Upgrading By Association: an Experimental Investigation of a New Format of Comparative Advertising

ABSTRACT - In recent years, a new type (associational claims against their own products) of comparative advertising is being used by the practitioners. In order to develop more effective comparative advertisements, advertisers started making associational claims against their own better performing brands. The purpose of this research is to develop and test a conceptual framework regarding the effectiveness of associative brand comparisons against the company’s own brand. We use the hierarchy-of-effects model as a framework for examining the relative effectiveness of NewCA in comparison with traditional comparative advertising (CA) and noncomparative advertising (NoCA).


Ali Kara, Erdener Kaynak, and Donghoon Lee (1997) ,"Upgrading By Association: an Experimental Investigation of a New Format of Comparative Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 425-430.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 425-430


Ali Kara, Pennsylvania State University-York

Erdener Kaynak, Pennsylvania State University-Harrisburg

Donghoon Lee, Oricom Inc.


In recent years, a new type (associational claims against their own products) of comparative advertising is being used by the practitioners. In order to develop more effective comparative advertisements, advertisers started making associational claims against their own better performing brands. The purpose of this research is to develop and test a conceptual framework regarding the effectiveness of associative brand comparisons against the company’s own brand. We use the hierarchy-of-effects model as a framework for examining the relative effectiveness of NewCA in comparison with traditional comparative advertising (CA) and noncomparative advertising (NoCA).


A review of advertising and marketing literature makes it quite evident that a considerable amount of research has been conducted on the topic of comparative advertising since the FTC’s encouragement of the comparative advertising in 1971. In their seminal article, Wilkie and Farris 1975) proposed that comparative advertisements will be more effective than their noncomparative counterparts. Accordingly, much of the research effort in the area has been directed at trying to determine whether comparative advertisements are more or less effective in influencing and shaping consumer responses than noncomparative advertisements. However, research concerning the effectiveness of comparative advertising has produced inconclusive or mixed results at best. For instance, a number of studies showed that comparative advertising can exert more positive effects than noncomparative ads (Pechmann and Stewart 1990; Jain, Hackleman 1978; Gorn and Weinberg 1983; Rogers and Williams 1989; Murphy and Amundsen 1981; Goodwin and Etgar 1980; Alba and Chattopadhyay 1986; Droge and Darmon 1987), while other studies provided little or no evidence to comparative advertising’s superiority over noncomparative ads (Ash and Wee 1983; Belch 1981; Droge 1989; Gorn and Weinberg 1984; Grossbart, Muehling, and Kangun 1986; Sujan and Dekleva 1987; Swinyard 1981; Muehling and Kangun 1985; Shimp and Dyer 1978; Wilson and Muderrisoglu 1980). Finally, Rogers and Williams (1989) summarized the positive, neutral and negative effectiveness of comparative advertising.

Results of surveys indicate that executives view comparative advertising as important for their strategic planning purposes and it is often used as a creative approach in advertising by many industries today (Rogers and Williams 1989). As a result, many practitioners have developed different variations of comparative advertising to achieve their advertising objectives. For instance, many consumer goods manufacturers compared non-comparable products or brands to capture audiences’ attention and also they used two-sided comparative advertisements to increase believability of the claims made. In the literature, it is argued that the use of two-sided ads is one way of increasing the effectiveness of comparative advertising. However, recently a new type (associational claims against their own products) of comparative advertising is being used by the practitioners. To develop more effective comparative advertising, advertisers started making associational claims against their own better performing brands. In other words, they wanted to upgrade the low performer or inferior product by associating it to the high performer brand of the same company. In this format of comparative advertisement, advertiser makes associational comparison to its high performing/high market share brand to upgrade the low performing product. For instance, Accura’s advertisement for its Integra makes association with its Legend with a comparison slogan of "...feels like Legend, drives like Legend." Also, in the video that was mailed to prospective customer by Toyota when its Avalon model was introduced, they used significant amount of associative comparisons to their Lexus model.

A taxonomy for comparative advertising research is given by Lamb, Pride, and Pletcher (1978) which includes associative comparative advertisements, but previous research on associative comparative advertising has been limited. To the best of our knowledge, no research has been done to determine the effectiveness of this new format of comparative advertisement (NewCA). Therefore, the purpose of this research is to develop and test a conceptual framework regarding the effectiveness of associative brand comparisons against the company’s own brand. In the NewCA, associative comparisons are made to the company’s own better performing brand for the purposes of upgrading the low-performing brand. The notion of the NewCA is based on the idea that the comparison brand is not a directly competing brand against the advertised brand. We use the hierarchy-of-effects model as a framework for examining the relative effectiveness of NewCA in comparison with traditional comparative advertising (CA) and noncomparative advertising (NoCA).


According to Wilkie and Farris (1975), comparative advertising "...compares two or more specifically named or recognizably presented brands of the same generic product or service class or type and makes a comparison in terms of one or more specific product or service attribute." Some researchers on the other hand, argued that this definition was too restrictive and therefore took a broader perspective by incorporating advertising forms which implied a competitive superiority on any dimension (McDougall 1978). The current study falls within the first classification which uses the concept of direct comparative ads in which the sponsor makes verbal or visual references to a clearly identified brand. However, the comparisons made to stress brand similarities rather than brand differences for the purposes of upgrading the low performing product or brand.

In their review, Ash and Wee (1983) summarized the measures used to understand the effectiveness of comparative advertising. Almost all of the studies which have attempted to measure the effectiveness of CA used hierarchy-of-effects model or the situational effects model. Recent research (Barry 1987; Barry and Howard 1990) suggested that the hierarchy-of-effects model (Lavidge and Steiner 1961; Preston 1982) provides an effective and efficient framing reference for CA research. The hierarchy-of-effects model, which is used in the study as a framework of measuring the effectiveness of NewCA, include three components, namely; cognitive, affective and conative. The research hypotheses with regards to each components of the hierarchy-of-effects model is developed separately for each component of the model which is illustrated below.

Cognitive Component

The cognitive component of the hierarchy-of-effects model involve awareness (i.e., attention, recall and retention) and perceptual evaluations (i.e., believability, comprehension) of the advertisements. It is generally accepted that consumer awareness of the advertised brand is a necessary condition for subsequent intention to buy and actual purchase behavior. Therefore, one measure of an ad’s effectiveness in increasing brand awareness is its ability to capture the attention of the target audience. To do that, advertisers use a variety of CA format to capture audiences’ attention. For instance, in a recent TV commercial, Subaru’s subcompact car was compared with German sports car Porche. In another commercial, IBM airs TV commercials in different languages. Similarly, Energizer’s "... still going" bunny can be examples of attention getting ads. Although these could be criticized as "laughable," whether or not they "worked" is an empirical question to investigate.

In summary, in terms of the effects of CA on the cognitive component, current literature has been inconclusive and mainly reported negative effects. In this study, it is hypothesized that most of the negative effects of CA mentioned in the current literature are to be eliminated by the use of NewCA where the comparisons (associations) are made against the same company’s own brand. There are several justifications behind this assertation. First, CA was criticized in the advertising literature because it gave unnecessary exposure to the competing brand(s). This might be eliminated in the NewCA because there will not be any competitors’ brand mentioned in the advertisement. Second, it is unlikely that traditional CA format will be continued to be perceived as "novel" or "new" following nearly twenty-five years of use. However, the new format of CA could provoke more consumer interest simply because it is something different and novel. Using the same arguments that Wilkie and Farris put forward in 1975 about the comparative advertisements, the NewCA may be viewed as something very original and new which is expected to increase audience’s attention. It is known in the current consumer behavior literature that, consumers quite often seek novel stimuli (Bettman 1975; Lynch and Srull 1982). Such behaviors are onsidered as personality characteristics possessed by everyone to a degree (Hirschman 1980; Midgeley and Dowling 1978). Therefore, the NewCA, which compares the two products from the same company, is a new and novel way of CA. Finally, CA found to be less believable and credible due to the several factors such as counter arguments and source derogation (Belch 1981; Swinyard 1981; Wilson and Muderrisoglu 1980). Attribution theory suggests that a message lacking in credibility will be discounted and will not be very persuasive (Kelly 1967). According to the attribution theory, an audience who sees a comparative advertisement’s claim, tries to decide why these claims were made. One might argue that the advertiser of a comparative advertisement for one brand might not be viewed as a highly credible source of information about competing brands because of the likelihood of manipulative intent. Research has identified that source credibility is comprised of expertise and trustworthiness (Dholakia and Sternthal 1977). In this case, audience decides whether the source is a knowledgeable person and/or is biased. However, since both products (advertised and compared) belong to the same advertiser (source) in the NewCA, believability of the claims and the credibility of the source are expected to be higher. Hence, it is argued in this study that the new format of the comparative advertising will create higher source credibility and message believability. Finally, the results of recall studies are also mixed in the literature. Several studies failed to demonstrate superior recall for comparative formats (Murphy and Amundsen 1981; Shimp and Dyer 1978; Earl and Pride 1980) while others found greater recall for the comparative advertising (Muehling, Stoltman, and Grossbart 1990; Jain and Hackleman 1978). Earlier, it was hypothesized that the new format of comparative advertising would create greater level of awareness and several studies in the literature have established that there is a strong positive correlation between awareness and the subjects’ recall of brands (Alba and Chattopadhyay 1986). Therefore, the high awareness level that the NewCA is expected to create might effect the message involvement which will consequently contribute to a greater recall. This expectation is consistent with psychological research. Based on these discussions the following hypotheses were formulated.

H1: The new comparative advertising (NewCA) will result in higher consumer attention than comparative advertising (CA) and noncomparative advertising (NonCA).

H2: Consumers’ perception of advertising believability will be significantly higher for those who are exposed to the NewCA than those who are exposed to CA and NonCA.

H3: The NewCA will result in less misidentification of the sponsoring brands than the CA and NonCA.

H4: The NewCA will generate more message recall than a CA and NonCA.

Affective Component

The affective component of the hierarchy-of-effects model relates to the intensity and direction of the consumer’s feelings and tendencies toward the "totality of components" contained in the comparative advertisement (Ash and Wee 1983). In other words, affect deals with audiences’ predispositions or attitudes toward brands and specific advertisements or commercials. These attitudes act as predispositions toward brands which may lead to specific brand purchase behavior at a later stage.

Muehling (1987) found that CA formats used in this study did not influence attitude toward the sponsor’s brand. However, Kangun, Muehling, and Grossbart (1984) found that CA elicited less recall than any of the other forms of illustration. Shimp & Dyer (1978)found that CA were viewed to be more offensive and sponsoring companies of CA were viewed as less trustworthy. Also, Goodwin and Etgar (1980) found that CA did not improve respondents’ attitudes toward the advertised brand. Thus, there is considerable evidence that CA might be risky with respect to generating favorable attitudes toward the advertisement. Also, heavy brand loyal consumers are likely to resist comparative messages which downgrades their brands and thus this information can be perceived as threatening to them. In short, there is little evidence to suggest that comparative advertising is a superior format in terms of generating positive or favorable attitudes towards brands and advertising itself.

The new format of comparative advertising, however, is expected to have higher ability to generate more favorable attitudes than its noncomparative and comparative counterparts. Consumer reactions to a particular advertisement are dependent on the strength of the advocated position, source credibility, attribute saliency, cognitive response, and message credibility (Wright 1973; Wilkie and Farris 1975). Also, consumers might think favorably since a relatively credible source (advertiser) made the comparisons. It is indicated in the advertising literature that there is a positive relationship between the cognitive responses and the evaluation of the ads or attitudes toward ads (Belch 1981). Therefore, a relatively more favorable evaluation of the ad, product, and sponsoring corporation should be obtained in the NewCA compared to the CA and NoCA. Based on these discussions the following hypothesis was formulated.

H5: Subjects’ evaluations of advertising, product, and the sponsoring corporation will be more favorable for NewCA than CA and NoCA.

Conative Component

The ultimate persuasiveness of advertising is to move brands through points of final consumption or purchase. Therefore, the final stage of the hierarchy-of-effects model is to determine if the new format of comparative advertising is more effective than comparative advertising and noncomparative advertising. Ash and Wee (1983) indicated that three dimensions of measurement of conative component namely buying intentions, brand preference, and purchase behavior have been studied. There have been, however, a few studies investigating the effectiveness of comparative advertising and noncomparative advertising to elicit behavior. Similar to other components of the hierarchy-of-effects model, mixed results were obtained and there is no conclusive evidence on the effectiveness of comparative advertising on conation (Shimp and Dyer 1978; Belch 1981; Holmes and Holley 1986; Kangun, Muehling and Grossbart 1984; Swinyard 1981). The conation hypotheses in this study were based on the assumption that holding other factors constant, the new format of comparative advertising is more likely to enhance purchase intention to the extent that it attracts attention, promotes favorable brand perceptions and attitudes, and reduces sponsor misidentification. Hence, it is hypothesized that:

H6: Consumers are most likely to be persuaded to purchase if they were exposed to NewCA than consumers who were exposed to CA or NoCA.


Overview of Experimental Design

To test these hypotheses the experiment manipulated three variables namely type of advertisement, product performance/quality, and product involvement. Involvement is included for exploratory purposes. There were n prior hypothesis about the effects of the involvement on the results. Thus, the study employed a 3 (new comparative, comparative, noncomparative ads) X 2 (high vs. low performance/quality product) X 2 (high vs. low involvement products) factorial design.

A preliminary questionnaire was administered to 57 undergraduate students to determine the product categories for high and low involvement products and high and low performance brands within the product categories. Cars, beers, computers, soaps, and detergents were included in the questionnaire to select the product categories for high and low involvement products. The objective here was to select two products that represented high and low involvement products for that target consumer group. Also, to represent high and low performance/quality brands within each product category, several real brand names under each product category were included in the questionnaire. Subjects evaluated different product categories and brand names within each category in terms of involvement, familiarity, brand preference, attitudes toward brands, and product performance/quality. Based on the preliminary survey results, cars were selected to represent the high involvement product category and detergents were selected to represent the low involvement product category. Under the high involvement productsCcars, Honda and Hyundai were selected to represent the two groups of high-low performance/quality brands in that category. Also, Honda Civic and Hyundai Excel were selected as the advertised brands. On the other hand, for the low involvement productsCdetergents, Procter & Gamble’s Tide and Lever Brothers’ Whisk were selected to represent the high and low performance/quality brands in the detergents category. Similarly, Cheer and Surf were selected as the advertised brands in the detergents category. There were also questions to determine the salient attributes for each of the product categories selected. These were open ended questions and they were content analyzed for internal validity by the authors.

Three different black and white print ads (new comparative, comparative, and noncomparative) were developed for detergents and cars which yielded 12 different ads. A completely randomized design was used for the data collection and each subject was exposed to one type of ad only. Thus, the effects of repetition was eliminated.


The subjects in this study were 400 undergraduate students attending in business administration classes in a large southeastern university in the U.S. The use of student subjects as a convenience sample requires the researchers to be careful in their research design (Etgar and Goodwin 1977). A problem occurs if students are used in studies of advertised products primarily used and/or purchased by consumers in advanced life-cycle stages. Yet the student sample may be entirely acceptable and consistent with improved external validity if the product classes advertised are salient to them. Therefore, use of student samples in this study is considered appropriate for cars and detergents as both products are utilized by most of the students in the U.S.A. The participation was rewarded as extra credit in that course. Subjects were randomly assigned to each experimental conditions.

Stimulus Ads

The ads promoted two brands of cars and two brands of detergents. Using the experimental conditions in the study, twelve full-page black and white print ads were constructed. The same layout was used for all of the ads to minimize confounds.

The headline of the ad took two lines and it was almost the same for the twelve different ads. If the ad was a new comparative ad, for the cars, the headline read, "Think of it as a baby [comparison brand], not hungry for gas. Introducing all new 1994 [advertised brand]." The comparison brand for Honda was Honda Accord and it was Hyundai Sonata for Hyundai. For the detergent ads, the headlne stated, "The New [advertised brand] from [sponsoring company] will grow up to the level of [comparison brand]." The comparison brand for Procter and Gamble was Tide while it was Whisk for Lever Brothers. If the ad was a comparative ad, for the cars, the headline stated, "The New 1994 [advertised brand] provides the best gas mileage in its class of cars." For the detergent ads, the headline read, "The New [advertised brand] gets out the toughest dirt and odors like no other brands can do." Finally, if the ad was a noncomparative ad, for the cars, the headline stated, "Introducing the All New 1994 [advertised brand] which provides a very good gas mileage." For the detergent ads, the headline stated, "The New [advertised brand] gets out your toughest dirt and odors."

After the headline, approximately a 3" by 5" picture depicting the advertised brand was placed. The pictures were actual product pictures and were adapted from the actual advertisements. Picture combined with the headline took approximately half of the page. All ads contained relevant information about attributes, determined in a pretest to be salient. Therefore, the second half of the page contained approximately 150 words of text describing the advertised brands as follows: Cheer and Surf as "tough on dirt and odors," "powerful cleaning system," "effective with smaller scoop," and "more affordable," and Honda Civic and Hyundai Excel as "more gas mileage," "more safety features," "modern design," and "more affordable."

For the new comparative ads, the advertised brands were associated with the compared brands (the high performance brand of the same company) on the attributes mentioned above. Therefore, for cars category, comparisons between Honda Accord (comparison brand) and Honda Civic (advertised brand) were made for Honda while Hyundai Excel (advertised brand) was compared to Hyundai Sonata (comparison brand) for Hyundai. On the other hand, for the detergents category, comparisons between Tide (comparison brand) and Cheer (advertised brand) were made for Procter & Gamble while comparisons between Whisk (comparison brand) and Surf (advertised brand) were made for Lever Brothers. For the comparative ads, comparisons to other products (no mention of the brand name) were made on the same dimensions explained above. And finally, for the no comparison ads the advertised brands were described using the same dimensions.

Constructs and Measures

Following exposure to the print ads (approximately 15 minutes later), subjects completed a questionnaire that asked about attention to the ads; sponsor identification; purchase intentions; recall; attitudes toward ad, product and sponsor; and believability.

Attention was measured with a three item-scale used by Muehling, Stoltman and Grossbart (1990). Subjects were asked (1) How much attention did you pay to the written message in the ad? (2) How much did you notice the written message in the ad? and (3) How much did you concentrate on the written message in the ad? A reliability test indicated that all three items measured the same construct (Cronbach’s a=.87).

Recall was measured with three different measures of recallCbrand recall, claim recall and attribute recall. Brand recall responses were dichotimized into "recall" and "no recall," depending upon whether or not the correct name was remembered. Claim recall was measured using an open ended question which asked respondents to summarize the main message in the ad. Responses to this question were content analyzed and scored on the basis of extent of reproduction of the major and secondary claims contained in the advertisement. Also, they were asked to identify the direction of the comparisons made in the ad (comparisons against it own brand, comparisons against competing brands and no comparison). Finally, attribute recall was measured by the number of correctly identified product attributes mentioned inthe ad.

Sponsor identification was measured with an open ended question that asked "Which brand did the ad promote or advertise?" In other words, subjects were simply asked to write down the name of the brand which sponsored the ad. A similar question was also used by Pechmann and Stewart (1990).

Purchase intention was measured on three semantic differential scales, likely-unlikely, probable-improbable, and possible-impossible (Cronbach’s a=.94). The purchase intention measure used in the analyses was calculated by averaging the three scales.

Attitudes toward ad, product, and sponsoring corporation was measured by several likert-type statements (strongly agree-strongly disagree, very negative-very positive, and very favorable-very unfavorable) using 7-point scales. Items used were internally consistent and thus a summative index was used for assessing attitudes toward ad, product, and sponsoring corporation.

Believability was measured by using several statements. First, subjects were asked to indicate their perceptions of advertiser objectivity and credibility using six semantic differential scales (bias, truthfulness, honesty, believability, and sincerity). Second, they were asked to indicate the extent of certainty that the advertiser’s ability to deliver the benefits claimed in the ad using a likert-type scale. Finally, they were asked to indicate whether they would feel comfortable enough to base their purchase decision solely on the ad or whether or not they would acquire more information from other sources.

Involvement levels of products were measured using a 20-item involvement scale developed by Zaichkowsky (1985). Finally, questionnaire included several other questions regarding the familiarity, involvement, product similarity, product performance/quality and category exemplar product. Also, some demographic and socio-economic data were collected.


Separate analyses of variance (ANOVA) were performed for the dependent variables with ad format (comparative, new comparative, and no comparison) and involvement levels (high involvement and low involvement).

Table 1 shows that the NewCA for high involvement products generated more attention than the other two types of advertisements used while no significant differences were found for the low involvement product. Hence, the NewCA were successful in getting attentions of the respondents at least for the high involvement products. An important point needs to be explained here. In the preliminary study, less number of respondents correctly identified the two detergents compared were actually manufactured by the same company. Although, the manufacturer’s name was printed at the bottom corner of the advertisement, it is possible that the manufacturer’s name was not noticed. On the other hand, for the car advertisements, the manufacturer’s name (Honda or Hyundai) was incorporated in the advertisements.

Contrary to our predictions, the results for brand recall and sponsor identification for the NewCA were significantly poorer than the other types where the compared product’s name was not mentioned. A significant portion of the respondents could not clearly identify the advertised brand and were confused between advertised brand and the associated brand. Amongst the three types of advertisements used in the study, no comparison advertisements had the highest brand recall rate. Results were also similar in terms of the claim recall. However, there were no significant differences in terms of the attribute recall.

Believability hypothesis is partially supported. There were some statistically significant differences in terms of credibility of the advertiser and the advertisers’ ability to deliver the claimed product benefits. In terms of the amount of information needed to make decision,NewCA results were significantly different than the other types. In other words, more respondents indicated that they could base their decision solely on the advertisements and need very little extra information to make a purchase decision. Finally, results show that NewCA generated more favorable attitudes than the other two types of the advertisements used. Similarly, NewCA yielded relatively higher purchase intentions than the other types of ads used in the study.


The study tested the proposition that associative comparative ads with the same company’s best performing brand are more effective than noncomparative and comparative ads. In this context, the study examined the perceptual and processing differences using hierarchy-of-effects model and alternative measures of ad effectiveness.



The study findings indicated that "New Comparative Ad" resulted more attention than the other types of ads examined in the study. Consumers quite often seek novel stimuli in the advertisements which NewCA might have provided. This effect was not very evident for the low involvement products (detergents). This does not mean, however, that the NewCA may not generate more attention for the low involvement products, but rather, we think that in order to NewCA be effective in terms of getting the consumers’ attentions, consumers should have the strong prior knowledge that the associated brands were manufactured by the same company. Otherwise, it is almost no different than the regular comparative ads. Hence, the firms that plan to use this format of advertisement should makes this point as explicitly as possible. This can be done by clearly mentioning it or in some other creative ways, or if the products have a family brand, then advertisers’ job is much easier.

However, contrary to predictions, NewCA did poorly in terms of the brand recall and sponsor identification. A higher proportions of subjects exposed to the NewCA ads misidentified the sponsors of the brands. Consumers were confused about the advertised brand. Since both products belong to the company, this confusion may not be as harmful as regular comparative ads which mention the competitor’s brand name. In other words, NewCA reduces the unnecessary exposure of the competitor’s brand name. As, predicted, the study findings indicated that NewCA resulted more favorable attitudes and better purchase intentions than the other types of ads studied.

In sum, our findings suggest that ads making associative claims to the same company’s better performing brand are more effective at getting more attention when the consumers can easily identify that the two brands belong to the same company. NewCA is also more effective at enhancing purchase intentions and creating favorable attitudes. On the other hand, our results indicate that noncomparative ads are more effective in terms of brand and claim recall.


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Ali Kara, Pennsylvania State University-York
Erdener Kaynak, Pennsylvania State University-Harrisburg
Donghoon Lee, Oricom Inc.


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24 | 1997

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Consumers’ Trust in Algorithms

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Maarten Bos, Disney Research
Donald Lehmann, Columbia University, USA

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Running Through Time: How Life Rhythms Foster Identity Permanence

Benjamin Rosenthal, Fundação Getúlio Vargas
Eliane Zamith Brito, Fundação Getúlio Vargas

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The Impact of Childhood Exposure to Interparental Conflict on Consumer Response to Online Reviews

Mengmeng Liu, Chinese University of Hong Kong, China
Maureen Morrin, Temple University, USA
Boyoun Grace Chae, Temple University, USA

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