Self Concept and Advertising Effectiveness: a Conceptual Model of Congruency Conspicuousness, and Response Mode

ABSTRACT - The purpose of this paper is to develop a theoretical model to explain the relationship between self concept and advertising effectiveness. In brief, it is hypothesized that advertising appeals congruent with viewers' self-concept.would be superior to incongruent appeals in terms of enhancing advertising effectiveness. Advertising effectiveness is conceptualized as: brand memory, brand attitude, and purchase intentions. It is further expected that various types of self-concept would result in differential impacts under different response measures. A theoretical model is constructed to predict the varying effects of self-concept congruency. The major moderating variables include product conspicuousness and response mode.


George M. Zinkhan and Jae W. Hong (1991) ,"Self Concept and Advertising Effectiveness: a Conceptual Model of Congruency Conspicuousness, and Response Mode", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 348-354.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 348-354


George M. Zinkhan, University of Houston

Jae W. Hong, LGAD, Inc.


The purpose of this paper is to develop a theoretical model to explain the relationship between self concept and advertising effectiveness. In brief, it is hypothesized that advertising appeals congruent with viewers' self-concept.would be superior to incongruent appeals in terms of enhancing advertising effectiveness. Advertising effectiveness is conceptualized as: brand memory, brand attitude, and purchase intentions. It is further expected that various types of self-concept would result in differential impacts under different response measures. A theoretical model is constructed to predict the varying effects of self-concept congruency. The major moderating variables include product conspicuousness and response mode.


Behavioral researchers ate increasingly interested in examining symbolic consumer behavior. The impact of the symbolic meaning of a product, however, hinges on the association between the product symbol (a subjective meaning assigned to an object) and consumers' self image (a mental picture representing an entity). If the symbol of a product does not tie in closely with one's self image, it may have little influence on purchasing behavior, irrespective of its potential symbolic richness. Thus, the impact of product symbolism depends upon the interrelationship between a product's perceived image and the buyer's self-image. In this respect, symbolic purchasing behavior should be studied within the context of the buyer's self-concept, which denotes the way a person perceives her/himself.

Since symbolism is such an important tool advertising and affects purchase primarily when it connotes an association with self, self-concept can be expected to play a central role in influencing advertising effectiveness (Sirgy 1986). However, there has been relatively little conceptual or empirical work completed to determine under what circumstances advertising appeals congruent with one's self-concept would be superior to incongruent appeals. Congruence here refers to the degree to which advertising expressions coincide with self concept. In addition, it is not clear which self concept (actual vs. ideal) would generate the greatest effect on various advertising effectiveness measures (i.e., cognition vs. affect vs. conation).

The purpose of this paper is to construct a theoretical model to predict the effects of advertising expressions (both congruent and incongruent with self-concept) on the dependent variables: memory, preference and purchase intention. A conceptual model (consisting of 7 hypotheses) is proposed to predict the relative importance of various types of self-concept.


Despite the fact that there is not necessarily agreement concerning the precise conceptualization of self-concept, a basic definition of this term is: "the totality of the individual's thoughts and feelings having reference to himself as an object" (Rosenberg 1979: 7). Self-concept does not refer to the real or existential self (isolated from one's perception). In other words, it is not an objective entity independent of the perceiver. Instead the term denotes individuals' subjective thoughts toward themselves. In this sense, self-concept is a unique sort of attitude. Unlike other attitudes which are perceptual-products of an external object, self concept is an image shaped by the very person holding the image.

Recently, cognitive psychologists have considered self-concept as a set of self-schemata, which are organized cognitive structures in certain domains of the self (Markus, Smith and Moreland 1985). As other schemata, these structures are activated when a person encounters a situation involving personally-relevant information, and they function as mnemonic devices in remembering external stimuli.

Although self-concept can be conceptualized as a cognitive structure, self-concept does not refer to mere knowledge of facts. Rather, self-concept is a cognitive structure -which is associated with strong feelings or motivations. That is, self-concept is the knowledge of oneself which includes the driving thrust of other behaviors.

Self-concept is composed of multidimensional characteristics. For instance, a single individual may be a father, a manager, a part-time evening student, a Catholic and a Democrat; a person may be an extrovert, a liberal and an intellectual all at the same time. Nonetheless, self-concept is not a mere conglomeration or addition of isolated concepts of self, but a patterned interrelationship or Gestalt of all these.

Self-concept was defined above as the way a person looks at herself; this is the definition of "actual self-concept". An individual is cognizant of not only what s/he is, but also what s/he wishes to be. The ideal state of imaginative self is termed ideal self-concept. Ideal self-concept is distinguished from actual self-concept in that the former is based on the perceptual reality of oneself, while the latter is shaped by imagination of the ideal self state.

In general, ideal self-concept is the reference point with which actual self is compared. If there is a gap between them, an individual strives to achieve the ideal state. In this respect, ideal self is a motive force driving an individual upward (self-esteem motive). Actual and ideal self-concepts both have social dimensions; however, due to space limitations, no specific hypotheses are developed concerning this social aspect of self concept.


Self-concept has become accepted as an important psychological construct and the majority of applications which have been completed in a consumer behavior context have been concerned with the self-concept/product (or store) image congruence effect on some criterion variables. From this perspective, self-concept is a promising variable for explaining the effectiveness of various promotional strategies. Specifically, promotional efforts may be more effective if they are directed toward establishing a product image congruent with the consumer's own self-concept. A matching advertising appeal, compared to non-matching appeals, may lead consumers to subsequent behaviors favorable to the product advertised.

Self-concept involves an integrated conceptual system composed of information about oneself. It is concerned with individuals' fundamental frame of reference, and it plays a pivotal role in human behavior. In advertising settings, viewers are presumed to go through a process of comparing ad contents with self-concept when they are exposed to advertising messages. Advertising effectiveness, then, varies depending upon the degree of match between the two entities.

Self-Concept Effects on Memory

Self-concept contains self-related prototypes or self-schemata. As a form of schema, self-schema denotes a knowledge structure composed of conceptually related information about oneself. Markus (1977) defined this concept as "cognitive generalizations about the self, derived from past experience, that organize and guide the processing of self-related information contained in the individual's social experience."

Self-schema contains various types of information about the self. It includes not only verbal information, but also other forms of information such as images, representations and feelings. But as an individual grows up, s/he tends to describe her/himself by more traits, which thus become more significant components of self-concept.

An individual uses this self-schema in processing a variety of other incoming information about the self. It carries out all the functions that schema usually does: selection, abstraction, interpretation, and integration. It directs special attention to, and encodes, only the information which is relevant to an individual. It affects the abstraction process in which the semantic content of the stimulus is extracted from the information selected, and the surface form is lost. The semantic content is then interpreted in such a way as to be consistent with the present self-schema. Finally, the information that remains is integrated with PreviouslY acquired. related self-schemata and then stored. Thus, self-schema guides the processes of self-related information in memory, including encoding, organizing, and retrieval.

Like other schemata, self-schema functions as a memory aid. It is self-schema that is active when processing self-related information. External stimuli compatible with self-schema would be readily attended, encoded, comprehended and retained, in comparison with those stimuli which do not fit with it. In other words, individuals with well-developed self-schema process self-related information with relative certainty and resist counter-schematic information. These functions of self-schema lead to a better memory of self-relevant stimuli.

Some suggestive evidence comes from a series of judgment studies by Markus and her associates (Markus 1977; Markus, Crane and Siladi 1978). They provided subjects with a set of trait adjectives, congruent or incongruent with the respondents' own self-concepts, and asked them to judge whether each adjective described the subjects themselves or net. The results consistently revealed that subjects were much faster at endorsing the trait adjectives when the adjectives were congruent with their self-concept than when they were not. Moreover, aschematics who did not have a self-schema with regard to the study domain (i.e., independence/dependence or masculinity/femininity) did not show any systematic differences in their processing times for different trait adjectives.

Other studies conducted in the context of self-reference have shown more direct influence of self-schema on memory. For instance, Rogers, Kuiper and Kirker (1977) utilized the depth of processing paradigm in their study and had subjects make four different judgments on forty adjectives presented: a structural decision (whether the word had big letters), a phonemic decision (whether the word rhymed with another word), a semantic decision (whether the word meant the same as another word), and self-reference decision (whether the word described the subject him/herself). An incidental recall test after the word presentation revealed that the self-reference task resulted in superior recall performance, followed by semantic, phonemic and structural tasks in this order. These results imply that the self-reference tasks generated the deepest memory trace, which, in turn, brought about superior incidental recall. In this respect, self-reference is a more powerful encoding device than a semantic task which is usually found to produce the deepest encoding traces in levels of processing research.

These studies outlined above suggest that people have a well-organized knowledge structure or self-schema about themselves, and if external stimuli are congruent with this self-schema, information processing is facilitated, leading to better memory. Self in this case serves as an encoding device or as a retrieval cue during the recall phase.

Projecting the research results of self-schema into an advertising setting leads to the general prediction that advertisements whose expressions are congruent with a viewer's self-concept should be remembered better than those which are self-incongruent. Memory superiority of self-relevant expressions is expected in terms of the recall and recognition of the brand names delivered in ads.

In addition to the congruency effect of actual self-concept, we may expect similar effects from the congruency between advertising expressions and ideal self-concept. Although our conception of ideal self-image may not be as well developed as that of actual self-concept, we still have ideas about what we want to be like. It is, therefore, foreseeable that ideal self-concept also exerts influences on the recall of the brand names advertised.

The above discussion of memory effect leads to the following set of hypotheses:

H1a: Advertising expressions congruent with one's self-concept produce better memory of advertised brands than self-concept-incongruent ads.

H1b: Advertising expressions congruent with one's ideal self-concept produce better memory of advertised brands than ideal self-concept-incongruent ads.

Self-Concept Effects on Evaluation

In advertising settings, no studies have specifically examined the effects of self-concept on product evaluation. However, data amassed in closely related areas lead to the notion that advertising expressions congruent with the audience's self-concept would be easily accepted and result in a favorable attitude toward the advertised brand.

The research outcome of the self-concept/product image congruency effect might be projected here as the most relevant evidence. Self-concept studies have typically made the following assumptions about buyer behavior. Consumers desire to express themselves in brand choices. Products, services, and/or stores convey certain images or personalities beyond their functional characteristics. Consumers prefer or search for products (or stores) which have images compatible with their perception of self. In other words, consumers buy or prefer those products which possess images most similar to the images they either perceive or wish of themselves. They prefer those products which match their self-concept, since purchases provide a vehicle for self expression. Extending these findings into advertising settings, it is predicted that advertising appeals which match the viewer's self-concept would bring forth preference toward the advertised brand.

Another theoretical basis is derived from social psychology researchers who have studied similarity effects on liking/ attraction in interpersonal relationships. According to research results in this area, similarity among people has a pervasive influence on liking or attraction (Freedman et al. 1974). Thus, there is a strong tendency for people to like others who are similar to themselves in terms of demographics, culture, personality, attitudes, beliefs, hobbies, religion, social class, nationality, and so on.

Empirical research found this tendency when people had similarities in attitude, and even in the description of attitude, opinions and other characteristics (see Byrne 1971 for A review). Although subsequent studies revealed that similarity effects were not unanimous in all conditions, it is generally accepted that similarity is a determining factor in evaluating other people or objects favorably or unfavorably (Berscheid 1985).

The findings of these works both in product/consumer congruity effects and the similarity effects on person/object liking can be logically projected to advertising settings. Thus, ads which depict the product to be similar in its image or characteristics to the target audience's perception of themselves are expected to produce more favorable attitudes toward the product advertised than those which are not similar in this regard.

This contention can be extended to ideal self-concept too. Ideal self-concept is also important to an individual and has high emotional valences. Moreover, it is substantially correlated with actual self-concept (Landon 1974). As such, advertising appeals which are congruent with ideal self-concept are also expected to generate higher preference toward the product than the appeals which are not compatible.

Thus the following effects are expected with respect to attitude formation toward the advertised brand:

H2a: Advertising expressions congruent with one's self-concept produce more favorable attitude toward the product advertised than self-concept-incongruent ads.

H2b: Advertising expressions congruent with one's ideal self-concept produce more favorable attitude toward the product advertised than ideal self-concept incongruent ads.

Self-Concept Effects on Purchase Intention

Although research pertaining to the effect of self-concept on purchase intention is rare, Landon (1974) and Belch (1978) found that both actual and ideal self-concept influence purchase intention (though their degree of relative impact is different). That is, the more closely a product's image matches the buyers' self-concept, the higher the purchase intention is for that product. The projection of these findings into an advertising setting leads to the prediction that a product described as being congruent with viewers' self-concept would elicit higher purchase intention than a similar product which does not match viewers' self-concept quite so well.

Moreover, studies of the attitude-behavior relationship suggest that purchase intentions are highly related with product attitudes (Ryan and Bonfield 1975). As such, advertising expression congruent with one's self-concept is expected to elicit both a positive attitude toward the advertised product and a favorable purchase intention.

Thus, the arguments developed concerning self-concept effects and attitudes are expected to apply in much the same way to purchase intentions:

H3a: Advertising expressions congruent with one's self-concept produce stronger buying intentions for the product advertised than self-concept-incongruent ads.

H3b: Advertising expressions congruent with one's ideal self-concept produce stronger buying intentions for the product advertised than ideal self-concept-incongruent ads.

Response Modes and the Relative Influences of Self-Concepts

The next question concerns the relative importance of various types of self-concept. For example, is self-concept congruency more influential in terms of purchase intention effect than ideal self-congruency, or is the reverse true? The answer to this question is not straight-forward; however, the basic position is that it depends upon the situation

Memory or Evaluation? One factor which is presumably critical in determining which self-concept would be most influential is response mode. Specifically, when the task is to remember the information given in an advertisement (i.e., brand name and product information), actual self-concept is expected to play a more significant role than ideal self-concept. In contrast, when the task is to evaluate the advertised product, ideal self-concept is expected to become prominent, compared to actual self-concept (Sirgy 1986).

The rationale underlying this contention is inherent in self-concept motivation. Since self-concept is a central system to everyone, a person tends to maintain or protect self-concept on the one hand, and enhance it on the other hand. These two competing motives are referred to as the self-consistency motive and self-esteem motive, respectively. They co-exist within an individual, providing differing implications; human behavior is influenced by these two fundamental driving forces.

Rosenberg (1979) defined self-consistency motive as "the motive to act in accordance with the self-concept and to maintain it intact in the face of potentially challenging evidence." Although self-concept may change gradually, people have a tendency to preserve or maintain a consistent cognitive state of self. Any external stimuli which threaten the stability of internal conceptual unity produce anxiety or cognitive dissonance between one's own self-perception and incoming stimuli. Consequently, people make attempts to reduce conflict arising from inconsistencies. That is, those stimuli which are incompatible with existing self-concept meet resistance, and only the information which is in accordance with the self-concept is accepted.

Another motive related to self-concept is self esteem motive (Sirgy 1987). It is the tendency to raise oneself to an aspired state or standard. This motive induces people to engage in activities that may lead them to be seen more positively. This motive is so fundamental that it may not be educable to further elementary drives (James 1890).

These two motivations -- self-consistency and self-esteem -- may be in accordance with each other in some cases (i.e., when the discrepancy between actual and ideal components of self-concept is minimal), but they may- be in conflict in other cases (i.e., actual-ideal discrepancy is extreme). Thus, people may encounter a situation in which they have to choose between enhancing and maintaining their self-concept. Then the relevant question is which motive dominates the other when they are in discord.

The question of whether self-esteem or self consistency motive is more powerful may depend on the response tasks required. More specifically, it is likely that self-consistency dominates self-esteem if the response mode is memory. Conversely, if one is required to evaluate the given object, it is highly probable that the brand which is likely to enhance one's self-image in the direction of the ideal self will be preferred.

If an individual's task is to remember given information, s/he is more likely to remember information consistent with her/his actual self concept, compared to information consistent with ideal self-concept. A person possesses a well developed (actual) schema about her/himself and this constitutes a rich self-oriented information base. Hence s/he would better attend to, encode and retrieve the information congruent with the schema, leading to a deeper memory trace, as long as it is consistent with the actual self-schema developed. The desire to enhance self-image is not particularly relevant for memory processes. What matters is the maintenance of unity within the construal system. One way to do this is to accept the information compatible with one's existing knowledge structure or schema. Henceforth, one would better remember the information congruent with one's self-concept, which has been organized as a form of well developed self-schema. This is one way to secure a state of cognitive consonance. Therefore the congruence between given information and the actual self gets priority, regardless of the valence (degree of desirability) of the actual self-concept (positive or negative). The effect of ideal self congruency may exist, but its impact is expected to be secondary, only moderating the actual self-concept congruency effect. The primary operative motive here is the self consistency motive, the motive to keep one's actual self-concept intact.

The situation becomes different with evaluation, however. Since evaluation is an affective activity, through which the desirability of an object is determined, the self-esteem motive has a greater impact than the self-consistency motive. Unlike remembering, evaluating a given object is highly affected by whether or not it is likely to enhance one's self-image toward an ideal state. Accordingly, the brand congruent with one's ideal self will be evaluated more favorably than that which is congruent with actual self. (This is particularly true when the actual self is negative.) That is, the congruity sought more is between product image and ideal self-concept. The product in this case vicariously satisfies the desire to approach the ideal state of self-image. And the brand preference would be decided by the degree to which the brand is described as similar to one's ideal self. This is a way to gratify the self-esteem motive. An example may demonstrate this contention more vividly. A Porsche automobile may be perceived as being consistent with the following set of traits: dynamic, young, wealthy, and powerful. If an individual has an ideal self-concept of '1 want to be dynamic, young, wealthy, and powerful," this ideal self-concept coincides with the car image, and preference for the car will be high, irrespective of whether actual self-concept matches with the car image or not.

Summarizing the above discussion from an advertising perspective, advertising information congruent with actual self-concept would be better remembered than that congruent with ideal self-concept; whereas advertising expressions congruent with ideal self would elicit more favorable attitude toward the brand advertised than those congruent with actual self-concept.

These arguments lead to the following hypotheses:

H4: When individuals are required to remember the brand name, those brands with images consistent with their actual self-concept are better remembered than those consistent with ideal self-concept.

H5: When individuals are required to evaluate advertised brands, brands with images consistent with their ideal self-concept are preferred to those with images consistent with actual self-concept.

Product Conspicuousness and Self-Concept Congruity The next issue concerns the relationship between ideal self-concept and ideal social self-concept. That is, which one of these two self-concepts has a greater impact on product evaluation?

One moderating factor which is assumed to be critical in this regard is product conspicuousness. Specifically, when the consumption of a product takes place mainly in public, the consumer will be more concerned with others' responses regarding their consumption. Thus, ideal social self-concept, the image one wants others to hold, is likely to be more relevant than ideal self-concept (the image one would ideally like to be, regardless of others). This is because people have a basic need to receive approval from society or they try to create positive impressions of themselves in others' minds. Some label this the "social approval motive" (Crowne and Marlowe 1964) while others term it "self-presentation motive" (Baumeister 1982). This is the public dimension of the self-esteem motive which operates more in private situations. Accordingly, when consumption of a product is relatively visible to others, social approval motive substitutes for self-esteem motive.

On the other hand, when a product is consumed primarily in private, the consumer will be less concerned about what others think about the consumption of that specific product. The main consideration here is the degree to which the product is satisfactory from the individual's point of view. Under these circumstances, self-esteem motive prevails and the product matching with one's ideal self-concept would be preferred to that compatible with ideal social self-concept.

In summary, when product consumption is mainly private, self-esteem- motive is more important than a social approval motive, and consumers are expected to be guided by their ideal self-concept. Thus, the brand most similar to their ideal self is preferred to that consistent with ideal social self. In contrast, when the consumption takes place in public, social approval motive prevails, and the reverse holds true. These arguments lead to the following hypotheses:

H6a: If an advertised product is mainly consumed in private, the brand most consistent with a consumer's ideal self-concept is preferred to that consistent with ideal social self-concept.

H6b: If an advertised product is mainly consumed in public, the brand most consistent with a consumer's ideal social self-concept is preferred to that consistent with ideal self-concept.

Purchase Intention and Differential Impact of Self-Concept It is expected that purchase intention will be affected more by ideal self-concept than actual self-concept. Self-esteem is the prime motive here as consumers strive to reduce the actual-ideal gap by choosing a product with a similar image to their ideal self.

However, this argument holds true only when the discrepancy between actual self-concept and product image is moderate. As long as the discrepancy is low or moderate, one's motivation to enhance oneself (self-esteem motive) would prevail, thus increasing buying intention of the brand with images consistent with ideal self. If the discrepancy is extreme, on the other hand, one's buying intention would be no more in line with ideal self. The product image deviates too much from actual self-concept so that the consumer would realize that the product image is too far from his/her actual image, and buying intention would diminish. Thus, products congruent with ideal self would evoke low buying intention when the gap between product image and the present state of self is excessive. The relevant hypotheses for purchase intentions are extracted from this contention.

H7a: If the discrepancy between product image and actual self-concept is low or moderate, advertised brands consistent with ideal self-concept elicit higher purchasing intention than those consistent with actual self-concept.

H7b: If the discrepancy between product image and actual self-concept is extreme, advertised brands consistent with actual self-concept-elicit higher purchasing intention than those consistent with ideal self-concepts.

Sirgy (1980) found partial support for the hypothesis 7. However, his hypotheses were not specified in terms of the degree of gap between product image and actual self-concept as is the case in H7a and H7b.

The above discussion has centered on the notion that the congruity between advertising expression and self-concept plays an important role in ad effectiveness. The relative impact of the various types of self-concept is expected to vary depending on response modes and product conspicuousness. The resulting conceptual model specifies 7 hypotheses to organize and summarize the extant literature on self-concept and advertising effects.


The conceptual model developed in this paper is designed to predict the various influences which self concept have on advertising effectiveness. To date, this has been a relatively under-investigated area in consumer behavior research. We know a fair amount about the notion of self concept and how it applies to consumer behavior in general. However, we know comparatively less about how self concept relates to advertising principles and strategies. It may be that self concept exerts some of its strongest effects on consumer behavior by acting through promotional vehicles and images. In this regard, the notions of self-congruency and product conspicuousness may be especially useful for understanding and predicting these promotional effects.

Past research has also been somewhat unclear in specifying the roles which various sorts of self concept play in guiding behavior. For example, which is more important for predicting attitude formation: actual self concept or ideal self concept? We don't always have very precise answers to these kinds of questions, and there is some reason to suspect that situational influences may play an important role. One of the goals of this paper has been to shed some light on this issue by specifying the circumstances under which one variety of self concept may be dominant over another.

Measurement is another potentially delicate issue. As pointed out by Sirgy (1982), the scales typically used for the measurement of self-concept and brand image are susceptible to halo effects. In this respect, it is important for self-concept researchers to employ alternative methodologies, such as protocol measures, which are less prone to halo effects. In addition, it might prove fruitful to employ multiple indicators for memory in order to provide more specific insights about the role which self-schema plays at each stage of information processing.

Particular emphasis should be placed on investigating the theoretical foundations of the self-concept effect. Most self-concept studies to date have merely shown that self-concept/ brand image congruency and brand preference (or purchase intention) are correlated. No plausible explanations were provided regarding the underlying, conceptual rationale.

Here, a conceptual model has been developed to explain various self-concept effects. However, there may be many other relevant perspectives not yet developed. Alternatively, such conceptual schemes may have been developed, but not specifically applied to the context of self-concept research.


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George M. Zinkhan, University of Houston
Jae W. Hong, LGAD, Inc.


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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