The Information Processing of Televised Political Advertising: Using Theory to Maximize Recall


>Annie Lang and Patrick Lanfear (1990) ,"The Information Processing of Televised Political Advertising: Using Theory to Maximize Recall", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 149-158.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 149-158


>Annie Lang, Washington State University

Patrick Lanfear, Washington State University

The point of political advertising is to get a candidate elected. In order to do so, a political advertiser must convey to the public the candidate's name, his or her stands on the issues, and a sense of liking or trust in the candidate. The advertisers who can do this can "sell" their candidates.

In some ways micro-level academic research on how television is processed by viewers seems somewhat removed from this endeavor. This paper is intended to demonstrate that specific suggestions regarding the structural aspects of television arise from that research and that these suggestions may be used to bring about significant changes in a commercial's effectiveness with only very small changes in the commercial. One might, for example, be able to create a commercial which improves viewers' memory for the candidate's name without interfering at all in the creative aspect of advertising. Further, the changes illustrated here can be done even in a fairly low budget production. It is argued that the marriage of television processing research with the real world of political advertising might be a good one.

Five variables will be considered in this paper. First, the effects on memory of visual structural complexity will be considered. (By visual structural complexity we mean the number of cuts, edits, zooms, dollies, pans, and general visual busyness that makes up an ad.) Second, the effects of visual and verbal redundancy will be considered. Third, we will look at how message difficulty affects the viewer's memory for an ad. Fourth, the order in which information is presented in a message will be considered. Last, effects of the emotional content of the commercials will be discussed.

Let's consider the political commercial shown in Figure 1. This is an ad for a fictitious politician, Charlie McGuire, who is running for Lieutenant Governor of Washington State. Charlie is relatively unknown in the state and is running for an office that does not have high salience for viewers. It is in this type of situation, when budgets are small, name recognition is low, and there is not a lot of information available about the race, that the improvement in memory resulting from the variables under discussion might make the most difference. How can we use theory to jazz up this basic ad and maximize recall for the candidate's name, what office he's running for, and his stand on the issues?


Personal experience watching commercials suggests that visual complexity makes an ad more interesting. The question for researchers has been whether that makes the ad easier to remember or more difficult to remember. There is good evidence at this point to support the idea that visual features like cuts, edits, onsets, and movement increase attention, in the attentive viewer, to a television advertisement by eliciting a reflexive attentive response called the orienting response (Lang, 1988; Reeves, et al., 1985). There is also evidence that audio structural features, like changes in voice, sudden silence, music, and loud noises, recall the attention of the inattentive viewer (Anderson an Levin, 1976; Thorson and Zhao, 1989). Thus, to some extent television can make you look by putting these elements of visual and audio structural complexity in the commercial.

On the other hand, there is also evidence to suggest -that too much of a good thing can-be bad (Berry, 1983; Gunter, 1987; Thorson and Lang, 1988; Lang and Thorson, 1989; Lang, in press). It seems that if there is too much complexity, you look but you can't think which results in high levels of attention (which is good) but low levels of memory for the contents of the ad (which is bad).

Where is the middle course and how do we get there? The research suggests, for example, that commercial onsets and scene changes within commercials elicit vigorous orienting behavior in viewers (Lang, 1988), but that information presented concurrently or during the first two seconds following scene changes and commercial onsets is remembered much more poorly than information presented more than two seconds after them (Lang, in press; Thorson and Lang, 1988). This suggests that when producing a commercial It would be wise to choose the two or three points you particularly want viewers to remember (like the candidate's name) and maximize attention to each point with a structural feature such as a scene change, loud noise, or sudden movement at least two seconds before it occurs.

In addition, there is preliminary evidence to suggest that if the structural feature used to attract the viewer's attention is visual it interferes more with information presented visually than it does with information presented verbally (Lang, in press). (Whether audio structural features interfere more with audio messages on television is not yet known, but it seems likely.) Thus, you might want to maximize memory by presenting the information verbally following a visual structural feature or visually following an audio structural feature.

In Figure 2 visual structural features are used to draw attention to Charlie McGuire's name and his stand on environmental issues. The formal feature being used here is a cut coupled with a pause in the audio track. So we have a visual cut to a new scene and a sudden silence in the audio. These should serve to increase attention in viewers who are already watching and recall the attention of those who are not looking. In addition to recalling attention, the pause in the audio track also allows the viewer time to process the new visual scene, which should lessen any interference of the orienting response with memory for the audio and video information.




Another aspect of the structure of television messages that seems to increase recall and recognition arises when the audio and the video are well matched (Gunter, 1987; Reese, 1984). Reese has shown, for example, that memory for broadcast news is much better when the audio and video tracks carry redundant information. When they are poorly matched, memory is much worse. Figure 2 demonstrates two attempts to take advantage of this effect. In scene two a cut to a visual of the Olympic Peninsula from the Puget Sound is made when Charlie is talking about pollution on the Peninsula and in the Sound. Second, in scene four, Charlie's name and the office he is running for, arguably the two most important pieces of information in the commercial, are carried in both the visual and audio tracks of the commercial.


The next aspect of a commercial to consider is how tough the message is. Are you trying to get across a dense- message or a fairly simple one? Thorson and Lang (1988; Lang and Thorson, 1989), among others, have suggested that the difficulty of a televised message alters the effectiveness of the visual structural feature. They showed that when the message being presented orally was difficult or unfamiliar (which is often the case with political advertising) that visual structural features interfered with memory for the oral message both at the time that they occurred and for at least the next seven seconds. On the other hand, when the oral message was simple, visual structural features improved memory for the oral message.

This research suggests that you use appropriately placed visual structural features to improve memory for simple or expected aspects of the message, like the candidate's name, but refrain from using structural complexity during portions of the message that are more difficult, like position statements. Further, it suggests that simple messages are more easily processed than complex messages, and therefore more likely to be completely stored. Thus a balance must be struck between too simple, and therefore boring (after all it is a commercial), and too complex (i.e. attention grabbing but hard to remember). One way to strike this balance is to make sure that only one aspect of the message, either the audio or the video track, is difficult at any one time.

Figure 3 shows how this has been incorporated into Charlie McGuire's ad. In scenes one and two the verbal message has been simplified in two ways. In scene one, more familiar words have been used - "caused" instead of "wreaked" - and in scene two, the position statement has been simplified by taking out the numbers and percentages and leaving only the descriptive statement.

These changes mean that at the start of the commercial, and just after the cut to a new visual scene (the Olympic Peninsula), which in this commercial is about as difficult as the visuals get, the audio is easier to process. When we return to Charlie's face in scene three, a familiar sight at this point, the audio track is slightly more abstract and difficult.


As the previous section points out, we must resist the temptation to focus only on the visual aspect of how information is presented. It is also important to consider how information is presented orally. It is the audio/visual nature of television which makes it such a compelling medium. But it is also this audio/visual nature that seems to make the process of gaining information from television a challenging cognitive task, despite its phenomonological ease. Research in both print and television suggests that information presented with a narrative structure whether referred to as a script, story, or schema) tends to be remembered better than information presented without a narrative structure.

Of course in political advertising we may not want to tell a story all the time. But time is a great organizer, particularly during the type of episodic processing that seems to be associated with watching television (Thorson and Friestad, 1989; Ortony, 1978; Lang, in press b). Some research suggests (Lang, 1989) that to the extent simple chronological order can be maintained when presenting information on television, memory will improve. To some extent, this suggests that to the extent information is presented in your commercial in the order in which it logically occurred it will be better remembered.

Figure 4 shows how Charlie's ad has been reordered slightly to capture the chronological order associated with "meeting a politician." The new order follows the general script, "Hi, my name is ... I'm running for ... I think that ... Vote for me.'


Having left the most interesting and complex issue until last, let's consider how emotion affects the processing of television commercials. This is a question of considerable interest and debate, especially in the context of the most recent presidential election. Does emotion help memory for commercials? Does it matter if the emotion is positive or negative? Does it affect memory for different types of information in different ways?

First, it seems fairly clear that overall memory for product commercials (Friestad and Thorson, 1985; Lang and Friestad, 1987), public service announcements (Lang, 1989; Reeves et al., 1989), and political commercials (Lang, in press; Shapiro and Rieger, 1989;) can be improved by the presence of emotion. Further, several of these studies (Friestad and Thorson, 1985; Lang and Friestad, 1987; Shapiro and Rieger, 1989; Reeves et al, 1989; Thorson, 1988) suggest that negative commercials are remembered better than positive commercials. In some of these studies (Shapiro, 1989), the negative commercials were attack commercials; in others (Friestad and Thorson, 1985; Lang and Friestad, 1987) the commercials elicited sad or unpleasant feelings in viewers. But, in general, all of these studies and streams of research suggest that both negative and positive emotional commercials seem to be recalled better than neutral commercials.




This research suggests, as does practical experience judging from recent political advertising, which seems to be predominantly emotional, that a judicious use of emotion in a commercial can improve memory for the commercial. But exactly what part of the commercial does it improve memory for?

This is a more difficult, but perhaps more interesting, question to answer. Some of the recent research has attempted to distinguish between visual and verbal memory for commercials (Lang, in press; Lang, 1989; Lang and Friestad, 1987). This research might be of particular interest to the political advertiser who is trying to get across primarily "verbal" information, i.e., the candidates name and his stand on an issue. Lang (in press; Lang, 1989; Lang and Friestad, 1987) has shown consistent evidence that negative emotion in commercials improves memory for the visual aspects of the messages. Thus, a commercial that is emotionally negative and has a strong visual image, like the famous revolving door ad from the Bush campaign, may be especially memorable.

In addition, some research suggests (Lang, 1987; Lang, 1988) that the emotional content of a commercial increases attention to the commercial and thereby increases memory for the commercial. Lang has reported preliminary evidence that the visual structural features in emotional commercials elicit more vigorous orienting responses than those in nonemotional commercials.

This research suggests, then, that when producing a commercial you should use emotion, as it is likely to increase both attention and memory. Further, if you use negative emotion you may want to present your main message visually. If you are using positive emotions your message can be presented either visually or verbally.

In Figure 5 negative emotion has been added to the commercial by using a strong visual image to underline Charlie's stand on environmental issues. The image of dead fish introduced in scene two carries the negative emotions associated with a fish kill (particularly salmon) in the Pacific Northwest and is a good match with the audio content. Thus visual and verbal redundancy are increased along with the introduction of emotion.

In addition, to increase attention at this point (to maximize the likelihood that the emotion will be engendered in the viewer), both an audio and a visual structural feature are included. Visually, we have a cut to the dead fish followed by a dolly (not a zoom) forward towards the fish. Evidence suggests that putting the camera on a dolly and pushing forward, instead of zooming, increases both attention to the picture (Lang, 1987; Anderson and Levin, 1976) and memory for the scene (Kipper, 1986).

Because of the increase in arousal the still picture of the dead fish and the start of the dolly forward are accompanied by silence in the audio track. This should help recall inattentive listeners who may continue to watch the visually compelling image. In addition, it allows time to fully process the visual before the audio information begins.

This paper has shown how theory can be incorporated into the production of political, or product, commercials. While some of the specific findings relied upon in this paper are preliminary, the changes they suggest do not necessitate a major overhaul of the creative premise of an advertisement. Because of this, the advertiser can easily incorporate the findings of micro-level research into an advertisement with very little risk. It is unlikely that delaying the announcement of the candidate's name two seconds after a scene change, for example, will make a perceptible difference in the aspect of an advertisement, but the possible gain in memory may make it well worthwhile. The risks are low, the possible gains significant.

Further, most of the changes suggested and illustrated in this paper can be done on a relatively low budget. This is important since it is in the lower visibility campaigns or with candidates who have low name recognition that these structural changes are likely to make the most difference and these, of course, tend to be the situations where money is likely to be lacking.


Anderson, D.R. and Levin, S.R. (1976) "Young Children's Attention to Sesame Street," Child Development, 47, pp. 806-811.

Berry, C. (1983) A dual effect of pictorial enrichment in learning from television news: Gunter's data revisited. Journal of Educational Television, 9, 171 -174.

Friestad, M. and Thorson, E. (1985) Effects of four types of emotion-eliciting TV messages on memory and judgment. Paper presented at the International Communication Association Annual Meeting, Honolulu, Hawaii, May.

Friestad, M. and Thorson, E. (1987) Encoding and retrieval instructions and the effects of emotion on attitude and memory for commercials. Paper presented to the American Psychological Association, New York, August.

Gunter, B. (1987) Poor Reception: Misunderstanding and forgetting broadcast news. Lawrence Erlbaum, NJ.

Kipper, P. (1986) Television camera movement as a source of perceptual information. Journal of Broadcasting, 30, 298.

Lang, A. and Friestad, M. (1987) Differences in memory for emotional television messages and hemispheric specialization. Paper presented to the International Communications Association, Montreal, Canada, May.

Lang, A. (1988) Involuntary attention and physiological arousal evoked by formal features and mild emotion in television commercials. Paper presented to the International Communication Association, New Orleans, LA, May.

Lang, A. (1989) The Effects of Over-Time Emotion on Visual and Verbal Memory for Television Messages. Paper presented to the International Communication Association, San Francisco, CA.

Lang, A. (1987) The effects of visual complexity and emotional valence on physiological arousal and attention to television. Dissertation, University of Wisconsin - Madison.

Lang, A. (in press). The effects of emotion and visual complexity on visual and verbal memory for political advertisements. In F. Biocca (Ed.) Television and Political Advertising, Volume 1: Psychological Processes, Lawrence Erlbaum, NJ.

Lang, A. (1989b) The Effects of Chronological Presentation of Information on Processing and Memory for Broadcast News. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, fall, pp. 314.

Lang, A. and Thorson, E. (1989) The effects of television videographics and lecture familiarity on adult cardiac orienting responses and memory. Paper presented to the Information Systems Division of the International Communication Association, Top Three Paper, San Francisco, CA.

Ortony, A. (1978). Remembering, understanding, and representation. Cognitive Science, 2, 53-69.

Reese, S. (1984). Visual-verbal redundancy effects on television news learning. Journal of Broadcasting, 28, 79-87.

Reeves, B., Thorson, E., Rothschild, M., McDonald, D., Hirsch, J. and Goldstein, R. (1985) Attention to television: Intrastimulus effects of movement and scene changes on alpha variation over time. Intern. J. Neuroscience, Vol. 25, pp. 241 -245.

Reeves, B., Newhagen, J., Mailbach, E., Basil, M., and Kurz, K. (1989) Negative and positive television messages: effects of message type and message context on attention and memory. Paper presented to the Mass Communication division of the International Communication Association, San Francisco, CA.

Shapiro, M. and Rieger, R. (1989) Comparing positive and negative political advertising. Paper presented to the political advertising division of the International Communication Association, San Francisco, CA.

Thorson, E. and Friestad, M. (1989) The effects of emotion on episodic memory for television commercials. In Alice Tybout and Pat Cafferata (Eds.) Advertising and Consumer Psychology. New York: Lexington Press.

Thorson, E. (1989) Processing Television Commercials. In Brenda Dervin, Lawrence Grossberg, and Ellen Wartella (Eds.) Paradigm Dialogues in Communication, Volume 11: Exemplars. Newbury, CA; Sage.

Thorson, E. and Lang, A. (1988) The effects of videographic complexity on memory for televised information. Paper presented to the International Communication Association, New Orleans, LA, May.

Thorson, E. and Zhao, X. (1988) Attention overtime: Behavior in a natural viewing environment. Paper presented to the American Academy of Advertising, Chicago, IL.



>Annie Lang, Washington State University
Patrick Lanfear, Washington State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17 | 1990

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