Need For Cognition and the Moderating Role of the Intensity of Warm and Humorous Advertising Appeals


Maggie Geuens and Patrick De Pelsmacker (1998) ,"Need For Cognition and the Moderating Role of the Intensity of Warm and Humorous Advertising Appeals", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Kineta Hung and Kent B. Monroe, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 74-80.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 74-80


Maggie Geuens, University of Antwerp, Belgium

Patrick De Pelsmacker, University of Antwerp, Belgium


The results of numerous studies suggest that people scoring low on need for cognition (NFC) tend to process information peripherally while high NFC-individuals are more prone to central information processing (see further). With respect to advertising this boils down to central cues such as product information and brand features having an impact on high NFC-scorers and peripheral cues such as music or emotional elements affecting the attitudes of low NFC-persons. With regard to emotional advertising Zhang (1996) found, for instance, that humour exerted an effect only in low but not in high NFC-consumers. The objective of this study is to investigate whether or not the intensity of two types of emotional appeals, i.e. warmth and humour, moderates the relation between NFC and the responses to advertising stimuli. In other words, we study whether respondents scoring high on NFC are susceptible to emotional appeals such as warmth and humour or that a higher intensity level of warmth and humour is needed to trigger their attention and induce more positive responses in them.


Need for cognition (NFC) can be conceptualised as "the tendency for an individual to engage in and enjoy thinking" (Cacioppo and Petty 1982). It can be measured by means of a 34-item scale or an 18-item short form which proved to be reliable and internally consistent (Cacioppo et al. 1996). Positive correlations have been found, among others, between NFC and need to evaluate, objectivism, cognitive innovativeness, openness to experience (Cacioppo et al. 1996) and sensation-seeking (Crowley and Hoyer 1989), while NFC has been found to correlate negatively with dogmatism (Cacioppo and Petty 1982) and boredom proneness (Watt and Blanchard 1994). Furthermore, individuals high in NFC tend to be more highly educated and more intelligent (Cacioppo et al. 1996). And high as compared to low NFC individuals tend to watch less television and rely more heavily on magazines and newspapers for news information. Furthermore, they seem to have a distinct preference for public rather than commercial television channels, and for news and current affair programs rather than game shows (Geuens and De Pelsmacker 1997a).

In an advertising context, more positive responses are found to be obtained in high NFC-individuals with factual appeals (Venkatraman et al. 1990) or more informationally dense ads (Haughtvedt et al. 1988) and ads with high quality arguments (Petty and Cacioppo 1986, Ahlering 1987), while more positive results are expected in low NFC-individuals when ads with peripheral cues are used such as an attractive endorser, the perceived number of people in support of an advocated position, or humour (Petty and Cacioppo 1986, Ahlering 1987, Haughtvedt and Petty 1992, Zhang 1996). The latter finding provides some indication of a relationship between NFC and the response to emotional advertising techniques, more specifically humorous appeals.


Humour and warmth are frequently used techniques in advertising (De Pelsmacker and Geuens 1997), the role of which has been extensively studied. Humour can be defined in different ways. In this study a humorous stimulus is defined as an ad provoking at least a smile, and/or leading to a certain degree of amusement. Warmth refers to showing cosyness, friendship, love, and evoking a positive "warm" feeling. There is a general agreement in the research literature that humour has a positive effect on attention (Weinberger and Gulas 1992). The effect of humour on other responses is, however, unclear. Ad-evoked feelings, cognitive reactions, and the attitude towards the ad (Aad) seem to be positively influenced by the use of humour (De Pelsmacker and Geuens 1996, Geuens and De Pelsmacker 1996), but as far as the attitude towards the brand (Ab) and purchase intention is concerned, humorous stimuli do not seem to be more effective than non-humorous ones (Zhang and Zinkhan 1991). The effect of warmth in advertising is less extensively studie. Chaudhuri and Watt (1995) hypothesize that a warm atmosphere is likely to evoke a happy emotional response. Aaker and Bruzzone (1981), Aaker et al. (1986) and Goldberg and Gorn (1987) found a positive correlation between warmth and Aad and purchase intention. De Pelsmacker and Van den Bergh (1997) found that warmth in advertising decreases irritation. De Pelsmacker and Geuens (1996), on the other hand, found no differences in response between warm and non-emotional ads.

Studies on the responses of consumers to different levels of humorous or warm ads are rather scarce. General emotion theories assume that emotions have a positive effect on cognitive activity, learning and recall and that these effects are a function of the intensity of the induced emotions (Izard 1988). Although the Yerkes-Dodson Law argues that the intensity of emotional arousal influences performance in an inverted U-fashion (Campos and Barett 1988) we do not expect to observe negative effects. The reason for this is that advertising stimuli usually induce much milder feelings than external events, such as the death of a relative. Therefore we do not expect the intensity of ad-evoked feelings to move beyond the optimal arousal level. This seems to be confirmed by studies executed in an advertising context. Thorson and Friestad (1989), for instance, conclude that ad recall is linearly related with the intensity of the emotional appeal. Thorson and Page (1988) found that emotional appeals of high intensity triggered a more positive Aad than low intensity emotional ads. Kroeber-Riel (1984) argues that attitudes towards mature products are formed by means of emotional conditioning, at least when, amongst other criteria, high intensity emotional appeals are used. De Pelsmacker et al. (1997) found that higher levels of warmth lead to better recall, and that mildly humorous appeals are more effective than stimuli without humour or with high levels of humour. Furthermore, high levels of humour also seem to lead to more irritation (De Pelsmacker and Van den Bergh, 1997). As an indirect indication of the importance of the intensity level, the findings of Pieters and de Klerk-Warmerdam (1996) can be mentionned. They conclude that more intense ad-evoked feelings lead to better recall, can be mentioned. Burke and Edell (1989) conclude that upbeat feelings (active, amused, cheerful, humorous, energetic,..) have a more positive effect on Aad and Ab than warm feelings (calm, emotional, sentimental, contemplating). On the basis of the foregoing we would expect the responses to ads with different levels of humour and warmth to be significantly different.

The purpose of this study is to explore the moderating role of the level of intensity of an emotional execution, and more specifically of humour and warmth, for the relation between need for cognition and the response (affective and cognitive response, attitudes and purchase intention) to warm and humorous advertising appeals. In subsequent sections the research method is explained, the results are discussed, and conclusions and suggestions for further research are presented.


Given the general research question on the interaction effect between NFC on the one hand and the level of intensity or warmth on the other, the following hypotheses can be advanced.

Hypothesis 1.  Ad-evoked feelings, Aad, Ab and PI increase with increasing levels of humorous and warm appeals in the case of low NFC-scorers, but are not affected by the use of humour or warmth in the cse of high NFC-respondents.

According to the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) people scoring low on NFC are more likely to concentrate on peripheral cues (Inman et al. 1990, Meyers-Levy and Peracchio 1992, Ul Haque and Bahn 1996, Cacioppo et al. 1996). As a consequence of devoting most of their attention to the peripheral aspects (the humour and warmth in this case) we expect low NFC-individuals to experience more intense positive affective reactions as a function of the level of intensity of humour and warmth used. This hypothesis is based on Frijda (1987) who claims that the intensity of feelings can be considered a function of the intensity of the stimuli used. Furthermore, we expect that in low NFC-subjects Aad, Ab and Pi are linearly related with the intensity of ad-evoked feelings suggesting that more intense positive affective reactions lead to a more positive Aad, Ab and Pi. The literature provides two possible explanations for the latter. The positive feelings can directly carry over to attitudes and intentions which is called pure affect transfer by MacInnis and Jaworski (1989) and is comparable with a classical conditioning effect (Kroeber-Riel 1984). On the other hand, the positive feelings can induce a biasing effectBa kind of halo-effectBin the sense that one evaluates all stimuli more positive when one is in a positive mood and sees everything more negative when one is in a negative mood (Russo France et al. 1994, Schwarz and Bohner 1996).

For individuals scoring high on NFC we do not expect humour and warmth to exert an effect since persuasion of high NFC-people is more likely to be based on central cues. The results of Ul Haque and Bahn (1996)and Osborne et al. (1996), for instance, show that , although they were able to seduce low NFC-individuals to central processing, they were unable to induce peripheral processing in their high NFC-counterparts. However, according to the combined-influence-hypothesis, attitudes of high and low involvement individuals can be based both on central and peripheral cues (Lord et al. 1995). High involvement respondents may try to infer the quality of the message from peripheral cues when for instance no central cues are available or when they do not have the possiblity to process the message centrally (Petty and Cacioppo 1986, Petty et al. 1988, Cacioppo and Petty 1989). Since information processing of high NFC-individuals is in many aspects comparable with the processing of high involvement respondents, high NFC-consumers may under certain circumstances be influenced by peripheral cues as well. This may happen, for instance, in case of an inability to central processing as mentioned before. Another possibility is that peripheral cues have to be of a high intensity in order to be capable to draw attention from high NFC-respondents. In the context of the present study this would mean that only humour and warmth of a high intensity level are capable of inducing positive communication effects in high NFC-consumers.

Hypothesis 2.  Higher levels of humour and warmth lead to more ad-related but not brand-related cognitions in low NFC-individuals, but do not affect the cognitions in high NFC-individuals.

Research on the level of involvement leads to the conclusion that low as compared to high involvement individuals report more ad cognitions and the other way round for brand cognitions (Miniard et al. 1991, Geuens and De Pelsmacker 1997b). Since we expect that the more intense the humorous and warm appeals are the more likely peripheral processing for low NFC-individuals becomes, we hypothesize hat in low NFC-consumers the number of ad cognitions increases with the level of the emotional execution. For high NFC-individuals we do not expect to observe a difference in the number of ad and brand cognitions depending on the intensity of the emotional executions since they are expected to process all ads centrally. However, if respondents scoring high on NFC appear to be sensitive to emotional appeals of high intensity but not to appeals of moderate intensity more ad cognitions can be expected for the high than for the moderate and low intensity emotional appeals.

Hypothesis 3.  Higher levels of humour and warmth lead to more positive ad- and brand-related cognitions in low NFC-individuals, but do not affect the direction of cognitions in high NFC-subjects.

According to the mood-as-information-theory positive affect may induce a biasing effectBa kind of halo-effectBin the sense that one evaluates all stimuli more positive and becomes less critical when one is in a positive mood but has a more negative and a more critical overall view when one is in a negative mood (Russo France et alii 1994, Schwarz and Bohner 1996). Since only low NFC-individuals are expected to concentrate on the humour and warmth shown in the ads, low but not high NFC-consumers are expected to experience more positive affect and as a consequence the foregoing only applies to low NFC-people. We expect that the more intense the emotional execution is the more intense ad-evoked feelings and the more pronounced the biasing effect will be. Batra and Stayman (1990) report that a positive mood leads to less counterargumentation and this especially in respondents scoring low on NFC. The results of Zhang (1996) show that humorous ads induce more negative cognitive responses in high than in low NFC-individuals. However, Petty et al. (1993) argue that positive affect influences high NFC-people more than low NFC-respondents. The reasoning behind this is that since high as compared to low NFC-individuals are more likely to elaborate on the message and exert cognitive efforts affect is more likely to influence the thoughts of high than of low NFC-respondents. Their research results show more positive cognitions as a consequence of positive mood but only for high NFC-consumers.


The study was carried out using undergraduate students of the faculty of applied economics of a belgian university. Their cooperation was voluntary, and not part of course work. In the first stage of the study, a jury of ten students judged an initial sample of 138 recent television commercials. They had to score the level of humour and warmth of each commercial on a 10 point scale. Both the concepts were explained to them, on the basis of the definition mentionned earlier. Out of the total set, 27 commercials were selected in 9 categories. The nine categories are all possible combinations of three levels of humour and three levels of warmth (no, moderate, high). Evidently, the selection of spots was limited by the availibility of warm and humorous ads and the natre of the products for which they were used. The commercials tested were selected in product categories that could be expected to appeal to students, such as soft drinks, fast food restaurants, consumer durables, snacks, recreation, clothing and body care. Those commercials were selected that received very low, intermediate and very high average scores on the "warm" dimension, and very low scores on the "humour" dimension. Similarly, also commercials that received very low, intermediate and very high average scores on the humour dimension, and very low scores on the "warm" one, were included.

In the second stage of the study six groups of approximately 27 undergraduate and postgraduate students each were formed (166 respondents in total). In the first group 9 commercials for consumer durables, one in each experimental category, were tested in random order. In the second group the same spots were tested, but in reversed order. Similarly, in the third and the fourth group 9 commercials for clothing brands and body care products were tested. Groups 5 and 6 were exposed to nine commercials for food, soft drinks and fast food restaurants. As a result, all respondents were exposed to one commercial in each experimental category, but overall three stimuli per experimental treatment are tested. The ads were selected and tested in different product categories, and the product categories were attributed to the 9 experimental treatments as described, to avoid potential biasing effects of using only one or a few product categories. Evidently, the fact that existing ads were used may be a confounding factor. Again, the attribution of ads of different product categories to the experimental treatments should at least partly reduce this potential bias. The manipulation check in Table 1 indicates that ads without warmth, moderately warm and very warm ads are indeed perceived as significantly different from each other on this dimension. The same applies to the humorous stimuli used on the humorous dimension. Furthermore, all warm ads were considered significantly less humorous than the humorous ads, and all humorous ads were considered to be less warm than all the warm ads.

The 18-item NFC-scale was included as a between-subjects independent variable (Cacioppo et al., 1996). The level of warmth and the level of humour were used as two within-subjects independent variables. The main focus of this study is the interaction effect between NFC on the one hand, and the levels of humour and warmth on the other.

The following constructs were measured as a response to each of the nine stimuli:

* the level of warmth: a 2-item 7-point scale (gives me a warm feeling, shows a friendly atmosphere)

* the level of humour: a 2-item 7-point scale (humorous, amusing)

* evoked cognitions about the ad and/or the brand. Respondents were asked to indicate whether the ad made them think about the ad and/or the brand, and whether these thoughts were positive, neutral or negative (Mackenzie and Spreng, 1992).

* the attitude towards the ad. An 8-item 7-point scale was (Cho and Stout, 1993). Principal components revealed one major dimension, and the internal consistency proved to be satisfactory (Cronbach alpha >0.80). The mean score on the eight items is used as a measure for Aad.

* ad-evoked feelings. Five feelings are measured by means of one item each: irritation, insult, interest, cheerfulness, and carefreeness (Geuens and De Pelsmacker, 1996).

After the respondents had been exposed to all nine stimuli, the attitude towards the brand (3 items, averaged, alpha>0.80) and the purchase intention (3 items, averaged, alpha>0.75) were measured.


As could be expected on the basis of previous results, the Need for Cognition is not significantly different between men and women (Verplanken et al. 1992, Verplanken 1993, Bless et al. 1994, Cacioppo et al. 1996). In this sample of students, the difference between other demographic categories could not be tested. For subsequent analysis the total sample was divided into three groups with an equal number of subjects in each group, on the basis of the NFC-scores, and the two extreme groups are compared.

In Table 2 the interaction effects of the level of humour and the level of NFC on ad-evoked feelings, Aad, Ab and purchase intention are shown. Most interaction effects are moderately to highly significant. Only for a feeling of interest the data seem to confirm hypothesis 1. As expected, interest increases with increasing levels of humour in the case of low NFC-respondents while neither a moderate nor a high level of humour affects the feeling of interest in high NFC-individuals. The use of humour, and to a lesser extent the degree of its intensity, leads to higher levels of Aad in low NFC-subjects while only high levels of humour lead to a more favourable Aad in high NFC-individuals. The use of humour as such leads to more pronounced feelings of cheerfulness in low NFC-subjects, while high NFC-individuals report a significantly higher feeling of cheerfulness especially when exposed to high levels of humour. As far as irritation is concerned, the degree to which low NFC-people feel irritated by the ads seems to drop gradually the more humour is used while in high NFC-individuals the intensity of the humour used reduces irritation to a greater extent than the mere usage of humour. Furthermore, in both high and low NFC-individuals the use of humour leads to higher levels of carefreeness. However, the effect is much more pronounced in the low NFC-group. As far as Ab and Pi are concerned, the interaction effect is less significant. Moderate levels seem to lead to the most favourable Ab and Pi in low as well as in high NFC-subjects, while also lack of humour results in high Ab scores in high NFC-subjects. Contrary to the ELM-expectations and contrary to the results of Zhang (1996) humour exerts an influence on feelings, attitudes and purchase intention of individuals scoring high on NFC, especially when a high level is used. These results seem to lend support for the combined-influence-hypothesis in the sense that high NFC-respondents can be influenced by both central and peripheral cues.

In the case of warm stimuli, most interaction effects are not significant. As mentioned before, De Pelsmacker and Geuens (1996) also found almost no differences between warm and non-emotional ads although other researchers reported more positive feelings, attitudes and/or purchase intention in favour of warmth (Aaker and Bruzzone 1981, Aaker et al. 1986, Goldberg and Gorn 1987, Chaudhuri and Watt 1995). Only for Aad a moderately significant interaction effect can be found (sign F=.071). Higher levels of warmth lead to a more positive Aad in low NFC-individuals, while the level of warmth does not affect the Aad of high NFC-individuals, as expected. Overall, hypothesis 1 has to be rejected. The data seem to suggest that low NFC-subjects are sensitive to the use of humour as such. In the case of igh NFC-individuals either the use of humour does not make a difference, or only a high level of humour leads to more favourable feelings and attitudes. A possible explanation may be that peripheral cues have to be more intense or more eye-catching for high than for low NFC-individuals in order to be able to attract their attention.





In Table 3 the number of respondents reporting ad-related and brand-related cognitions for different levels of humour and warmth and for the two NFC-groups are presented. In the line of the results obtained with respect to hypothesis 1, the level of warmth does not seem to affect the number of respondents reporting ad and brand cognitions. On the other hand, the use of humour affects the number of ad-related cognitions reported, both in high and low NFC-subjects. The number of ad-related cognitions increases with increasing levels in the case of high NFC-individuals, while the level does not influence the number of ad-related cognitions in the case of low NFC-subjects. In the latter case only the use of humour as such has an influence. The number of brand-related cognitions is not significantly influenced by the level of humour and warmth tested. This result is to a certain extent similar to the one obtained in the case of feelings and attitudes. In high NFC-individuals the level of humour seems to exert a positive influence, while in low NFC-individuals, the use of humour as such, regardless of its level, leads to favourable results, at least at the ad-level. Hypothesis 2 is totally rejected in case of warm stimuli. As far as humour is concerned, the hypothesis is confirmed in the sense that ad- but not brand-related cognitions are affected by the different levels of humour used. However, the number of ad-related cognitive responses does not increase with increasing levels for low NFC-individuals while it does for their high NFC-counterparts.





In Table 4 the direction of ad-and brand-related cognitions as a result of being exposed to humorous and warm ads are presented. Hypothesis 4 is partly confirmed. In the case of high NFC-respondents, the direction of ad- and brand-related cognitions is not influenced by the level of warmth used, as expected. Although ad cognitions are positively influenced by the use of warmth in the case of low NFC-individuals, the level does not seem to matter. Contrary to expectations, the direction of brand cognitions is not influenced by the level in the case of the low NFC-group. In the case of humour, the direction of both ad-related and brand-related cognitions is positively influenced in low NFC-individuals, as predicted, althoug brand-related cognitions are positively influenced only by the use but not by the level of humour. Contrary to expectations but in line with the results mentioned before, humour, and especially a high level, leads to more positive ad-related cognitive responses in persons scoring high on NFC. However, the effect of humour seems to be more pronounced for low than for high NFC-individuals, a finding Batra and Stayman (1990) reported before. Overall, humour seems to be a more powerful technique than warmth for generating positive cognitions, especially about the ad.


In line with the expectations put forward by the Elaboration Likelihood Model and with the results reported by Batra and Stayman (1990) and Zhang (1996) our data suggests that low as compared to high NFC-consumers are more susceptible to a peripheral cue such as humour. Providing some support for the combined-influence-hypothesis, our results clearly show that it is posible to influence high NFC-respondents by using humorous appeals although overall a higher level appears to be needed. Low NFC-individuals, on the other hand, seem to respond more to the mere use of humour than to the intensity of the humour used.

A quite remarkable finding is that different levels of warmth (no, moderate, high) hardly lead to differences in communication effects such as ad-evoked feelings, attitude towards the brand and purchase intention. Only attitude towards the ad and the direction of ad-related cogntive responses are positively influenced by warmth but only in the case of low NFC-individuals. No matter what level is used, warmth has no influence on respondents scoring high on NFC. A possible explanation may be that since warmth has been used very extensively for many years now (De Pelsmacker and Geuens (1997a) report a frequency of almost one in three ads being warm for each of the three years studied, namely 1975, 1985 and 1995) consumers may have get used to such appeals and as a consequence warm ads may perhaps no langer be able to stand out, attract the consumer’s attention and trigger different responses. Another possibility is that students are less susceptible to warm appeals.

At least two implications for marketing practice can be envisaged. First of all, direct marketers could enrich their databases with information on personality characteristics of their customers, such as NFC, in order to be able to communicate with them using different types of appeals. Secondly, research shows that consumers with differences in NFC prefer different types of television programs. The appeals in the ads shown in these programs could be adapted to the NFC level of the target group watching the program.

A number of limitations of this study can be mentioned. First of all, results on the basis of a student population can seldomly be extrapolated to the general public, and the cultural environment may also play a biasing role. Furthermore, using existing ads may bias the results too. The fact that the initial set of commercials was relatively limited warrants caution when interpreting result. An obvious suggestion for further research is to repeat the same study with other population segments than students, and to use ads to which the subjects have not been exposed before. An interesting extension of the current study may be to include other (and also negative) emotional appeals such as fear, eroticism, provocation, irritation, ... or to distinguish different types of a particular emotional ad type. Speck (1991), for instance, provides a classification of different types of humour. Cognitive humour may perhaps lead to even more positive results in high NFC-consumers than the ones reported here. Different types of warmth, using for instance children or animals or couples may also generate very distinctive effects.


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Maggie Geuens, University of Antwerp, Belgium
Patrick De Pelsmacker, University of Antwerp, Belgium


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998

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