Special Session Summary How Do Ads Mean? New Directions in Cultural Advertising Research


Douglas B. Holt (1997) ,"Special Session Summary How Do Ads Mean? New Directions in Cultural Advertising Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 98-100.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 98-100



Douglas B. Holt, Penn State University

Understanding how advertising works is necessarily both a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary enterprise. Ads are at once informational, rhetorical, cultural, artistic, and magical. So comprehensive understanding requires diverse theoretical perspectives and methods to plumb these dimensions. Consumer research has over the past two decades made enormous strides in understanding how ads, as information, are cognitively processed. However, as we have single-mindedly pursued this goal, other important dimensions of advertising have been relatively neglected.

Recently a new research stream of advertising scholarship has emergedCwhat we will call the cultural paradigm of advertising researchCthat has begun to build theoretical sophistication in understanding these relatively neglected dimensions of advertising. Cultural advertising research emphasizes understanding how ads mean (McCracken 1987; Sherry 1987; Mick and Buhl 1992). While relatively new in consumer research, this paradigm has generated an extensive literature in mass communications, cultural studies, semiotics, and sociology, often drawing upon textual theories from literature, film, and rhetoric.

In the "first wave" of cultural advertising research, consumer researchers with training outside marketing have offered sophisticated primers on the key conceptual tools necessary for this endeavor: culture/structuralism/post-structuralism (Sherry 1987; McCracken 1987; Scott 1992), rhetoric (McQuarrie 1989; Scott 1990, 1994a, 1994b), and formal analysis from literature and film (Stern 1989, 1993). In particular, Scott’s (1990, 1994a, 1994b) programmatic series of Journal of Consumer Research articles has outlined an interdisciplinary program of research the goal of which is to integrate key ideas from literary and cultural theory to develop a cultural theory of advertising.

The next step in the evolution of cultural advertising research requires advancing these existing theoetical insights within the context of research questions central to consumer research. And, in particular, since most of these insights emanate from the humanities and so are posed strictly as formal analytic tools, it is necessary to adapt and integrate these ideas into the empirical social science tradition that dominates consumer research. Several studies have begun this process, in particular the work of David Mick (Mick and Politi 1989; Mick and Buhl 1992), Ed McQuarrie (McQuarrie and Mick 1992, 1996), and John Deighton (Deighton, Romer and McQueen 1989; Deighton and Hoch 1993). These three presentations continue the evolution of this second wave trajectory, developing yet new ways to extend and integrate central insights from literary and cultural theory into empirical advertising research. We take a broad view of the cultural advertising paradigmCdefining it conceptually in terms of theoretical assumptions and important research questions rather than in terms of methodsCwhich allows for linkages to research streams in advertising that have not historically made use of cultural research, and, also, allows for the application of an wide and eclectic array of methods chosen to fit the research problem.



Douglas B. Holt, Penn State University

Michael Mulvey, Rutgers University

The foundational premise of cultural advertising research is to understand "how ads mean." The incorporation of contemporary literary theory into ad research has led to a radical shift in conceptualizing the meanings of ads, moving from an "ad as information" metaphor to understanding the ad as a polysemic cultural text in which meanings are constructed relationally through a variety of intertextual linkages to "cultural codes" that exist outside the ad itself. In this conception, ads are indeterminate semiotic resources that facilitate and constrain but do not actually contain meaning. Thus, ad meanings only become concrete as particular audiences produce them. These powerful ideas have significant consequences for the empirical study of ad meaning, making obsolete common empirical techniques for studying ad meaning such as content analysis. But because these ideas emanate in the humanities, no alternative empirical approach has yet been offered. The vast promise of these theories for opening a new terrain of advertising research remains limited until these theoretical advances can be recast into tools for conducting empirical research.

The primary purpose of this study is to draw upon contemporary literary and cultural theory to develop an interpretive framework and accompanying data elicitation and analytic method for describing the meanings of ads. In this pilot study, we develop the reading profile to describe the meanings of a dramatic, figurative ad for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes) viewed by a group of forty-six demographically diverse adult informants. The goal of the data elicitation process is to generate the richest interpretations possible from a sample large enough to describe patterns of meanings, while minimizing influencing these interpretations. Informants watch the ad three times in a row, and then are asked to write in essay form responses to four open-ended questions that cue well-established aspects of ad interpretations ("What story does the ad tell?" "How does the ad relate to you life?" "What does the ad say about XX brand?" "Do you like the ad? Why or why not?"). They are then given as much time as they need to do so, averaging about twenty minutes.

The analysis of these data begins with a skeletal nomothetic framework based upon the three predominant interpretive stances used to read adsCthe textual, referential, and critical perspectivesCand then seeks to build idiographic categories of interpretation for each of these dimensions. After a number of iterations required to build comprehensive and reasonably orthogonal categories, the process follows typical content analysis procedures using ultiple independent coding.

The result of the elicitation and analysis is what we term the reading profileCa graphic depiction of the patterning of ad meaning that an ad evinces from a given audience. The reading profile is intended to assist analysis in three predominant advertising research streams in the cultural advertising paradigm: 1) cultural advertising theory, which seeks to conceptualize the nature of ad meaning, particularly how it is structured by various formal and structural characteristics of the ad-text and cultural characteristics of the audience, 2) sociological research, which seeks to apply cultural advertising theory to describe differences in ad meanings across socially-constructed interpretive communities, and 3) managerial research, which seeks to diagnose how well ads communicate meanings intended by their producers. After we developed the reading profile, we used the Frosted Flakes reading profile to briefly demonstrate that the technique can usefully contribute to each of these research streams.



Edward McQuarrie, Santa Clara University

David Glen Mick, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The traditional approach to meaning analysis in consumer advertising research has been largely verbal in orientation, and has focused on claims made vis-a-vis product attributes. Even a casual examination of advertising, however, shows ads in most media to be aggressively visual. Moreover, content analyses have shown that over the course of this century magazine ads have steadily increased the relative emphasis placed on visual as opposed to verbal elements.

This research effort will apply rhetorical and semiotic analysis to illuminate the question of precisely how visual images in advertisements convey meaning. In this vein, Scott (1994a) offers a pioneering discussion of how the visual text of an ad could be "read." Her rhetorical approach to visual imagery differs in many respects from earlier conditioning or association models, and also from conventional information processing models. The present study continues Scott’s rhetorical emphasis but brings multiple methods to bear, most notably a laboratory experiment, in order to produce a systematic, causal account of how rhetorical structure in advertising visuals can trigger the construction of meaning by consumers. The role model for this effort is McQuarrie and Mick (1992) where semiotic, rhetorical, phenomenological, and experimental approaches were combined to investigate the impact of advertising resonance (visually triggered puns).

By definition, any rhetorical analysis of advertising must be attentive to variations in the form and style of an advertising text; i.e., to rhetorical structure. The premise underlying rhetoric is that specific choices concerning form and style can be expected to bear a lawful and regular relation to specific consumer processing outcomes. For instance, an ad that makes use of visual repetition or echoing will, ceteris paribus, increase the probability that a consumer encountering that ad will respond in a certain wayCmost likely, by inferring that some substantive similarity exists between the real world referents for the two visually similar elements.

The specific idea to be investigated in this study is that the notion of a rhetorical figure can be fruitfully applied to visual elements of advertisements. In terms of language, a rhetorical figure is an artful deviation from expectations. Familiar examples of figures include metaphor, rhyme, pun and the like (McQuarrie and Mick 1996). It has been argued that a limited number of rhetorical figures exist, constituting templates into which specific instances fall. Transferred into the visual realm, this suggests that a small number of distinctive visual forms may exist, each of which can be shown to have a characteristic effect on consumer processing. The goal of this study is to experimentally maniplate such instances of visual rhetoric in order to provide a causal analysis of their impact on consumer processing. In our presentation we reported preliminary experimental data from several such manipulations, along with a theoretical account of how visual rhetoric achieves its effect.



Anne M. Brumbaugh, Case-Western Reserve University

Theoretical explanations of cultural differences in advertising response have relied principally on social psychological theories including identification (Whittler 1989), similarity (Whittler and DiMeo 1991), and felt ethnicity (Stayman and Deshpande 1989). The current research suggests that a cognitive cultural approachCwhich emphasizes differences in the content of cultural knowledge systems across groupsCfurther enhances our understanding of how advertisements trigger differential reactions across cultural groups.

This cognitive approach to understanding cultural differences in people’s reactions to advertising draws on literature from cognitive anthropology (see Holland and Quinn 1987; D’Andrade and Strauss 1992) that suggests that we are socialized into a certain body of knowledge specific to the cultural group in which we are raised. This knowledge, stored in cognitive structures or schemas called cultural models, is shaped by social and historical context and, so, varies from cultural group to cultural group. Whenever we view an ad, some of these countless cultural models are activated. This activated knowledge ranges from schemas for how to use the product to schemas for other themes depicted in advertising like success, family, or patriotism. Advertisers count on activating this information to enable us to envision ourselves using their product (i.e., activate an affect-laden schema for weddings in Kodak ads), or to otherwise enhance our interpretation of the ad.

The current research asserts that ethnic minorities in the United States are members of two important cultural groups: the dominant white culture, and their own ethnic subculture. Where knowledge about a topic is the same in the two cultures (e.g., baseball rules), members of the ethnic subculture and members of the dominant culture who are not members of that subculture share the same knowledge about that topic. In this case, we would not expect minority group members’ reactions to ads that activate this knowledge to differ from reaction of those in the dominant culture. However, where that knowledge is different, members of the subculture will be familiar with both knowledge of the dominant culture and of their subculture. Effectively, they have available in memory two cultural models for that subject that may be activated depending on other cues in the environment. These cues, including ethnicity of characters depicted in the ad, signal to the cognitive systems of these multicultural viewers which of the two schemas is to be activated. Viewers’ reactions to ads may differ by viewer ethnicity based on the knowledge that is activated and used to interpret and respond to the ad.

Several studies that test the existence of multiple cultural models of family for African-American and white populations and the activation of these models is discussed. Focus group results show that the cultural model of the typical American family is white and significantly different from the cultural model of the typical African-American family in terms of the number of family members, relationships amongst family members, living arrangements, socio-economic status, and other factors. Importantly, the two models do not differ significantly between African-American and white respondents, indicating that these models are widely shared among both groups. Results of structural equations modeling of subjects’ reactions to ads varying in ethnicity of characters depicted and other cues show that differences in viewers’ reactions are attributable to activation of these different cultural models, even after controlling for ethnicity-bsed identification with characters in the ad.

There are substantive differences in the content of different groups’ understanding of the world as contained in cultural models. It is important to understand how this cognitive basis of cultural distinctiveness impacts viewers’ interpretations and evaluations of ads in order to create inclusive advertising and to make appropriate segmentation and targeting decisions across culturally diverse populations.



John F. Sherry, Jr., Northwestern University

John Sherry initiated discussion by offering interpretations of several recent postmodern print ads, deploying a plethora of cutting edge terms that the panelists now wish they could remember.


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Douglas B. Holt, Penn State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24 | 1997

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