by suggesting that inference generation depends on not only the amount of cognitive resources devoted to ad processing but also the amount of resources required to process the style of the ad message and the perceived variability of attribute information.

First, Rui (Juliet) Zhu presented some work, co-authored with Joan Meyers-Levy, which focuses on types and extent of inferences people are likely to generate from background music in ads. Their study investigates conditions under which individuals infer affective (e.g., positive or negative feelings) versus descriptive meaning (e.g., fast music may connote activity, while slower music connotes tranquillity) from music. They contend that the type and extent of inference generation in response to such music is dependent upon the amount of cognitive resources an ad recipient devotes to ad processing (e.g., their Need for Cognition; NFC) and the amount of resources required to process the style of ad message (e.g., lecture versus drama). They find that low NFC individuals are unaffected by ad music. However, high NFC individuals (a) infer the music’s descriptive connotations when the ad requires few resources to process, but (b) infer the music’s affective connotations when the ad is more onerous to process.

Next, Zeynep Gnrhn-Canli presented her work on the effect of perceived variability on inferences regarding a family brand name. Perceived variability refers to the extent to which consumers expect variability in favorableness of attributes or overall product quality across different products of a family brand. When expectations of variability are high (vs. low), it is more difficult to infer the quality of a family brand on the basis of attribute information about its products. Consequently, consumers are less likely to make spontaneous inferences regarding a family brand on-line under high (vs. low) variability. Consistent with this theorizing, she found that on-line (vs. memory-based) processing was more likely when the target was a product (vs. a family brand) or when perceived variability was low (vs. high). The results of her research also suggests that negative attribute information about an extension did not dilute the family brand evaluations under high (vs. low) variability because consumers were less likely to infer that other products had similar problems.

The session concluded with several questions and discussions regarding the role of inferential process in consumers’ evaluations of products and brands.



Rui Zhu, University of Minnesota

Joan Meyers-Levy, University of Minnesota

Most people would agree that music is often expressive and can communicate information in its own unique manner. Hence, it is hardly surprising that advertisers frequently employ music as one vehicle of communication. Frequently, ads that employ music use it as a background accompaniment for verbal messages, where the music serves as an ancillary cue not meant to be attended to actively or purposively. Used in this manner, however, music may still serve a variety of functions, with perhaps the simplest being the signaling of affect or the favorableness of feelings (e.g., music may impart positive or negative feelings) and a more complex function being the communication of semantically meaningful, descriptive connotations, which might add to or accentuate the meaning conveyed by claims present in a verbal ad message. To exemplify these descriptive connotations, it has been suggested that rhythmically fast, staccato music can connote activity or arousal, while slower legato music may indicate tranquillity (Radocy and Boyle 1997).

The study that we report sought to investigate whether and when the use of music in ads is likely to serve each of these two functions. More specifically, we examined the conditions under which background music in radio ads is likely to exert some type of influence on product perceptions. Further, we sought to clarify when such an influence is likely to reflect the music’s simple affective (i.e., general favorableness) connotations versus its richer and more complex descriptive (i.e., semantic meaning-based) connotations.

Background advertising music often serves as an understated, non-focal cue from which a fairly superficial (e.g., affective) or deeper (e.g., descriptive) inferences may be drawn. Given that these different types of inferences (e.g., affective versus descriptive) seem to require the use of different levels of resources (lower versus higher), we approached our research question by drawing on resource matching and threshold theory (e.g., Anand and Sternthal 1989, Meyers-Levy and Sternthal 1991). Stated simply, we reasoned that whether and what kind of influence background music exerts on people’s product perceptions is likely to be a function of both the amount of cognitive resources the ad recipient devotes to processing te ad and the amount of resources that are needed to process the ad message at a level that is in keeping with that recipient’s overall processing goals.

Specifically, extant research suggests that individuals who are high in need for cognition (NFC) tend to approach situations by engaging actively in cognition (Cacioppo and Petty 1982), presumably striving to form relatively informed, accurate perceptions or judgments. As such, high NFC individuals are likely to effortfully process an ad’s (verbal) message together with its accompanying music and attempt to decipher any reasonable inferences suggested by the ad music, including relatively complex, potentially resource-demanding (i.e., descriptive) connotations. Yet, while this may be possible if the ad message requires relatively few resources to process, if processing the ad message is itself highly resource-demanding, this high demand on resources may impede individuals from inferring the resource-demanding, descriptive connotations of the music. In this case, high NFC individuals may extract and respond to the background music’s simpler, easier-to-infer, affective connotations, which are less resource-demanding to decipher.

By contrast, individuals who are low in NFC or their enthusiasm for engaging in cognitive processing generally avoid effortful processing and are content to generate assessments and perceptions that satisfy far lower accuracy criteria. Hence, low NFC individuals’ processing of ad messages and accompanying ad music should be relatively superficial, lax, and/or incomplete. If the resource demands imposed by the ad message are low, it is possible though far from certain whether such individuals will respond to and extract meaning from the presence of the understated background music. In the event that they do, however, low NFC individuals would be expected to infer only the music’s simple and quite easily extracted affective (not descriptive) connotations. Moreover, if the ad message requires a high level of resources to comprehend, such low NFC individuals should be insensitive to and unaffected entirely by the background music.

To test these hypotheses, we developed several versions of a radio ad for a travel agency. All versions of the ad presented essentially the same verbal message information. However, some versions delivered the verbal material in a lecture form, where a single announcer delivered a monologue in which the travel service’s attributes and benefits were identified. Other versions delivered effectively the same verbal material, but did so in the form of a drama that featured two individuals who identified the same attributes and benefits via a two-way conversation. Drawing on Wells’ theorizing (1989), this variation in message format was anticipated to alter the level of resources required to process the verbal ad message. Messages delivered in the form of a two-person, interactive drama as opposed to single, to-the-point lecture presented by a single narrator should be more resource demanding to process. In addition, two versions of instrumental music were selected that featured the same song, but the song was recorded at either a relatively slow or fast tempo. These musical selections were professionally edited into the background of ads that presented the lecture and drama format ad messages. In addition, recordings of the lecture or drama ads with no musical accompaniment were created. Thus, the study consisted of a 2 (NFC: high or low) by 2 (ad message format: drama or lecture) by 3 (music tempo: fast, slow, or no music) factorial design.

Results revealed a three-way interaction of participant NFC by ad message format by music tempo on participants’ perceptions of the advertised service. The data were consistent with our theorizing. When participants were high in NFC and were exposed to the less resource demanding lecture ad message, their product perceptions indicated sensitivity to the ad background music’s descriptive connotations. Yet, when such participants listened to the more resource demanding drama ad message, their perceptions suggested that they inferred the background music’s affective connotations. No influence of the bakground music was evident at all among low NFC participants.



Zeynep Gnrhan-Canli, University of Michigan

Consider the following statements taken from interviews with consumers. "Sony is a great brandAll of their products have top-of-the-line features." "I would say their products are generally very good though my Sony laptop has not been very reliable." Both of these consumers have favorable evaluations of Sony. However, while the first consumer does not expect any variability in favorableness of attributes across different Sony products, the second consumer is likely to expect some variability. How do variability perceptions affect consumers’ information processing about family brands? To what extent does perceived variability influence family brand judgments? While previous research has focused on inferences based on the central tendency of focal associations, relatively little attention has been paid to understanding the effect of perceived variability on generating inferences about a family brand (Boush and Loken 1991; Dawar 1996; Kardes and Allen 1991; Sujan and Bettman 1989). This research extends previous studies by suggesting that perceived variability influences the extent to which consumers generate inferences regarding the favorableness of a brand based on information about its products.

Categorization research (e.g., Fried and Holyoak 1984) suggests that if consumers expect variability in attribute performance across different products of the family brand, they may be less likely to spontaneously infer the quality or favorableness of a family brand on the basis of attribute information about different products associated with the brand. For example, if consumers learn that a specific model of JVC TV set has good picture quality, they may not readily use this information to form an impression about JVC brand, since JVC VCRs may not have good picture quality. Consumers may obviously make generalizations from a specific product to the family brand category when their goal is to form an impression (Joiner and Loken 1998). However, without a specific processing goal, they may not spontaneously attempt to generate inferences regarding the quality of the family brand on-line while the information is being presented. It is relatively difficult to make inferences about the brand on the basis of information about one product when there is variability across different products (McConnell, Sherman, and Hamilton 1994). In contrast, if no variability is expected (e.g., when forming impressions of individual products), it would be easier to integrate different pieces of information on-line while the information is being presented. This reasoning implies that, in general, consumers are more likely to process attribute information on-line about a product than about a family brand. In other words, on-line impressions are more likely when the target is a product (vs. a family brand). However, if consumers’ processing goal is to infer the quality of a brand, they would be motivated to form an organized impression while the information is being presented regardless of the target (i.e., product or family brand; Herr, Kardes, and Kim 1991; Kardes 1994). In sum, consumers are expected to form on-line impressions for both an individual product and a family brand when their processing goal is impression formation. In contrast, when there is no explicit goal to form an impression, on-line processing is more likely when the target is a product (vs. a family brand).

Consistent with the preceding theorizing, the first experiment showed that conumers were more likely to form memory-based (vs. on-line) judgments when the target was a family brand (vs. a product). Because of expectations of variability, consumers were not inclined to generate spontaneous inferences unless they were asked to do so. Experiment 2 showed that when perceptions of variability were reduced, consumers were more likely to generate inferences regarding the brand while the information is being presented. While the first two experiments used fictitious brands, Experiment 3 investigated the moderating effect of perceived variability on inferences about a real family brand in response to negative information about an extension. Subjects were less likely to infer that other products had similar problems when they expected high variability. Consequently, they were less likely to update their judgments about the brand in response to negative attribute information about its extension. However, subjects who expected low variability were more likely to generate inferences about other products and consequently updated their brand evaluations when the target attribute was perceived more (vs. less) general to evaluate the family brand name.


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