The Dichotic Theory of Salience: a Framework For Assessing Attention and Memory

ABSTRACT - Salience has generally been treated as a propriety of a stimulus which allows it to stand out and be noticed. A review of salience studies in consumer literature reveals a common origin among salience instances, by emphasizing the nature of prominence which is intrinsic to any salience construct. According to the Dichotic theory of salience (Guido 1995a; 1996) introduced here, a stimulus is said to be in-salient when it is incongruent in a certain context to a perceiver’s schema; or it is said to be re-salient when it is congruent in a certain context to a perceiver’s goal. An experiment is presented to assess the validity of the in-salience construct in triggering ad processing which, in turn, leads to consumer awareness.


Gianluigi Guido (1998) ,"The Dichotic Theory of Salience: a Framework For Assessing Attention and Memory", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Basil G. Englis and Anna Olofsson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 114-119.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 114-119


Gianluigi Guido, University of Rome, Italy


Salience has generally been treated as a propriety of a stimulus which allows it to stand out and be noticed. A review of salience studies in consumer literature reveals a common origin among salience instances, by emphasizing the nature of prominence which is intrinsic to any salience construct. According to the Dichotic theory of salience (Guido 1995a; 1996) introduced here, a stimulus is said to be in-salient when it is incongruent in a certain context to a perceiver’s schema; or it is said to be re-salient when it is congruent in a certain context to a perceiver’s goal. An experiment is presented to assess the validity of the in-salience construct in triggering ad processing which, in turn, leads to consumer awareness.

Consider the following scenarios:

- an enormous billboard covering the facade of a historical building in Rome advertises a famous brand of beer;

- a bright, full-colored refrigeator in a department store signals a new brand of frozen food;

- an intriguing, chanting jingle of a chocolate bar commercial coming to your mind makes you crave for chocolate.

What these advertising scenarios have in common is their salience, that is the extent to which particular marketing stimuli can stand out relative to others in their environment. In an increasingly cluttered advertising environment, the salience of marketing stimuli guides consumers’ attention and processing, allowing advertisers to overcome the well-developed perceptual screening system consumers have incorporated into media fruition behaviors. However, despite the tremendous amount of money spent on buying consumer attention and memory, advertisers seem to use the rules developed fifty years ago (i.e., make it bigger, make it brighter, make it easier!). Little to no research has been done to this topic, and businesses have not adequately considered that salience is the key to make their brands prominent over the othersBas attention and memory are the results of a competitive process which can be obtained only at the expense of other competitors (Janiszewski and Bickart 1994).

In social and consumer literature, salience has been generally treated as an umbrella concept covering a variety of constructs (e.g., accessibility, activation in memory, availability). This proliferation of definitions adopted so far has impeded the development of research which was homogenous in its assumptions and, therefore, able to compare findings achieved in different areas of social sciences. In spite of a long recognized capacity of salient stimuli to overcome potential barriers and reach the consumer audience (see, e.g., Krugman 1965), salience has remained "a somewhat imprecise term" (Burton and Blair 1988, p. 33) and researchers’ calls for a general theory of salience (e.g., Alba, Hutchinson, and Lynch 1991; Hastie, Park, and Weber 1984; Heckler and Childers 1992; Mowen 1993) have still remained unanswered.

To address this fundamental issue raised here, the present study will attempt to accomplish three purposes: (1) To review the relevant literature in the social sciences pertaining to salient stimuli; (2) To introduce a new model of salience, namely the Dichotic theory of salience by Guido (1995a; 1996); and (3) To propose and test in an advertising setting some research propositions of this model, specifically, those related to salient physical stimuli (i.e., the so-called In-salience theory).


Traditionally, the concept of salience has been mainly employed in the field of social psychology. According to Gardner (1982), the origin of the term (saliency) dates back to Krech and Crutchfield (1948)Balthough similar concepts had been developed since the end of the 19th century under different names (see, e.g., Calkins 1894; von Restorff 1933). Only recently, however, this concept has found its current form in the work of Taylor and Fiske in the field of person perception (Taylor and Fiske 1975; 1978; Fiske and Taylor 1991). By emphasizing its inherent nature of prominence, Fiske and Taylor (1991) defined salience as "the extent to which particular stimuli stand out relative to others in their environment" (p. 246) and classified the causes of social salience according to the context in which a stimulus occurs (see Table 1).

Drawing on Fiske and Taylor’s (1991) classification, Guido (1995a; 1995b) reviewed more than 1,200 studies in social and consumer psychology dealing with salient marketing stimuli (including products, brand names, ads, commercials, and so on). Results addressed the search for a common origin among the different instances of salient stimuli.

a) The priciple of figure-ground.

First, in an immediate context, salience was explained by the principle of figure-ground, according to which people direct their attention to those aspects of the perceptual field that stand out in a background. Salience studies grounded on this principle relate to: figurality (bright, complex, moving stimuli); and contextual novelty (stimuli which appear in isolation). Examples of figurality are provided by most of research on salience in consumer behavior. All these studies usually stress the salience effect on memory by naming brightness, movement, and complexity as those factors able to start cognitive processing. Brightness refers to the perceived magnitude of a stimulus. Bright, saturated colors tend to capture people’s attention because they are easier to identify than dull, diluted ones. That is why, for example, stores often use bright colors to differentiate among their different shopping areas. Movement stimulates the sensory receptors and sparks them to send impulses. Moving signs and store displays, for example, are employed to help a stimulus stand out, while much of the great success of TV commercials is due to their ability to portray movement to people’s eyes. Finally, complexity depends either on contextual factors (namely, the number of distinguishable stimuli in the context and the perceived dissimilarities among such stimuli) and on learning (what is perceived as complex is what the individual finds unfamiliar). Format complexity, therefore, strongly interacts with individual characteristics (see Alba and Hutchinson 1987, on novices vs experts).

The other class of stimuli, whose salience was explained with the Gestalt principle of figure-ground is contextual novelty. In its different operationalizations, contextual novelty involves the "isolation" of the stimulus it refers to (e.g., an object) from other stimuli (e.g., other objects). This has an important consequence that has passed into history as the von Restorff effect (von Restorff 1933): isolating an item against a crowded or homogeneous background facilitates the learning of that isolated item. There are three major ways isolation can be manipulated (Wallace 1965). The first way involves performing an additional operation on an item within a group of similar alternatives (e.g., printing it in red when the remaining list items are printed in black). A typical example is provided by the studies of Schindler and his associates (e.g., Schindler, Berbaum, and Weinzimer 1986) on the effects of salience on choice; it happens especially for products and services for which consumers perceive much similarity among the many alternatives and where consumers have little basis for making a quick choice (e.g., soap pads or paper towels on a supermarket shelf). A second way isolation has been created is through direct manipulation of the items, that is, inserting a different type of item within a group of similar items. Thus, for example, in a copy text, people tend to focus more attention on italicized words as they are fewer in number and thus more novel than the larger group of non-italicized words. A third way isolation has been manipulated is through the structural organization within a group, a method which was originally developed to minimize intraserial interference differences between massed and isolated items in a list. An interesting exemplification is offered by order effects in the presentation of advertisements, which provide more attentional value to those ads which are at the beginning or at the end of a string, or in a position of relatively low generalizability to the rest of a series (cf. Webb and Ray 1979).



b) The principle of unusuality.

Apart from figure-ground, the other principle that was evoked, in a larger context, to explain salience was the principle of unusuality, according to which a stimulus is attended when it violates people’s prior knowledge and expectations (Fiske and Taylor 1991). It pertains to: statistical novelty (i.e., unique, and unfamiliar stimuli); unexpectancy; out-of-role behaviors, negativity, and extremity. From a Berlynian point of view, in assessing the statistical novelty of a marketing stimulus, two perspectives are relevant. From one perspective, which has been called uniqueness, novelty represents the degree to which a particular stimulus differs from other exemplars. This perspective is similar to that of Olney, Holbrook, and Batra (1991) who suggested that the novelty of a television commercial can be seen as an incongruity between a viewer’s existing schema for television commercials and the nature of the commercial in question. From another perspective, which has been called familiarity, novelty represents the degree of an individual’s (lack of) prior experience with a given stimulus (cf. Baker et al. 1986). Novelty, in this sense, derives from the availability of prior knowledge which is representative of the stimulus. This familiarity dimension has been manipulated by the use of primes, which change the recency of an experience (e.g., enclosing free samples in a magazine); or by acting on the frequency of a stimulus (using, for example, low frequency words as brand names).

Unexpectancy comes from a "by-product" of prior knowledge, that is expectations. The sources of expectations can be generally traced in either past experiences and inferences (i.e., learning by problem solving), or from external information (i.e., learning by memorizing, that is, repetition); whereas the formation process of expectations is mainly due to three reasoning processes: cue utilization, heuristics, and causal attribution (van Raaij 1991). The perceptual events which occur when expectations established through learning fail of confirmation are the cause of incongruity. Several different terms have been used in consumer literature to indicate an incongruent stimulus (e.g., unexpected, discrepant, inconsistent, uncorrelated, uncoordinated). Unfortunately, researchers conducting these studies have only vaguely articulated the theoretical foundations of these terms (Heckler and Childers 1992). Advertisers have used a variety of executional strategies to improve the unusuality of ad cues and attract attention. The common ground of these executional techniques is the distortion of familiar stimuli which can be obtained, for example, through the use of "surreali-stic" techniques (such as chance effects, unexpected juxtapositions, and unorderly connections), camera angles, cartoons, and humor (e.g., Homer and Kahle 1986; Crane 1972, p. 198a).

Out-of-role behaviors is a particular class of salient stimuli which is peculiar to the social context. It refers to people who are salient when they behave in ways that do not fit other people’s prior knowledge about them as individuals, as members of a particular social category, or as people in general. Expectations, therefore, can regard a person’s social role, position, or identity (Levine, Resnick, and Higgins 1993). Social roles are comprised of the privileges, duties, and obligations of any occupant of a social position. In consumer research, for example, Sujan, Bettman, and Sujan (1986) found that, in a selling situation, information is processed differently if the salesperson is incongruentBrather than congruentBwith a consumer’s expectation of the typical salesperson in the category. Social positions are defined as socially recognized categories of actors. When a positional category is assigned to a person, the individual is expected to possess particular attributes and is responded to on the assumption that he has these attributes. Social identities, finally, relate to people that, when assigned to social positions by others, internalize these positional designations and come to view themselves as the others view them. Such easily discriminated features as a person’s sex, age, or race are particularly likely to be salient in a social situation, especially when those features are in the contextual minority (cf., e.g., Meyers-Levy 1988).

The principl of unusuality has also been called to explain salience which derives from negativity. Research in social psychology has been extremely consistent in indicating negative stimuli as generally more salient than positive ones and having a stronger effect on a variety of decision outcomes (see, for a review, Kanouse 1984). In advertising, whereas most of the earlier approaches have focused on positively framed messages (i.e., presenting benefits gained from product use), recent strategic methods have focused on negative framed messages for a variety of circumstancesBe.g., deodorant and health-related appeals (see Homer and Yoon 1992). In relation to product attributes, negative information has a strong effect on the categorization of the product, because consumers perceive it as more diagnostic than other accessible inputs (Feldman and Lynch 1988).

Whereas negativity is related to those cues where evaluation fell below the psychological midpoint, extremity is defined as a deviation from a central tendency, so it can constitute either more or less of an attribute than is usual (Fiske 1980). Models of categorization, such as the accessibility-diagnosticity model (Feldman and Lynch 1988), formally support the relationship of extremity to informativeness, as perceivers give relatively high importance to those cues that deviate from the modal position. In the advertising literature, extremity regards either the nature of products, or the copy claims, or the pictorial part of the ads (e.g., explicit sexual stimuli). When extremity is searched, rather than avoided, advertisers use it to position their products by giving them the lure of originality and uniqueness (cf. Mowen 1993, pp. 122-123). In general, extremity has been used in advertising to do something more than to simply "promote" the product: it has been used to make an ad "great" in the context of social discourse (Alperstein 1990).

c) Other forms of salience.

Finally, to explain the remaining forms of salience, Fiske and Taylor (1991) had recourse to other attentional tasks, including a heterogenous group of factors: physical factors dominating the sensory field (e.g., intensity, position, frequency); and involvement (i.e., goal-relevance, and instructions to attend a stimulus). The presence of physical factors that dominate the sensory field (visual, auditory, etc.) can give the stimulus a figural value and, in addition, a prominence on every other stimulus present in that physical context. Intensity is one of these factors; size (or magnitude) is another which operates in much the same manner. For example, larger ads and larger signs are likely to receive more attention, mostly because a consumer is simply more likely to see them. Position is another physical factor usually evoked to explain salience. It refers to the placement of an object in a person’s visual field. Consumer research in supermarkets and discount stores, using sophisticated cameras to track the movement of consumers’ eyes during shopping, has found that consumers’ eyes travel along certain paths, so that products on an upper shelf receive 35 percent greater attention than those on a lower shelf. Likewise, advertisements on the right-hand page receive more attention than those on the left (see Wilkie 1990). Finally, frequency refers to the repeated exposure to the stimulus. For example, insertion frequency (e.g., the number of times the same ad appears in the same issue of a magazine) has an effect similar to ad size.

Involvement represents a category apart in regards of causes of salience, as it has mainly to do with memory-based stimuli, rather than physical ones. Involvement can be defined as a person’s perceived relevance of a stimulus based on personal goals, internal drives, or external instructions. In consumer research, involvement has been typically conceptualized in terms of people’s motivation to process marketing stimuli which are goal-relevant to them, the predominant viewpoint being that consumers aremore likely to engage in information processing under conditions of high rather than low involvement (e.g., Celsi and Olson 1988; Greenwald and Leavitt 1984; Zaichkowsky 1985). Consumers may even be forced to attend a stimulus, when the external pressures towards the stimulus cannot be escaped. Instructions to attend a stimulus, thus, is the most direct form of manipulating attention. Some marketing examples of this principle of forced attention are provided by such intrusive personal selling techniques as foot-in-the-door, or by advertising in movie theatres.

The present review raises a lot of questions about the intrinsic nature of the salience concept. The definitions adopted so far leave many issues unsolved: What really is salience? (Is it a stimulus quality? an absolute property? an effect?); and, What are its causes? (Are they cognitive and/or motivational? associated with physical or figural factors? traceable back to a common origin?). To address these questions, a new model of salience was proposed, whose general traits are summarized in the following section.


Based on the previous review, the Dichotic theory of salience by Guido (1993, 1995a, 1996) suggests a common origin among all the different causes of salience by emphasizing the nature of prominence as intrinsic in any salience construct. Using schema theory and an information processing approach, the model demonstrates the existing commonalities between two streams of research in literatureBi.e., salience and information in/congruity. According to this model, a stimulus is said to be in-salient (from incongruity-salience) when it is incongruent in a certain context to a perceiver’s schema, or it is said to be re-salient (from relevance-salience) when it is congruent in a certain context to a perceiver’s goal.

In-salience and re-salience are two complementary aspects of the same construct (see Table 2): the former is basically a bottom-up process started up from some external input, whereas the latter is basically a top-down process started up from some internal motivation. Thus, the former focuses on reflexive aspects of attention prompted by the perception of some unexpected stimuli, whereas the latter focuses on selective aspects of attention which have their origin in some relevant goal or drive of the perceiver. When involuntary (or passive) attention is involved, this causes incidental learning: the consumer has little immediate need for the information and makes no conscious effort to obtain it, and yet some information (e.g., surprising, novel, threatening, or unexpected information) may enter the system. When voluntary (or planned) attention is involved, this causes intentional learning: the consumer searches out information in order to achieve some type of goal.

The in-salience and re-salience constructs, therefore, configure two basic modes of information processing, one putting the emphasis on external stimuli and the other on personal motives. In in-salient processing, the gathering of information involves a detailed analysis of the incoming inputs in an effort to assemble incongruent cues into a coherent cognitive representation; whereas, in re-salient processing, the gathering is largely guided by preexisting schematic knowledge to form expectations about incoming cues which are congruent with the perceiver’s motives. The view that emerges is that cue incongruity serves as a motivational device to prompt in-salience, whereas personal goals, drives, and instructions operate as motivational devices for re-salience.



This separation of modes is akin to Norman’s (1976, p. 41) ideas that processing may at times be data-driven (bottom-up) by the stimulus information and other times be conceptually-driven (top-down) with expectations based on curren schemata. In data driven processing (DDP), the arrival of sensory information to the receptors starts the process of information directly in terms of a fixed set of rules or procedures. In conceptually driven processing (CDP), higher level conceptual processes, such as memories of past experiences, general organizational strategies, and expectations based on schematic knowledge and personal goals, guide an active search for certain patterns in the stimulus input.

In-salience and re-salience can be taken as the key for understanding the cognitive mechanisms of perception: each assists the other in the completion of the overall job of being aware of the world.


An empirical test was conducted to test some of the propositions of the Dichotic theory of salience in a print advertising setting. Analysis was restricted to visual phenomena, to allow a simple operationalization of the construct in a laboratory experiment. Considering the perceptual nature of the stimulus objects, tested propositions mainly regarded one part of the modelBnamely, the In-salience theory.

The In-salience Theory.

The In-salience theory is based on the view that the primary goal of marketing and advertising cannot be achieved if consumers are not at least aware of the marketing stimulus; this means that the stimulus must attract consumer’s attention and must be interpreted in the same way the marketer intended. Unlike tactical research designed to determine specific executional cues of marketing and advertising campaigns, the In-salience theory operates at a strategic level to identify the molar level of information that the marketer should communicate in any given situation. Thus, the model makes predictions about the conditions under which specific marketing stimuli will be perceived as salient and will be able to display their salience effects.

The In-salience theory relies on three major assumptions or axioms and four propositions, which were tested in the experiment (Guido, forthcoming). The model’s Axiom One states that salience cannot be defined in terms of its effects: every definition which explains salience as the "capacity of a stimulus to attract attention" is a truism and says nothing about the origin of the construct. Different constructs have different effects on processing and memory; thus, for example, a salient ad does not imply the same level of attention of an ad which is simply available or accessible, and that must be discriminated. Axiom Two states that salience depends on the situation in which the stimulus occurs; salience does not exist in a vacuum, as an objective quality of the stimulus, but rather it depends on the context in which the stimulus occurs. Therefore, a stimulus can be salient only in certain places and in certain times. Finally, Axiom Three states that salience depends also on the perceivers of the stimulus; thus, a stimulus can be salient only in relation to the schemata possessed by an individual perceiver. It follows that a stimulus that is salient for a certain perceiver is not necessarily so also for another perceiver.

Four propositions are built upon these three axioms. Proposition One states our definition of "salient" stimulus: a stimulus is in-salient when it is incongruent in a certain context with a perceiver’s schema. It follows that, for the occurrence of in-salience, the simultaneous presence of the following three elements is crucial: stimulus, context, and perceiver’s schemata. Proposition Two states that in-salience has to do with attention and interpretation. In an information processing model made by stages, in-salience is not merely the resul of a figure-ground principle, but it implies a further stage, that of interpretation, in which the incongruity detected in a certain context is compared with a schema possessed by a perceiver. Proposition Three states that in-salience is a different construct from either activation, or accessibility, or availability. Whereas our theory recognizes the peculiar nature of in-salience, it also acknowledges that activation, accessibility, and availability have a role in the processing of in-salient stimuli as mediators of perceivers’ schemata. Proposition Four states that personal re-levance is a crucial moderating variable of in-salience. It acts as a moderator between the two types of salience (i.e., in-salience and re-salience). Implications of the four propositions suggest that, once a stimulus has caught consumers’ attention and has been perceptually encoded, in-salience generates awareness. Awareness is a low-level form of memory impact (Hoyer and Brown 1990) and a fundamental goal of any advertising strategy.

Brand awareness in print advertisements.

Three experimental levels were designed to test the effects of in-salient print advertisements on consumer processing and memory. Specifically, consumer awareness of the ads was measured in terms of top-of-mind and free recall of in-salient ad messages over non-in-salient ad messages. Research objectives generated from review of salience and incongruity literature, transfused into the theoretical proposition of our models, were taken as the basis of the experimental inquiry. Three hypotheses were constructed and tested in as many studies. In study one, special attention was directed towards the relationship between stimulus in-salience and ad exposure time to determine whether viewership length can be considered as a possible moderating variable. Moreover, in an unlimited exposure time condition, time was tested as a moderator of memory strength for in-salient and non-in-salient information. In study two, research attention was deserved to other constructs similar to salience, namely activation (or accessibility) and availability, in order to demonstrate that, when a particular schema has common elements available to all perceivers, the activation of such a schema can improve the memory effects of in-salient stimuli based on those common elements. Finally, in study three, having defined attribute relevance as the weight of each attribute within a product schema, it was tested as a moderating variable of the effects of in-salience on memory for those common elements in perceivers’ schemata on which in-salient stimuli are created.

This research was implemented in two main stages. In the first part, following the associative network model (e.g., Wickelgren 1981), brand schemata were assessed in terms of brand images within the construct definition of brand personality (Caprara, Barbaranelli, and Guido 1997). A list of attributes defining brand images of three different products was administered to both users and non-users of those products. In the second part, some of the attributes equally shared by both users and non-users were selected to be employed in manipulations of in-salient ad claims. The executional strategy chosen for the creation of these in-salient stimuli was resonance (McQuarrie and Mick 1992), which consists in the development of alternative combinations of wordplay with relevant pictures which create incongruity. After two pretests used to prepare the experimental material, five independent variables (message in-salience, ad exposure time, schema activation, time of measurement, and relevance levels) and two dependent variable (top-of-mind recall, and free recall) were tested on a sample of two hundred and forty subjects.

Statistical analysis (repeated measures ANOVA, interactions and simple effects) of results of the two measures of recall for the three experimental levels provided extremely significant findings. Hypotheses were supported and results showed that factors such as ad viewing time, memory decay, and relevance playeda major role in the occurrence of in-salience.


To summarize our discussion, we showed that, in social sciences, a redefinition of the concept of salience is needed. The Dichotic theory of salience (Guido 1995a, 1996) seems to offer a promising approach to the problem as it provides a common ground to all the salience instances reviewed in literature. When applied to advertising settings, it supplies a comprehensive framework for analyzing consumer processing of complex marketing communications. Future research should corroborate the model’s potential for improvements both in the theoretical and in the marketing field.


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Gianluigi Guido, University of Rome, Italy


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998

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