Special Session Summary Visuals Are Information: How Meaning Is Transferred to Consumers Through Executional Elements in Advertising

John W. Pracejus, University of Alberta
[ to cite ]:
John W. Pracejus (2003) ,"Special Session Summary Visuals Are Information: How Meaning Is Transferred to Consumers Through Executional Elements in Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 174-176.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Pages 174-176



John W. Pracejus, University of Alberta


The session explored issues relating to the notion that visual elements are information. As such, they persuade, not merely by modifying, accentuating or interfering with words, but rather they are fully capable of conveying persuasive information in and of themselves. While historians have chronicled the steady erosion of the primacy of words in advertising, consumer research still tends to focus on them. When visuals are addressed, they are often portrayed as secondary or peripheral. When their impact is acknowledged, it is often in the context of how they impact the processing of the verbal information. In the rare case where their direct persuasive impact is acknowledged, this impact is derided by some as an illogical, emotional response on the part of the consumer.

But visual elements can and do convey information. The three papers in this session demonstrated that (1) ad creators demonstrate a reliable understanding about what specific visual elements mean, and (2) consumers are well adapted at decoding this visual information. From consumers’ ability to quickly comprehend the message of a visual metaphor, to their reliable interpretation of what white space means in an ad to their understanding about what different typeface is trying to convey, consumers are, to a large extent, quite visually literate.

The first paper explicitly considered production and reception issues in visual communication. The striking correspondence between what ad creators think white space conveys, and what consumers interpret, argues even "empty space", when used as a visual element, can convey information. The second paper showed a similar correspondence in meaning between ad creators and consumers in terms of what is conveyed by the typeface. It appears, therefore, that even the way the words are written conveys additional information. The third paper went a step farther, to explicitly consider how effective visuals are at conveying information, relative to words.



John W. Pracejus, University of Alberta

G. Douglas Olsen, University of Alberta

Thomas C. O’Guinn, University of Illinois

Variables in the marketing mix are not static. They evolve. Research methods, however, may not always keep pace with this change. This is the case with advertising. Currently, and for quite some time, both practitioner and academic advertising research has tended to focus attention on a style of advertising (claims based ads) that has actually diminished significantly over the last hundred years. During the twentieth century, ads went from being copy-heavy arguments to become predominately visual devises with little, and sometimes no copy. However, existing research methods have not adequately considered the increasingly visual nature of advertising. Our content analysis of experimental, advertising-related articles in the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing, and Journal of Marketing Research from 1990-1999 showed that 80.0% varied only the verbal information in the advertisement. We see this as indicative of the lack of attention to the study of how visual elements actually inform and persuade. We attempt to address this shortcoming in the literature by focussing on a single visual element: white space. In a series of four studies we measure the correspondence in the understanding of this visual element between ad producers (agency creative directors) and consumers, and how this element impacts consumer perceptions of brands.

Study one surveys the creative directors at 31 North American advertising agencies. Results show that creative directors seem to have commonly shared beliefs about brand signals/meanings conveyed to consumers by the use of white space in ads. The most frequently mentioned were prestige, market power, trustworthiness, industry leadership, and the quality of the brand. To assess the degree to which consumers understood these same meanings/symbols, in study two we present 63 consumers with two ads for the same product, which are identical except for the amount of white space used (i.e. one low one high). We then ask them which ad better conveys prestige, market power, trustworthiness, industry leadership, and the quality of the brand. Prestige (t59=7.20, p<.001), trustworthiness (t59=6.00, p<.001), and brand quality(t59=7.23, p<.001) were all significantly conveyed by high amounts of white space. White space did not significantly impact market power or brand leadership measures.

In order to test whether consumers would get these meanings without explicitly pointing out the white space construct, study three reduced the salience of the white space. An additional 130 participants were exposing to a single ad which was either high or low in white space (i.e. between subjects). The white space construct was never explicitly pointed out to them.

As before, quality (F1,126=8.56, p<.01), prestige (F1,126=9.04, p<.01) and trust (F1,126=9.58, p<.01) are all significantly impacted by white space, as is attitude toward the brand (F1,126=15.3, p<.001) and purchase intention (F1,126=4.01, p<.05). Again, though, market power and firm size meanings are not conveyed by whie space. This might be due to the lack of an ad size context in studies 2 and 3. Therefore, study four manipulates both white space (2 levels) and ad size (three levels), by placing the ads into a mock newspaper (11"X14"). Here, as before, quality (F1,173=15.23, p<.001) prestige (F1,173=20.45, p<.001), trust (F1,173=18.97, p<.001), attitude toward the brand (F1,173=15.58, p<.001) and purchase intention (F1,173=4.67, p<.05) are all significantly impacted by white space. In addition, market power (F1,173=12.5, p<.001), and brand leadership (F1,173=10.76, p<.001), are also positively conveyed by white space. None of these effects are moderated by ad size (i.e. there were no significant ad size by white space interactions). There was however a positive main effect of ad size on perceived company size, which is consistent with previous ad size studies.

In conclusion, we believe that we have at least opened a research path that is potentially very important to both practice and academic inquiry. We need to conceive of advertising as a complex, rhetorical, and socially situated phenomenon resulting in negotiated meaning between producers and receivers of paid communication. We need to think of information more broadly and more realistically. Better appreciation of the widely understood conventions of advertising’s visual rhetorical system will inform a much deeper understanding of advertising than the heretofore too narrow focus on words, claims and arguments.



Pamela Henderson, Washington State University

Joan Giese, Washington State University

Joseph A. Cote, Washington State University

Companies communicate the majority of their messages through some form of written language. Very few media use only verbally presented messages (e.g., radio). While research in marketing and consumer research has focused on how such messages are processed, there is a strong belief among designers who create these corporate materials that the typefaces in which messages appear communicate their own meaning. While some academicians have recognized the possibility that the visual elements of typeface influence consumer responses (Hutton 1987; Tantillo, Di Lorenzo-Aiss, and Mathisen 1995), there is relatively little research to support such an effect or guide managers in their decisions of how to use typeface design to achieve their strategic objectives. The purpose of the present research was to determine the dimensions of design that differentiate typefaces, the meaning evoked by typefaces, and the extent to which those meanings can be predicted by the design dimensions.

Research Design

First, the graphic design literature was used to identify characteristics of typefaces and the kinds of meanings they are thought to evoke. In addition, five graphic designers provided lists of the characteristics that differentiate typefaces and the meanings they believed were evoked by typefaces. Twenty-two characteristics (e.g., serif/sans serif; symmetry/asymmetry; heavy/light; uniform/not uniform) and 12 meanings (e.g., formal/informal; warm/cold) resulted from this process.

Second, 82 designers rated subsets of 210 typefaces on the 22 characteristics. These ratings were evaluated to determine the extent to which designers agreed in their assessments of type. The ratings were then factor analyzed to identify the underlying dimensions of typeface.

Third, 336 non-designers rated subsets of the 210 typefaces on the 12 impressions/meanings thought to be created by type. These ratings were factor analyzed to identify the underlying dimensions of meaning. Finally, the design dimensions were used as predictors of the meaning dimensions in a series of regression analyses.


First, graphic designers and the graphic design literature agreed in their descriptions of the primary characteristics that differentiate type and the primary responses and meanings that type is thought to evoke. Second, designers agreed, to a large extent, in their ratings of typeface characteristics. This finding is critical because in order for managers and advertisers to successfully manipulate the use of type, they must be assured that guidance given to designers will be understood. A factor analysis of the design characteristics identified three major underlying factors of typeface design, as well as several other individual characteristics. The three factors include their elaborateness, naturalness, and harmony. Other characteristics that did not load on these factors include serif/sans serif, proportion, height, and degree to which ascenders and descenders are pronounced.

Third, non-designers exhibited clear perceptions of meanings associated with and impressions created by typefaces. This finding supports the intuition of designers that typefaces vary in their meanings and consumer responses. In addition, factor analysis of these ratings indicated three dimensions of responses to typeface designBtrustworthy/risky, affect (positive/negative), and power (strong/delicate).

Finally, the design dimensions (e.g., elaborateness, naturalness, harmony, serif/sans serif, etc.) were used as predictors in three regression analysesBone for each of the response factors (trustworthy/risky, positive/negative affect, powerful/delicate). The design dimensions were very strong predictors of the meaning/impression factors. The relationship between design characteristics and trustworthiness was quite strong (R2=.767). Typefaces that were simpler, exhibited harmony and had serifs created impressions of trustworthiness (honesty, familiarity, mainstream, etc.).

Design characteristics were also significant predictors of affect (R2=.526). Typefaces were perceived as attractive, warm and liked when they were simpler, more natural and had serifs. In addition, there was a curvilinear effect of harmony such that moderate to high levels of harmony evoked very positive affect. There was an inverted-U shaped relationship between condensed (which creates an impression of proportion) and affect such that moderate levels of condensed created the highest level of affect. Finally, typefaces created impressions of being strong and masculine, as opposed to delicate and feminine when they were less natural (looked typed, straight and angular rather than handwritten, slanted, and curved), had pronounced serifs, and were constructed with thick rather than thin lines.


Based on this research, it appears that typeface design communicates meanings independent of the verbal content being displayed. The meanings created are meanings that are important to advertisers and managersBnamely meanings or impressions of trustworthiness, affect, and power. In addition, this research should be helpful to managers and advertisers in directing graphic designers in the impressions they wish to create and the design characteristics that will be most successful in creating these impressions.



Barbara J. Phillips, University of Saskatchewan

Edward F. McQuarrie, Santa Clara University

Almost since the beginning of advertising scholarship, pictures have been held in special esteem on the assumption that they could be more persuasive than mere words. The historian, Roland Marchand (1985, p. 236), writing of advertising in the 1920s, remarked, "The potential superiority of the visual statement became evident in cases where the advertiser’s message would have sounded exaggerated or presumptuous if put into words." The power of pictures has continued in advertising folk wisdom up until the present day; the copywriter Luke Sullivan (1998, p. 45) explains "There’s a reason they say a picture is worth a thousand words. The point is, you should try to solve the problem visually if you can. Visual solutions are so universal, they work even after years in the deep freeze." In fact, pictures have been viewed as so persuasive that their messages have been considered ipso facto deceptive. "Nowadays, examples of visual claims that would be unacceptable in verbal form can be found in most kinds of advertising" (Messaris, 1997, p. 225; cf. Stern 1992).

A moment’s reflection, however, will show that the truth of this venerable chestnutBthat pictures in ads are more persuasive than wordsBis far from obvious. Indeed, empirical evidence with respect to the peculiarly persuasive character of pictures is lacking. Although a picture superiority effect was established many years ago in consumer research (Childers and Houston 1984; Edell and Staelin 1983), this superiority concerns recall, not persuasion. Similarly, although it is well-established that manipulations of pictorial elements within an ad can have a measurable effect on consumer response (e.g., McQuarrie and Mick 1999; Peracchio and Meyers-Levy 1994), the ability of different pictures to differentially affect consumer response in no way establishes that pictures are more persuasive than words.

This presentation will unpack the assumption that pictures in ads tend to be more persuasive than words by asking how this could be true and empirically examining the extent to which it is true. We will suggest that the folk wisdom may be vacuous because the advertising claims that can be said to reside in the picture itself (e.g., this cleaner comes in a red plastic bottle) are irrelevant to the interests of consumers and hence to persuasion. The claims that are relevant to persuasion cannot be found in the picture, but must be inferred by consumers based on cultural knowledge and past experience (e.g., this cleaner can handle tough stains on bathroom tile). Thus, our approach to studying the superior persuasiveness of pictures in ads reconfigures the question to focus on the inference process by which consumers construct meaning from ad pictures. We will argue that the persuasive power of pictures, to the extent that it exists, must arise because the inference processes evoked by pictures differ in some way, quantitatively or qualitatively, from the processes by which consumers construct meaning from the verbal statements in ads.

To understand advertising persuasion in terms of inference, we draw on the work of researchers in pragmatic linguistics who study what an audience does in response to a communication (Sperber and Wilson 1986). These researchers state that any utterance gives rise to a set of implicatures (or interpretations of that utterance). An utterance will give rise to a strong implicature when it provides one, similar, "obvious" interpretation across most of the listening audience (see Phillips 1997 for examples). However, an utterance will give rise to weak implicatures to the extent that different audience members tend to develop different interpretations. We will suggest that the power of advertising pictures lies in their ability to generate weak implicatures, and that weak implicatures may be particularly effective in certain advertising settings. Specifically, we argue that weak implicatures lead to more elaboration and less counterarguing, even under low involvement conditions (cf. Kardes 1993).

We will describe the development of six sets of matched ads to test the superiority of pictures in generating weak implicatures and in enhancing persuasiveness. One ad in each set presents the product attribute in pictorial metaphor form and one ad presents the product attribute in literal words. To rule out the possibility that the metaphor, rather than the picture, is enhancing persuasiveness, the third ad in the set presents the product attribute in verbal metaphor form. We compare the three ads in terms of their ability to elicit strong, weak, and irrelevant attributes from consumers. In addition, we compare the ads on their ability to elicit deceptive interpretations, with an eye to the contention in the literature that pictures are prone to misleading interpretations.


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