Age Differences in Memory For Narrative and Expository Print Advertisements

ABSTRACT - This study examines age differences in memory for print ads which are in either a narrative or expository text format. Sixty young and 48 older adults participated in the research. After reading either two narrative or expository print ads, subjects were asked to verbally recall the contents of the ads in both an immediate and delayed time condition. Results indicate immediate recall produces higher memory scores than delayed recall, that younger adults remember more of the content of print ads than older adults, and that narrative ads produce higher memory scores than expository ads.


Malcolm C. Smith (1995) ,"Age Differences in Memory For Narrative and Expository Print Advertisements", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 109-112.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 109-112


Malcolm C. Smith, University of Manitoba


This study examines age differences in memory for print ads which are in either a narrative or expository text format. Sixty young and 48 older adults participated in the research. After reading either two narrative or expository print ads, subjects were asked to verbally recall the contents of the ads in both an immediate and delayed time condition. Results indicate immediate recall produces higher memory scores than delayed recall, that younger adults remember more of the content of print ads than older adults, and that narrative ads produce higher memory scores than expository ads.

The rapidly aging population is a phenomenon that is of increasing interest to marketers, yet there is not a large body of research which helps us understand the aging consumer. A small body of research exists which has examined age differences in memory for advertising and deals with factors which affect older consumers' memory for advertising. One such factor that has not been investigated to date is the type of text used in the advertisement. Narrative/drama and argumentative/expository is one dichotomy that has been proposed as a classification for advertising text (see Deighton, Romer, and MacQueen 1989). According to Boller and Olson (1991) consumer researchers have devoted little attention to narrative forms of advertising and have focused on argumentative or expository formats. In fact, comparisons of age differences for memory of narrative- and argumentative-type advertising have been largely ignored. Another largely ignored factor is the timing of the recall task. The purpose of this study, then, was to examine age differences in memory for narrative and argumentative print ads at various time intervals.


The study of cognition and aging is a relatively new pursuit, beginning in earnest only in the last two decades. Much of this work has been undertaken within the information processing framework of cognitive psychology. In the study of cognition and aging, this framework has led to the general finding that older adults show poorer cognitive skills, especially in memory, than younger adults (e.g., Craik 1977; Denny 1982; Light 1988, 1991).

Empirical research on age differences in memory for text has yielded conflicting results (see Hultsch and Dixon 1984; Light 1991). For instance, Cohen (1979) found that older adults recalled significantly less information about a story than their younger counterparts. Young adults have also been shown to recall the main ideas of a text better than the elderly (Dixon et al. 1982), as well as text details (Spilich 1983). In addition, age related differences for memory of text have been found by other researchers (e.g., Cohen 1988; Zelinski and Gilewski 1988). Others, however, have found that contextual variables may moderate these age-related memory losses. For example, the varying the rate of presentation (Stine, Winfield and Poon 1986) and the changing the comprehension difficulty the text (Stine and Wingfield 1990) have been shown to reduce age differences in memory performance.


Empirical studies on the information processing abilities of the elderly consumer have included investigations concerning their abilities to process information at a fast pace (Stephens 1982), advertising frequency requirements (Stephens and Warrens 1983/84), and the interaction of depth of processing and processing deficits (Cole and Houston 1987).

Stephens (1982) examined the effects of age and speed of presentation on memory for advertising. When compared to younger adults, older adults experience difficulties processing information if it is presented at a rapid pace (see John & Cole 1986). Using recall as a measure of memory, Stephens found that, for unfamiliar products, the elderly recalled significantly fewer ads, products, and sales points for both normal and time-compressed television ads. There was only an interaction of speed of presentation and age for sales point recall. As predicted, the best recall for selling points was exhibited by the young consumers exposed to normal ads, and the worst recall for selling points was observed for the elderly consumers exposed to time-compressed ads.

Cole and Houston (1987), using a levels-of-processing framework, investigated the conditions under which the elderly learn less than younger adults by measuring both recognition and recall. Using print and television advertising in a well designed study, they manipulated the depth of encoding by giving the subjects either semantic-oriented encoding instructions (focusing on the content of the material) or sensory-oriented encoding instructions (focusing on the appearance of the material). The elderly subjects were found consistently to perform at a lower level on memory tests across all conditions of learning. For print ads in particular, the young subjects' memory performance increased significantly when they were instructed to process at a semantic level. This effect did not hold for the elderly.

One study which examined age differences in memory for advertising has not shown expected age differences. If processing difficulties are experienced by the elderly, Stephens and Warrens (1983/84) claimed that it follows that they should require more exposures to an advertisement than younger adults, in order to achieve the same level of memory. This claim follows from the assumption that "recall deficits result, not from inability to remember, but from the older adults' failure to learn as well initially" (Stephens and Warrens 1983/84, p. 24). This conclusion implies that the difficulties experienced by the elderly are due to the fact that they encode less in quantity rather than the fault lying with poorer quality encoding (i.e., implying a deficit in cognitive processing resources). Stephens and Warrens varied the frequency of exposures to advertisements for both young and old adults and, measured delayed recall and recognition of the advertisements one and seven days after exposure to the ads. They found no age-related memory differences at the same frequency level, thus finding evidence that age alone is not a factor in recall and recognition scores.

John and Cole (1986) reviewed the information processing differences between children and elderly consumers and noted that the elderly do not perform well in a variety of learning and problem-solving situations. They claimed that the evidence shows that as individuals enter their elderly years, the processing system seems to slow down, and processing becomes slower, less efficient, and more likely disrupted by task factors and demands. Likewise, Spotts and Schewe (1989) in their review article noted that "the age-related deficiencies in learning and memory can have inhibiting factors on the processing of information" (p. 39).


The timing of the memory task relative to when the text material was seen/heard has also been shown to have an effect on memory performance. Some researchers have provided evidence that age differences in memory for text are greater for immediate recall than for recall performed after seven days (Dixon et al. 1982; Hultsch and Dixon 1983). Still others have found greater age-related deficits for memory tasks taken one week after exposure to the text (e.g., Cohen and Faulkner 1984).

Few studies to date have examined the effect of a delay on the recall task on age differences in memory for print advertisements. In a subsample of their subjects, Stephens and Warrens (1983/84) found that after a seven day delay, younger and older adults both exhibited a significantly poorer memory of the ads. In addition, a finding by Cole and Houston (1987) indicates that memory for advertising content decays with time.


The structure of a text has been considered as a possible variable that interacts with age-related memory performance. One distinction of text type is narrative vs. expository discourse. Age differences in memory between narrative and expository texts have been examined (e.g., Hartley 1986, Tun 1989), and it has been demonstrated that the text characteristics play a role in memory for prose (see Hultsch and Dixon 1984).

Narratives differ from expositions in that they contain a well developed story line, that they describe specific relations between specific objects and states or actions, and that these event occur in a specific sequence (Hartley 1986). Expository texts, on the other hand, do not attribute specific actions to specific individuals or objects (Hartley 1986). Expository texts contain no story line; their idea units can, for the most part, be moved around without interfering with the overall meaning of the text. That is, in contrast to narratives, these idea units can be presented in different orders and still convey the same meaning. Thus, due to the built-in organization of narrative texts, they should facilitate superior memory performance when compared to expository texts. In general, narrative texts have been shown to facilitate memory of the discourse better than expository or argumentative texts (Tun 1989). However, one execption to this is a study by Hartley (1986) who found that expositions were better recalled than narratives.

Text structure is one variable that has not been investigated in the memory for advertising literature. Narratives, in the realm of advertising, have been labelled "drama" ads (Wells 1989). These types of ads tend to tell stories about the character(s) experience(s) with the brand, and the benefits and validity of the brand claims would be implicit and woven into the story line. According to Wells (1989), viewers infer lessons from narrative ads and apply those lessons to the circumstances they encounter during their daily lives. In a narrative or drama ad, benefits and validity of the brand claims would be implicit and woven into the story line. In addition, the events or idea units of a narrative ad must take place in a sequence in order for the story line to make sense (i.e. "A" precedes "B" which in turn precedes "C"). For instance, the shopper purchases the brand, uses the brand at home, develops a favourable attitude toward the brand, and decides to continue using that brand.

On the other hand, many advertisements are in the argumentative or expository form and, as such, are thought to be explicit purveyors of objective brand meanings that contain structured systems of attribute-benefit logic designed to convince audiences of the validity of specific brand claims (Boller and Olson 1991). Wells (1989) called these "lectures", while Boller and Olson (1991) referred to them as "argumentative." Argumentative type ads present facts intended to be believed and the presenter displays, demonstrates, and/or talks about the benefits the brand can provide while the members of the audience receive and process the argument at arms length (Wells 1989). These ad types present idea units about the brand, and the order of these idea units do not have a bearing on the overall meaning of the ad. For example, the price of the product can be presented before or after the location of where the product may be purchased without affecting the overall meaning of the ad.

Given the above, this study tested three hypotheses:

H1: Immediate recall will facilitate a higher recall score for the content of a print ad than delayed recall.

H2: Younger adults will have a higher memory score for the content of print ads than older adults.

H3: Narrative ads will elicit a higher memory score than expository ads.


Sixty young adults ranging in age from 18 to 24 years (mean age=19.80 years, s.d=1.90 years) and 48 older adults ranging in age from 60 to 86 (mean age=67.90 years, s.d.=5.46 years) volunteered to participate in the study. Young adults were recruited from across the campus of a large western university in the United States. Older adults were recruited from the same geographical area and all had at least some university education. There was an even split between males and females in the younger group, while 23 of the older subjects were male and 25 were female.

Two types of print ads were developed for two fictitious brands of commonly used products: orange juice and bar soap. For each brand, an ad with a narrative text and an ad with an expository text was created. The pictures for each version of the ad for each brand were identical. That is, a common picture was used for the narrative and expository version of the orange juice ad. Likewise the picture was used for the narrative and expository versions of the soap ad was the same.

Subjects were randomly assigned to the either the narrative or expository text format of the ads. Each subject was run individually and was asked to read each ad at their own pace and was informed only that he/she would be answering some questions pertaining to those ads when they were finished. The order of the ads was rotated among the subjects in order to avoid primacy and recency effects. The ads were not embedded in any filler material in order to attempt to control for the subjects' attention to the ads.

When the reading of the ads was completed, they were removed and the subjects were given a card-sorting filler task (Kogan, Conner, Goss and Fava 1980), in order to avoid rehearsal and retrieval from short-term memory. Each subject was then asked to recall orally, in as much detail as possible, what the ad "said" in the order in which they were read. Subjects were only prompted for the product type (i.e., orange juice and soap).

One week later, the subjects were again asked to give an oral recall of the content of the ads. They were not informed that this would be the task when they agreed to return after the first session, nor did they have the opportunity to review the ads before this delayed recall task. Once again, they were only prompted for the product type. Thus, for each subject, an immediate and a delayed recall score was obtained.

The oral protocols were audio taped and transcribed. In preparation for scoring, each text for each ad was parsed into idea units following the methods used by Frederiksen (1975). Each subject's protocols were then scored for their content of the idea units from the ads which they read. A lenient criterion (see Turner and Greene 1977) was used to determine if a text's idea unit had been expressed. That is, a point was scored not for just repeating the idea unit verbatim, but also for expressing the gist of the idea unit.


Because the number of idea units for each ad for each product was not equivalent (for the orange juice ad, narrative=86 idea units, expository=82 idea units; for the soap ad, narrative=81 idea units, expository=70 idea units), the memory scores were converted into a percentage basis in order to allow a comparison of the scores across the various conditions. Then, the proportion of each ad's text recalled by each subject for each ad in each time period was averaged to give an overall memory score. Thus, each subject had a total memory score for the proportion of the ad immediately recalled and for the proportion of the ad recalled in a delayed condition.

To test H1, a 2 (age group) x 2 (text type) x 2 (time) analysis of variance (ANOVA) (with repeated measures on the last factor) was carried out. This analysis revealed that there was a main effect due to time (F(1,104)=125.59, p<.001). On average, the immediate recall scores (average=12.8%, s.d.=5.8%) were significantly higher than the delayed recall scores (average=8.1%, s.d.=4.7%). Had this not been the case, the memory scores could have been collapsed into a single score. However, because they were different, the testing of H2 and H3 proceeded as separate analyses for immediate and delayed recall.

Two separate 2 (age group) x 2(text type) ANOVAs were conducted with the immediate recall (as a proportion) as one dependent variable and delayed recall (as a proportion) as the second dependent variable in order to test H2 and H3. In the case of immediate recall, main effects emerged for age group (F(1,104)=20.71, p<.001) and for text type (F(1,104)=12.11, p<.01), but no interaction was found. The younger subjects, on average, recalled more of the ads' text (average=14.8%, s.d.=5.7%) than the older subjects (average=10.4%, s.d.=4.9%). Thus, for immediate recall, H2 was supported. In addition, for immediate recall, the narrative text produced more idea units (average=14.6%, s.d.=5.9%) than the expository text (average=11.2%, s.d.=5.1%), supporting H3.

For delayed recall, main effects were also found for age group (F(1,104)=51.42, p<.001) and for text type (F(1,104)=16.07, p<.001), and once again, there were no significant interactions. The younger subjects, on average recalled 10.3% (s.d.=4.1%) of the idea units, while the older adults recalled, on average, only 5.2% (s.d.=3.7%) of the idea units. The narrative text in the delayed condition resulted in a higher recall score (average=9.5%, s.d.=4.5%) than the expository text (average=6.6%, s.d.=4.5%). Therefore, in the delayed condition, both H2 and H3 were supported.


In general, the results of this study support previous findings that younger adults recall more of the content of text/advertising than older adults. While previous studies examined the recall for such things as brand claims, this study examined the memory for the content of the entire text of the ads.

One explanation of why age-related declines in memory may occur has been attributed to a reduction in cognitive processing resources. Although the idea of processing resources is not well defined, the concept of working memory capacity is among the most popular. Working memory can be described as a processor that has a limited size and, therefore, has a limited capacity (see Sanford 1985, p. 119). It is generally seen as a system consisting of an area for temporary storage of information and a central executive, which is capable of attention, selection, and manipulation (Baddeley 1986). According to Hultsch and Dixon (1990), if working memory is tapped, there will be simultaneous storage of recently presented material in a buffer and processing of new incoming information by the central executive which would require extra resources. If aging results in a decrease in working memory capacity, then observed age-related differences in memory for text may be related to this shrinking capacity. This reduction would mean that as the elderly process information from text material, fewer ideas can be maintained in working memory, and, according to Cohen (1988), the degree of interrelationships among ideas in the text will be less accurately represented.

This study found narrative ads to facilitate better recall than expository ads. This finding is in agreement with Tun (1989). It would seem then, that the structure of the text of the print ad may affect the overall recall of that ad. The structure of narrative ads may provide more "glue" which holds the sequence of events in order and would aid consumers in remembering the content of ads more so than ads which are expository in nature. It is interesting to note that the structure of the ads did not facilitate memory for one age group over the other, as indicated by the lack of interactions between age and text type. This finding is in agreement with Hartley (1986) and Tun (1989).

Finally, this study also showed that immediate recall of ads is better than a delayed recall of one week. Few studies of memory have examined the effect of time on recall and the results presented here add support to both Cole and Houston's (1987) and Stephens and Warren's (1983/84) claims that memory for advertising decays with time.

This study is not without its limitations. A major limitation is the fact that subjects were drawn from a highly educated group. Only two print ads were used as stimuli and they were not imbedded in any "filler" material. Additionally, although the same picture was used for the two version of each brand, there may have been a verbal x pictoral interaction.

This study contributes to the literature in the following ways. It adds to our body of knowledge regarding age differences in memory for ads and in particular, those ads which are in the print medium. It also is also among the first to investigate differences in recall for narrative and expository text and has shown that narratives result in higher memory scores. Finally, it supports the notion that as time passes, the memory for the content of an ad decreases.

Future research in this area should include a broader range of educational levels for subjects, as well as more "real-to-life" stimuli in order to increase the external validity of the results. Advertisements in other media should be utilized as stimuli. Additionally, the effects of different pictures in the ads should be investigated in order to examine any verbal x pictoral interactions. Finally, delayed memory tasks at varying intervals might indicate if the decay reaches a plateau over time.


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Malcolm C. Smith, University of Manitoba


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995

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