The Relationship Between Product Category, Level of Product Meaning, and Product and Commercial Characteristics: a Content Analysis of Tv Commercials

ABSTRACT - We investigated the role of consumer durables in tv commercials from a semiotics perspective. The findings give suggestions of what products are able to communicate by themselves. There is a significant relationship between product category and level of product meaning indicating that the importance of attributes, consequences, and values differs for different product categories. Consistent with this finding is the relationship between product category and different product and commercial characteristics.


Sylvia C. Mooy and Henry S.J. Robben (1995) ,"The Relationship Between Product Category, Level of Product Meaning, and Product and Commercial Characteristics: a Content Analysis of Tv Commercials", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 83-88.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 83-88


Sylvia C. Mooy, Delft University of Technology

Henry S.J. Robben, Delft University of Technology

[We would like to thank Jop Schaap for his help in executing this research.]


We investigated the role of consumer durables in tv commercials from a semiotics perspective. The findings give suggestions of what products are able to communicate by themselves. There is a significant relationship between product category and level of product meaning indicating that the importance of attributes, consequences, and values differs for different product categories. Consistent with this finding is the relationship between product category and different product and commercial characteristics.

The results of this study are relevant because marketing communication messages cannot reach or influence their intended targets, given that consumers are confronted with a vast amount of messages everyday.


New products are continuously introduced in consumer and industrial markets (Andrews 1986). These introductions are invariably accompanied by marketing communication efforts aimed at influencing the target audiences' knowledge, attitudes, and behavior.

Researchers and practioners alike have acknowledged the vast amount of marketing communication attempts that consumers encounter on a daily basis (Engel, Blackwell, and Miniard 1990; Kotler 1994). From an advertiser's point of view, consumers do not process most of these messages at a desired level. It is therefore that most commercial messages cannot reach or influence their intended targets (Poiesz and Robben 1994).

This failure is detrimental for both businesses and consumers. Advertisers often see no alternative but to maintain or even increase their efforts to maintain or enhance their marketing communication effectiveness. Consumers may not be able to purchase an optimal alternative because relevant information does not reach them.

Although the ultimate objectives of a manufacturer are sales and profits, important objectives of marketing communications are to create awareness among consumers and to inform them about the (existing, new or enhanced) brand or product attributes, benefits, and values (Rossiter and Percy 1987). Different communication tools can be used to achieve these objectives (e.g., advertising, sales promotions, public relations)(Kotler 1994). In this paper we argue for a new point of view, namely, that the product itself can fulfil this communication function. To investigate the possibilities of the product as communication tool we first need to know how products are currently used in marketing communication campaigns to assess whether they do have a separate role to play in marketing communications.

The reported research concentrates on consumer durable products from a semiotics point of view. We consider products to be signs for consumers' needs. In the next paragraph the semiotic concept that formed the basis for the content analysis will be explained briefly.


Marketing communications and semiotics are closely related research fields. Semiotics is the study of signs and investigates the exchange of messages and the systems of signs which underlie them (Sebeok 1976, cited in Mick 1986). Communication research investigates the flow or exchange of information from one party to another (Govoni, Eng, and Gaper 1986; Smith 1993). The purpose of communication and semiotics is the transfer of meaning or the exchange of a message. Central to semiotics is the functioning of signs and the process of meaning generation. A sign is anything that stands for something (its object), to somebody (its interpreter), in some respect (its ground or context) (Peirce 1960). Based on this triad of sign-object-interpretant, three subfields of semiotics can be distinguished (Morris 1946): syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics. Syntactics is the study of the relation between signs within a message. Semantics is the study of the sign-object relation or the meaning of the sign. Pragmatics is the study of the sign-interpretant relation or reactions of the individuals to the sign. The focus in the reported research will be on the semantics of the sign, given the emphasis on investigating the possibilities of the product as communication tool.

A semantic perspective pays attention to the meaning of a sign. Taking the product as a sign, product semantics also deals with the study of meanings, but only when they are communicated through manufactured objects. Similar to written language, product semantics uses a nonverbal, visual alphabet of signs and symbols, such as line, color and texture (Giard 1990).

The meaning of a sign consists of two parts: denotation and connotation. Denotation refers to the superficial meaning, while connotation refers to the deeper meanings which lie beyond denotation (Dingena 1994). As a sign, the product refers to consumers' needs as 'object.' The denotation of a sign corresponds to consumers' functional or physical needs, while the connotation of the sign corresponds to the symbolic or psychosocial needs.

These two levels of product meaning can be found on different levels of abstraction. The 'means-end-chain' model (Reynolds and Gutman 1984, 1988) distinguishes three different levels: attributes, consequences, and values. This model assumes that attributes lead to consequences and that consequences lead to values.

Product attributes are divided into concrete and abstract characteristics. Concrete characteristics are measurable in physical units, while abstract characteristics refer to intangible aspects of the product. Consequences are the perceived outcomes of the product purchase and use or consumption. A distinction can be made between functional and psychosocial consequences, referring to functional and symbolic needs. For values a distinction is made between instrumental and terminal values. Instrumental values are preferred modes of conduct which are means to reach the terminal or end-values (Rokeach 1973).

A marketing communication message or commercial can emphasize several levels of product meaning. Factual contents can be defined as logical, objectively defined descriptions of tangible product characteristics, while evaluative contents can be defined as emotional, subjective impressions of intangible aspects of the product (Holbrook 1978). A factual communication message primarily focuses on concrete characteristics and functional consequences, and an evaluative message emphasizes abstract characteristics and the psychosocial consequences, values, or both (Dingena 1994).

Commercial characteristics

In a similar way that the product is a sign for consumers' needs, a communication message or commercial is a sign with the product as the 'object.' From a syntactic perspective, the relation between the different elements in the message can be seen as the communication style. A communication style can be either direct or indirect. Using a direct communication style, literal descriptions of product features, benefits, and usage possibilities are provided for the consumer. With an indirect communication style, rhetorical figures are used to convey the message, like metaphors, repetitions, and comparisons. Rhetorical figures can attract attention, induce a positive mood, create sympathy towards and appreciation or acceptance of the message in a fast and effective way. Rhetorical figures may communicate abstract characteristics or benefits of the product (Deighton 1985).

Within a commercial the physical product may act as a subsign or executional cue, i.e. the product does not function as a central element toward persuasion. The commercial can show the product for different periods of time. When viewing the product for a longer period of time, consumers can directly attribute certain qualities to the physical product. It seems reasonable to assume that consumers need more time for products with high complexity and low communicability. Personal characteristics like age will also influence the time consumers need to see the product before they can recognize and attribute certain qualities to the product. In the buying situation the physical product can serve as a search cue, like the package of a nondurable product does in a store.

Product characteristics

The literature suggests several product characteristics that influence the communication strategy. In this paragraph the most important characteristics will be explained briefly.

A product category is a set of products that are closely related to each other in that they can satisfy the same or a similar need. These needs can be functional or symbolic. A functional need refers to the direct benefits the consumer can get from the product. A symbolic need refers to the exchange of a certain message by the use or possession of the product (Wilkie 1994).

For each product category mental concepts are structured around a core meaning. The example which is closest to this core meaning would be used as a cognitive reference to understand the category. Other products are compared with this reference and thus evaluated indirectly for the degree of closeness to the core meaning (also referred to as typicality or representativeness). Visual clues play an important role in defining the core meaning and in evaluating potential category members. The links between product examples and the core meaning are first to reveal the category identity and second to reveal the symbolic values of the products (Athavankar 1990).

The novelty of the product is an important characteristic in marketing communications. Each stage of the product life cycle (PLC) needs a different communication strategy. In the introduction stage consumers have to be made aware of the product, so basic product information is important. Later in the PLC product features and modifications become important, and the communication strategy should focus on them (Kotler 1994).

The price segment to which the product belongs is another product characteristic important in marketing communications. Products in different price segments require a different communication strategy. Lower priced brands emphasize promotion, usually price promotion, to appeal to buyers on a 'value' basis, while higher priced brands emphasize advertising to justify their higher price (Rossiter and Percy 1987).


To examine the possibilities of different products to fulfil their own communication function, we first need to know how they are positioned and used in current marketing communication campaigns. This information may guide what the product should communicate by itself. The main objective of the reported research is to identify the levels of 'product meaning' the commercial emphasizes, based on the 'means-end-chain' model (Reynolds and Gutman 1984, 1988). First, for different product categories we examine the levels of product meaning that commercials emphasize, and the extent to which commercials emphasize factual or emotional information. Second, we relate the product categories to different commercial and product characteristics, like the product's portrayal in the commercial, the commercial's communication style, the need the product can fulfil, the product's representativeness, the novelty of the product, and the product's price. To investigate these objectives a content analysis of tv commercials for durable consumer products is performed.


Content analysis uses a systematic system of counting items within established categories (Holsti 1968, cited in Sayre 1992). The signs and the symbols within the commercials are the units of analysis. Of interest is what is presented, the properties of the stimulus, rather than what the communicator claims he said or the interpreter perceived to have been said (Kassarjian 1977). Content analysis of advertising has emerged as an important research tool in consumer behaviour. Most content analytic studies, however, concentrate on advertisements for nondurable products (i.e., Appelbaum and Halliburton 1993; Sepstrup 1985). The present study focuses on tv commercials for durable consumer products.


The study involved a content analysis of tv commercials for durable products broadcasted on the Dutch public channels. Once a fortnight the STER (the Dutch organisation that controls the broadcasting of commercials on public TV and radio channels), broadcasts all new commercials of the previous two weeks in a single run. Between March 1991 and April 1992 we collected about 1100 new commercials. We used only those commercials on which three researchers unanimously agreed that they concerned durable consumer products (199 commercials or 18%). Removing identical commercials, commercials for a retailer who advertises a product, commercials advertising a promotion or show, and commercials for multiple products, left 160 commercials. Ten commercials were used in the training of the judges, leaving 150 commercials for the analyses.


Six paid undergraduates coded the commercials. They received a training prior to actually coding the commercials. Each judge coded about half of the 150 commercials; three judges coded each commercial. They saw each commercial before answering each of the three main parts of the coding scheme. The commercials were coded in batches of seven or eight, a procedure which took about forty-five minutes. Each judge participated in three sessions a day at most with scheduled breaks.

Coding scheme

The coding scheme was employed to record characteristics of the product, the commercial, and the interaction between both.

Measurement of Attributes, Consequences, and Values. The judges used dichotomous scales to indicate whether the commercial paid attention to (a) concrete or (b) abstract product attributes, to (c) functional or (d) psychosocial consequences, and to (e) instrumental or (f) terminal values. Combinations of each pair of attributes were possible.

The judges used the following definitions to evaluate the commercials. Concrete product attributes are physical, tangible, or apparent attributes that are measurable in some unit, for example, 'color' and 'engine performance.' Abstract attributes are intangible and immaterial, are subjective rather than objective, and may group concrete attributes into a whole, for example, 'safety' and 'quality.' Functional consequences become evident when purchasing or using the product, for instance, 'drives fast' or 'makes little noise.' Psychosocial consequences are symbolic consequences related to product purchase or use, like 'being more attractive,' 'have more friends.' Instrumental values form preferred behaviors and relate to how others see the individual, for instance, 'being ambitious' or 'being honest.' Terminal values indicate a preferred mode of being and relate to how individuals perceive themselves, like 'being happy' or 'being free.'

Measurement of Product and Commercial Characteristics. The judges indicated on 7-point scales the extent to which the product satisfied a functional (a "1" on the scale) or a symbolic ("7") need, how representative it was for its product category (with "1" indicating "not at all representative" and "7" indicating "very representative"), and the product's price segment within the product category ("1" "very low price," "7" "very high price"). Similarly, they indicated how often the product was shown in the commercial ("1" "not shown at all," "7" "shown continuously"), the style of communication ("1" "direct," "7" "indirect"), and the extent to which commercials provided factual ("1") or emotional information ("7"). The mean values of the judges' evaluations on each scale served as dependent measures.


Four product categories emerged: Cars and car accessories (N=34), children's toys (N=20), consumer electronics (N=29), and domestic appliances (N=26). A 'miscellaneous' category contained the remaining 41 commercials. The reported analyses pertain to the four product categories only. Table 1 contains a crosstabulation of product category and an emphasis on attributes, consequences, and values. Table 2 summarizes the means of product and commercial characteristics for the different product categories.

Product Category and Concrete Product Attributes. We crosstabulated product category with whether the commercial highlighted concrete product attributes. Column 2 in Table 1 shows the number of commercials that paid attention to concrete product attributes; the number of commercials not paying attention to such attributes is the number of commercials in the product category minus the number of commercials paying attention to concrete product attributes. The final row of Table 1 gives the average interjudge agreement of each coded characteristic. The average interjudge agreement is a composite reliability score of the percent agreement between each pair of judges (Kassarjian 1977).

There was a significant relationship between product category and attention paid to concrete product attributes (c2=15.9, df=3, p<.005). Commercials for children's toys and domestic appliances emphasized concrete attributes, suggesting that concrete product attributes are relevant in advertising children's toys and domestic appliances. Such products have to differentiate themselves on certain concrete product features. Consumer electronics commercials paid less attention to concrete attributes than expected, suggesting that these are not highlighted when advertising such products.

Product Category and Abstract Product Attributes. There was a significant relationship between product category and attention paid to abstract product attributes (c2=8.7, df=3, p<.05). Commercials for cars and car accessories emphasized abstract attributes, suggesting an emphasis on attributes like safety and quality. Abstract attributes seem relevant when advertising cars and related products. Consistent with the previous result, children's toys commercials did not emphasize abstract attributes.

Product Category and Functional Product Consequences. There was a significant relationship between product category and attention paid to functional product consequences (c2=19.8, df=3, p<.0005). Functional consequences were stressed in commercials for domestic appliances, a finding that reflects the fact that these appliances are used very often for a range of specific tasks (e.g., heating or cooling). This emphasis was absent in consumer electronics commercials, probably suggesting that it is not functionality that matters in informing and persuading prospective buyers of consumer electronics products.

Product Category and Psychosocial Product Consequences. There was a significant relationship between product category and attention paid to psychosocial product consequences (c2=11.3, df=3, p<.05). The commercials for children's toys emphasized psychosocial product consequences. This finding reflects what children want to express when playing with these toys and not what they can actually accomplish with them, e.g., children do not move dolls and puppets around randomly but they want to show that they are in control of their own world (compare imitating behavior from adults). The emphasis on psychosocial consequences was absent in the domestic appliances commercials, which is in line with the result on functional product consequences.

Product Category, Instrumental Values, and Terminal Values. The instrumental and terminal values categories did not show a significant relationship with the product category variable, most likely due to too few cases (c2INSTRUMENTAL=3.2, df=3, p>.36; c2TERMINAL=4.0, df=3, p>.25).

Product Category, Product Characteristics, and Commercial Characteristics. To analyze the relationships between product category and product and commercial characteristics, we employed one-way analyses of variance with product category as the grouping factor and the interval scale variables as criterion measures. Table 2 contains the results of these analyses.

Product category was significantly related to the product's functionalism-symbolism (F(3)=17.0, p<.0001), the product's representativeness (F(3)=5.8, p<.001), the product's portrayal in the commercial (F(3)=5.5, p<.01), the commercial's communication style (F(3)=7.2, p<.001), and the type of information presented (F(3)=8.5, p<.0001), but not to the product's price segment (F(3)=1.6, p>.18). Table 2 shows the means for each variable per product category.

Domestic appliances are the most functional product category, a finding that is consistent with the commercials' emphasis on the functional consequences of using those products (first row of Table 2).Children's toys are least functional or most symbolic. Commercials for children's toys emphasize psychosocial consequences, which is consistent with the relatively symbolic nature of the toys.

All commercials are at least moderately representative for their product categories, with domestic appliances and cars being most representative (second row). This finding probably reflects that half the commercials were for existing products (N=75), only one for a totally new product, seven for new product lines, and the rest were product additions (N=23) or improvements (N=25).

The commercials showed products that were in the slightly higher than moderate price segments (third row). The means did not differ among the product categories. There were no commercials for extremely low- or high-priced products, a finding that is consistent with current thinking on communication strategy. Cheap products typically are promoted in-store (e.g., sale items), and high-priced consumer products require personal sales techniques (e.g., buying your own home) (cf. Wilkie 1994).



Children's toys were shown for the longest periods of time in the commercials, and consumer electronics products and domestic appliances shortest (fourth row). This finding may reflect the intended target audience rather than product characteristics in the sense that children need more time to appreciate the presented product differences than adults. It is also possible that explaining differences between toys requires more time because differences are subtle (e.g., different Barbie versions).

The style of communication was most direct for children's toys and domestic appliances, thus literally describing the product's attributes, benefits, or how to use it. It was neither direct nor indirect for cars and car accessories and consumer electronics (fifth row). Commercials for these product categories need not tell how to use a car or a television set, nor do they use figures of speech to present the product.

The information represented in the commercials was relatively factual for children's toys and domestic appliances, and neither factual nor emotional for consumer electronics and cars and car accessories (sixth row). This finding parallels the results described in the fifth row, and indicates that a direct communication style is associated with presenting factual information. A direct communication style is associated with a more factual information content of the commercial.


A Classification of Television Commercials for Product Categories. The effects summarized by Tables 1 and 2 suggest that commercials for children's toys emphasized concrete attributes and psychosocial consequences, and referred less often to abstract product attributes. They also contained more symbolism, were less representative of their product category, were shown longest, and used a more direct style of communication.

Commercials for consumer electronics products stressed emotional information, and contained fewer concrete product attributes and functional consequences. The commercials showed those products relatively briefly, used a more indirect communication style, and presented more emotional information.

The commercials for the domestic appliances emphasized concrete product attributes and functional consequences, and made fewer references to psychosocial consequences. They contained more factual information, were more functional, and showed the products for the shortest time. Those for cars emphasized abstract attributes, and did not differentiate themselves in a meaningful way from those for other product categories.



Commercials for toys and domestic appliances showed a more direct communication style and a more factual information content. Direct communication style and factual information content are also related to an emphasis on concrete product attributes. This finding is consistent with the idea that a factual message primarily focuses on concrete product attributes, but it is inconsistent with a focus on functional consequences. For toys the focus is on psychosocial consequences instead of functional consequences. Taken together, the empirical results form a coherent picture, in that the findings of the different aspects support each other.

Although commercials for toys and domestic appliances emphasize concrete product attributes, the role of the physical product is more prominent in commercials for toys than for domestic appliances. Compared to commercials for other durable consumer products, toys were shown for the longest periods of time. In commercials for domestic appliances and consumer electronics the role of the physical product is less important. In these commercials the product was shown for the shortest periods of time. A possible explanation is that consumers are more familiar with some product categories. They have already a good concept of these products in mind, so it is not necessary to show the product in the commercial. Future research should address the question whether familiarity is of influence on the role of the product in marketing communications.

Theoretical Implications. The empirical findings have a direct bearing on the theories of semiotics and communication that form the conceptual basis of the present research. The results are compatible with the concepts of denotation and connotation. Denotation of the product as a sign is more important for domestic appliances, while it is less important for consumer electronics. This result is consistent with the more functional needs that domestic appliances serve. For children's toys denotation is important on an attribute level, probably to differentiate the product from others, while on consequence level connotation is more important. This last finding is consistent with the less functional or more symbolic need toys serve compared to the other products in the sample. Finally, for cars connotation on an attribute level is important. The findings, however, do not show that cars serve more symbolic needs.

When a commercial does not emphasize the denotation or connotation on a certain level of abstraction, this may not be taken to mean that these concepts are unimportant for the advertised product. It is possible that this aspect is communicated to the consumers in another way, for example, by the product itself. Future research that uses products themselves as stimuli needs to address this question.

Research Objectives. The empirical results answered the main research objective, namely identifying the levels of product meaning emphasized by the commercials. It was possible to create a meaningful classification of the commercials using concepts derived from semiotics and means-end-chain theory. In addition, there were significant differences in the type of product attributes and product consequences featuring in those commercials. This fact shows that the commercials are different in that there are relationships between product meaning and product and commercial characteristics (see Tables 1 and 2 and their discussion). The commercials mostly emphasized the lower levels of abstraction in the means-end chain, namely attributes and consequences. Few commercials emphasized instrumental or terminal values.

Given that tv commercials do differ in what they communicate, a direct application of the present study would involve taking a logical step in the investigation, namely to study what products themselves communicate about their attributes, benefits, and values.

Limitations and Research Opportunities. This research started from semiotics and viewed the product as a sign for consumers' needs. However, only the sign-object relation, or semantics, was taken into account. Given that content analysis typically limits itself to the signs and symbols within the message, the interpretant of the sign, or consumer responses, is completely neglected. We also neglected the syntactic structure of the product. Product design is the instrument by which the product can communicate to consumers. By using a visual alphabet of line, color, and texture, the product should be able to communicate without additional help from marketing communication instruments. An investigation of consumer responses to the product as a sign and an analysis of the syntactic structure of products should complete the picture of a product from a semiotics point of view. This information should address the question if products can be their own communication tool.

A second limitation concerns the exclusive focus on tv commercials. Marketing communications campaigns consist of a mix of communication tools, for example, advertising, personal selling, and sales promotions. An examination of entire communication campaigns for product categories should allow a more complete view of the role of the physical product in marketing communications.


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Sylvia C. Mooy, Delft University of Technology
Henry S.J. Robben, Delft University of Technology


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995

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