Television Program Elaboration Effects on Commercial Processing

ABSTRACT - While some prior studies on the effect of involvement in a television program suggest that it results in lower recall of commercial messages, results have been inconsistent and have failed to demonstrate the responsible cognitive mechanism. Using a sensitive response time measure, two experiments demonstrate within-program differences in viewer elaboration levels and provide evidence of hypothesized decreases in recall and persuasion, along with an unanticipated increase in commercial-relevant thought, as the level of program-relevant thought increases.


Kenneth R. Lord and Robert E. Burnkrant (1988) ,"Television Program Elaboration Effects on Commercial Processing", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 213-218.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 213-218


Kenneth R. Lord, State University of New York at Buffalo

Robert E. Burnkrant, The Ohio State University


While some prior studies on the effect of involvement in a television program suggest that it results in lower recall of commercial messages, results have been inconsistent and have failed to demonstrate the responsible cognitive mechanism. Using a sensitive response time measure, two experiments demonstrate within-program differences in viewer elaboration levels and provide evidence of hypothesized decreases in recall and persuasion, along with an unanticipated increase in commercial-relevant thought, as the level of program-relevant thought increases.


A television commercial interrupts he impending demise of a valiant crime fighter, a time out on the one-yard line in a critical football game, or a highly involving news report. These scenarios are not uncommon in the environment which confronts the viewer of contemporary television programming. However, their desirability and effects on the processing of commercial messages are unclear and subject to some debate. On the one hand, it is suggested that commercial breaks at points where the audience is devoting a great deal of attention to the program are desirable because this high attention level will be likely to carry over to the ad or ads shown during the commercial break (Krugman 1983). On the other hand, it is argued that commercial breaks at points in a program where the audience is particularly involved in programming content will be detrimental because the ongoing processing of program content during the commercial break will interfere with and detract from processing of the commercial message (Soldow and Principe 1981).

The objectives of this research are to establish whether it is beneficial or detrimental to insert commercials at highly involving points in television programming, and to identify cognitive processes which account for the observed effects. Following a brief review of relevant literature, hypotheses are generated regarding these issues, a research methodology designed to test these hypotheses is explained, and results obtained from this research are presented along with a discussion of their implications.


A variety of contextual factors have come under scrutiny in an effort to explain the impact of programming on the processing of television commercials. Early studies sought explanation of context effects exclusively within the program environment, manipulating such factors as temporal placement of commercials and different types of programming without regard to how those manipulations affected viewers' cognitive processes (e.g., Barclay, Doub and McMurtrey 1965, Steiner 1966, Gruber 1966). These efforts demonstrated a sufficient quantity of significant differences in viewer recall on the basis of commercial positioning to document the occurrence of program context effects; but inconsistent findings and the lack of an explanatory theoretical base pointed to the need for the manipulation and/or measurement of cognitive factors.

Kennedy (1971) treated program context effects on the processing of commercials as a function of "drive for closure." A suspense program, he hypothesized, would result in a stronger drive for closure with respect to the plot than would a situation comedy. This drive for closure would then increase "noise" which would affect "both perception of commercial material and its integration into memory." Consistent with that hypothesis, he found higher brand recall scores for subjects who viewed the test commercials in a comedy setting than for those who saw the suspense thriller.

Soldow and Principe (1981) also found that recall was higher for a commercial shown in a family situation comedy than in a suspense program, and they found that subjects reported being more involved in the suspense program than in the comedy. While the authors implicate involvement as the factor causing the obtained effects, the two programs differed in so many ways that their conclusion is open to question.

Stronger evidence is provided by Bryant and Comisky (1978), who examined the effect on commercial recall of placing advertisements within differentially cognitively involving portions of a single television program. They found that commercial recall varied inversely with program involvement, and this effect was obtained on both an immediate and a delayed recall test.

More recently, Thorson, Reeves, Schleuder, Lang and Rothschild (1984) used an EEG measure of cortical arousal to measure program involvement and found low-involvement programming to elicit higher levels of recall for commercials than high-involvement > programming. The implications of the latter finding are less clear than would be desirable because Thorson et al. used very different types of programs (comedy, violence, sex) and also varied commercial position (first, second, third).

Krugman (1983) examined program involvement effects, employing General Electric's quarterly national surveys as a data base. He categorized as "low involvement" those GE-sponsored programs where commercials were likely to occur during a natural break, and as "high involvement" those where he anticipated commercial breaks might interrupt an action segment. Using attitude as a dependent measure, he found higher levels of corporate attitudinal responses associated with the "interrupted context" programs than with "natural break" contexts. However, this result is also problematic, given that Krugman reports no attempt to validate the assumption of interrupted versus natural-break contexts, determine whether respondents exposed to the programs were also exposed to the relevant ads, ascertain viewer perceptions of program involvement levels, or control for within-program involvement variance.

In summary, there is son c evidence (though it is not always consistent, as suggested by the discrepant Krugman result) that "high involvement" in a program has a detrimental effect on the processing of commercial messages, as measured by recall. However, it is not at all clear what the effects of program involvement are, if any, on cognitive responses people make to or as a consequence of exposure to commercial messages. Recall has frequently been found to be unrelated to cognitive response and other more persuasion-oriented variables (e.g., Petty, Cacioppo and Heesacker 1981; Petty, Cacioppo and Schumann 1983). Furthermore, some evidence suggests that programming involvement may have a favorable effect on persuasion. We have found no studies which have explicitly measured the effects of program involvement on the cognitive processing of commercial messages.


Central to an understanding of program context effects on the processing of television commercials is a recognition that consumers must possess both the motivation and ability to process a given message if it is to be effective (Batra and Ray 1986). From a cognitive response perspective (Greenwald 1968), a television viewer who is elaborating upon program content may be expected to enter a commercial break rehearsing the sequence which has just disappeared from the screen, anticipating its resolution, relating it to personal experiences or similar programs, or evaluating the program. Any such ongoing program-relevant cognitive responses occurring simultaneously with exposure to the commercial message may preclude the viewer's allocating full cognitive capacity to the processing of the advertisement (Greenwald and Leavitt 1984). Hence the information conveyed in the commercial may not be as thoroughly elaborated or as readily stored in memory. Consequently, it may not be as available for later retrieval as when the same message is positioned within a program segment less prone to viewer elaboration.

The above projection of impeded commercial processing ability assumes that program elaboration consumes most available cognitive resources. That assumption seems reasonable in view of the limitations typically ascribed to cognitive capacity. (Miller, 1956, placed the size limitation of working memory at about seven pieces of information; others restrict it to three or four-- e.g., Simon 1974.) By such reasoning, the lower commercial recall associated with "high involvement" program segments in prior studies may be attributable to viewers' inability to effectively process the message because of the lack of cognitive resource availability. In addition to the overall level or intensity of processing, such a restriction on cognitive capacity may affect the types of commercial elements the viewer is able to recall and the nature of the message-relevant thoughts generated.

An alternative perspective holds that the amount of capacity available varies with the level of arousal, such that more capacity is available when arousal is moderately high than when it is low (Kahneman 1973). When a commercial is presented in a highly involving position in a program, it reaches the audience when its attention level is high. This high attention level may carry over to the commercial, producing greater learning of message content. This position would suggest that it would be most desirable to have commercials at points of high program involvement.


This research examines the effects of programming involvement on the recall, cognitive response and attitudinal effects of commercial messages. It is hypothesized, first, that points within a television program may be located that engage the audience in significantly different amounts of elaboration. This finding would support the results obtained by Bryant and Comisky (1978), increase their generalizability and provide a basis for development of an experimental design that permits placement of commercials at points in a program differing significantly in the extent to which they induce the audience to engage in program elaboration.

The second hypothesis is that ads, as they are currently placed in television programs, occur at points that differ significantly in terms of program elaboration. No prior research has shown this, and it might be argued as an alternative that programmers naturally incorporate a break in the action at commercial locations. If commercials are found to be in positions varying in terms of elaboration, placement decisions may unknowingly penalize some commercials and help others.

Relative to the change in elaboration levels as a commercial break begins, the third hypothesis is that an increase will be observed when program elaboration is low (indicating the availability of sufficient cognitive resources for the processing of the advertisement in addition to whatever minimal program elaboration is occurring), but that no such increase will occur in a high program-elaboration position (suggesting that the viewer is operating at or near capacity limits).

It is predicted, as hypothesis four, that an inverse relationship will be obtained between recall of the advertisement and pre-commercial elaboration, as measured by the secondary task. The inverse relationship will support prior research showing less recall when commercials are shown in highly involving program segments than when they are in segments that are not very involving.

Relationships between elaboration and cognitive response and attitude measures will also be examined in this research. These efforts are not hypothesized, due to a lack of a research base on which to develop strong hypotheses.


The secondary task technique is used to measure the amount of program elaboration subjects engage in as they are exposed to the program. This technique involves recording the time it takes subjects to push a button in response to an audio stimulus. For these experiments, tones were randomly distributed throughout television programs at three- to nine-second intervals, thus providing a continuous response time measure across the programs. While viewers watched, they pushed a button whenever a beep occurred to acknowledge that they had heard the tone. This response to the beep was the secondary task; the primary task was watching the television program.

A wide variety of cognitive tasks have come under scrutiny through the use of this secondary-task technique (reviewed in Kahneman 1973; Kerr 1973; Norman and Bobrow 1975, 1976; Posner 1978; Britton 1980; Reeves and Thorson 1986). In each instance, longer response times have been interpreted as indicating the increased use of cognitive capacity for the primary task. Thus, in this instance, the time it takes to respond to the secondary task becomes a measure of the cognitive elaboration directed at the television program.

The secondary task technique also permits the researcher to measure, on an individual basis, the amount of elaboration engaged in by people before, during and after exposure to a commercial. It is unlikely that as the electronic image changes from a program to a commercial stimulus, a viewer will immediately stop thinking about a highly engaging program sequence. If an advertisement is to be effectively processed, it must tap remaining cognitive resources. Thus the issue of the change in overall viewer elaboration level as the advertisement displaces the program becomes critical as an indicator of the availability of cognitive reserves.


Sample and Method

Two programs were selected for the testing of the first hypothesis: an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents entitled Road Hog, and a PM Magazine episode. Forty-nine undergraduate students participated in this first research stage. Seated in specially constructed cubicles, they were visually isolated from one another, but had a direct view of the video monitor. Within each cubicle was a hand-held push-button device. The researcher instructed subjects to press the button after each tone was heard. The sound of the tone on the videotape activated a computerized timer, which then recorded each subject's response time in milliseconds.


Within both programs, significant differences in mean response times occurred in relatively predictable positions, ranging from lows of .411 and .431 to highs of.959 and 1.035 seconds in Alfred Hitchcock and PM Magazine, respectively (p < .01). This result supports the first hypothesis; i.e., viewer elaboration demonstrated within-program differences in both programs.

The Alfred Hitchcock episode was selected for the testing of the remaining hypotheses. (A single program is used to avoid the potentially confounding influence of differences between programs, irrelevant to viewer elaboration, which plagued much of the earlier work in this area.) A comparison of the three program positions from which the original commercials were deleted yielded significant differences in response times between all pairs of locations (mean differences: .304 seconds, p < .01; .156, p < .01; .143, p < .05). This verifies the contention that viewer elaboration of program content varies between actual commercial positions (hypothesis 2) and highlights the need to understand how this phenomenon may affect the processing of advertising messages.



To facilitate the final hypothesis tests, commercials were placed in low- and high-elaboration positions of the Alfred Hitchcock episode. The low-elaboration position selected appears seven minutes into the program. Hitchcock's prologue has ended, and some casual conversation has taken place at an industrial site, where the workers are about to break for lunch. No thought-provoking or exciting action has occurred. The high-elaboration position occurs six minutes before the end of the program, when the viewer witnesses a series of events which appears to be leading to the imminent poisoning of the protagonist. The mean response time for the low-elaboration position in the earlier experiment was .475 seconds, compared to .816 seconds in the high-elaboration location, a highly significant difference (t = 3.82, p < .01).

The commercials employed in the main experiment were: (1) a message urging viewers not to allow their friends who drink to drive under the influence of alcohol; and (2) an advertisement for Mobil 1, a premium synthetic motor oil. They are professionally produced commercials and both are relevant to the student population, but neither had been aired recently in the viewing area from which subjects were drawn. They also differ from one another in terms of their underlying marketing objectives; one advocates a socially responsible behavior and the other a more conventional product purchase. The use of two commercials permits replication.

Sample and Method

A sample of 41 students participated in this stage of the research, with 17 viewing the drinking and driving commercial in the low-elaboration position and the Mobil 1 ad in the high-elaboration setting, and 24 exposed to the ads in reverse order. Two minutes after the end of the second test commercial, the video monitor was switched off and the researcher distributed the measurement instrument. (To avoid confounding effects due to different time intervals between exposure to the two commercials and responding to the self-report measures, subjects were provided with questionnaires specific to the ad most recently seen. Therefore, cognitive response, recall and attitudinal data reported hereafter relate exclusively to the commercial placed in the high-elaboration position. Furthermore, analyses of those constructs are reported separately for each advertisement to avoid confounding program elaboration effects with differences in executional style or other commercial-specific elements!)

For the cognitive response task, subjects were allowed three minutes to record their thoughts about Mobil 1 motor oil or confronting their friends about drinking and driving. Thereafter, they evaluated each thought as positive (favorable toward the topic of the ad), neutral (neither favorable nor unfavorable) or negative (unfavorable) In addition, independent judges later coded each thought as cognitive (interjudge reliability in total number of responses coded as cognitive, r = .91) or affective (] = .83) in nature, and as representing message (closely related to commercial information, r = .90) or own (more personal thoughts about the topic of the ad, r = .82) thoughts. Instructions for the message recall task invited subjects to record everything they could remember about the ad, including the words, pictures or scenes, and music. Judges later coded responses in terms of total number of commercial elements recalled (r = .91), and as central (directly relevant to the message's persuasive intent, r = .90) or peripheral (tangential background or executional factors, such as colors, clothing, music style, r = .88).


Consistent with the earlier experiment, the tones heard immediately prior to the two commercial break positions elicited significantly different response times, with subjects taking longer to push the button in the high-elaboration than in the low-elaboration position (t=3.47, p < .01). This established the validity of the program elaboration manipulation for the experimental sample.

A comparison of viewer response times before and during the commercial provides an indicator of whether processing intensity remains stable (no difference in response times), as one would expect if the demands of program elaboration consume most available cognitive resources, or increases (longer response times during than before the commercial) as a result of the use of remaining capacity to process advertising content in addition to the program. Pooled results from the viewers of both ads reveal that the mean time of response to the tone following the introduction of the commercial in the -high elaboration position (.842) was not significantly different from that associated with the prior tone (.918). In contrast, a significant difference emerged between pre-commercial response lime in the low program-elaboration position (.494) and that associated with the first tone heard during the commercial (.594) in that location (t = 2.6, p < .05; separate analyses for the two commercials yielded comparable results). Thus extensive elaboration of program content is shown to leave minimal cognitive resources available for an increase in overall processing levels when a commercial appears, whereas such an increase is possible when program elaboration is low, as suggested by hypothesis 3.

Multiple regression was applied to the experimental data to assess the relationship of program elaboration, as measured by secondary task response time, and cognitive response, recall and attitude. As noted earlier, the regression analysis is applied only to data obtained from the commercial in the high-elaboration condition. Table 1 contains standardized parameter estimates associated with the regression equations and the proportion of variance which each explains (R2).



For the drinking and driving ad, response times generally demonstrated a strong relationship with cognitive response generation (R != .65), with increasing pre-commercial response time resulting in a corresponding increase in total number of thoughts, and more specifically in own thoughts. While the total variance accounted for is lower in the Mobil 1 ad, precommercial response times had a marginally significant positive association with total thought generation, and were significantly associated with positive, cognitively oriented, and own thoughts. This positive relationship of pre-commercial response times with various cognitive response measures implies that increasing amounts of program elaboration induced a corresponding increase in attention to the commercial, which in turn resulted in the generation of more commercial-relevant thoughts.

While subjects may have been motivated to think about the topic of the ad, a negative relationship emerged between pre-commercial response time and recall measures for the Mobil 1 commercial, with response mmes accounting for 62 percent of the variance in the total number of message elements recalled. (For the drinking and driving ad, variance accounted for was low and parameters were not significant.) This suggests that, in the case of the Mobil 1 ad, increasing program elaboration reduced the efficiency of viewers' processing effort, thereby inhibiting their ability to store and subsequently retrieve message details. This result supports hypothesis 4, and is consistent with the finding cited earlier that response times did not change significantly as the high-elaboration program segment gave place to a commercial.

While attitudinal results were not specifically hypothesized it is noteworthy that response times explained 55 percent of the variance in viewer attitude toward confronting friends about drinking and driving. The only significant response time parameter is associated with the tones heard prior to the commercial break. The inverse relationship between those response times and viewers' attitudes suggests that increasing amounts of pre-commercial program elaboration resulted in a less positive attitude toward the behavior advocated by the ad. However, this occurred in spite of the direct relationship between response times and cognitive response activity cited earlier. In other words, high levels of program elaboration induced extensive thinking about the ad, but had a detrimental- effect on attitude. The explanation for this result appears to lie in the type of thoughts generated. Responses generated in a state of high program elaboration were largely "own" thoughts, which are likely to be less positive than message thoughts (Kisielius and Sternthal 1986).

Post-commercial response time results vary markedly across the two advertisements, implying the operation of some factors unique to the particular commercials employed. While the information gathered was inadequate to assess this discrepancy with confidence, two findings of interest emerge: (1) the total program environment, not just that which precedes the advertisement, seems to have an impact on viewer processing of the commercial; and (2) pre-commercial and post-commercial program elaboration are shown to be distinct phenomena, which may induce consonant or disparate effects on the processing of commercial messages.


Results establish that points within a television program may be located that engage the audience in significantly different amounts of elaboration. They also confirm that ads, as they are currently placed in television programs, occur at points that differ significantly in terms of program elaboration. It is shown that certain program content has the capacity to induce viewers to commit a large proportion of available resources to its processing, thereby minimizing the efficiency with which they can encode and store information conveyed by a commercial. Therefore, viewers are better able to remember advertising message information when it is positioned in a program setting characterized by low levels of elaboration than when the ad interrupts a segment which induces high levels of thought.

In contrast with the viewer deficit in commercial recall associated with a high level of program elaboration, the expected consistency in the direction of commercial-relevant cognitive response activity did not emerge. Viewers generated more commercial-relevant thoughts when program elaboration was high than when it was low. It is plausible that the high-elaboration segment induced a high level of motivation to think about the topic of the advertisement at the same time that it reduced viewers' ability to efficiently process the actual message content.

Tangentially, the research also revealed that both pre- and post-commercial program elaboration affect viewer responses to advertising, and not necessarily in an identical manner. These findings fill a void in the program context literature by identifying the cognitive mechanisms responsible for processing deficits associated with high levels of program elaboration.


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Kenneth R. Lord, State University of New York at Buffalo
Robert E. Burnkrant, The Ohio State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15 | 1988

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