Rethinking Research on Communications Media: Information Modality and Message Structuring

ABSTRACT - We develop a conceptual framework to explore the proposition that the enhanced media richness and the ability of consumers to selectively develop information presentations in Internet-type environments necessitates further research into the effects of communications modalities on decision making. The framework is based on a decision making perspective that incorporates effort/accuracy considerations as the theoretical mechanism that guides modality selection by consumers.


Eloise Coupey and Erin Sandgathe (2000) ,"Rethinking Research on Communications Media: Information Modality and Message Structuring", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 224-229.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Pages 224-229


Eloise Coupey, Virginia Tech

Erin Sandgathe, Virginia Tech


We develop a conceptual framework to explore the proposition that the enhanced media richness and the ability of consumers to selectively develop information presentations in Internet-type environments necessitates further research into the effects of communications modalities on decision making. The framework is based on a decision making perspective that incorporates effort/accuracy considerations as the theoretical mechanism that guides modality selection by consumers.


Researchers in a variety of academic areas have focused attention on the effects of communications media on aspects of message recipients’ behavior. In consumer behavior, key dependent variables that reflect this attention have included modality effects on persuasion, on memory processes, and on knowledge structure, each of which may ultimately influence the cnsumer’s decision making vis-a-vis a product. Much of the extant research has been directed toward demonstrating and delimiting the differences between modalities in terms of the effects they evoke or influence on subsets of outcome variables relevant for the area of inquiry (e.g., evaluations and attitude measures; recall, recognition and response latencies; judgments and choices).

The Internet is a relatively new medium for communicating with consumers in which the modalities of traditional communications media such as print, radio, and television may be present in a single presentation (e.g., text, audio, and video). In addition, the interactive nature of Internet technology enables consumers to develop customized constructions of information modalities, depending on personal preferences and equipment and access capabilities (Coupey 1998; Lewis 1996).

These differences raise questions about the extent to which what we know from past research on communication modalities can be extended to information environments, such as the Internet, which are characterized by an active quest for information by consumers rather than by the more passive reception of information presented by marketers that is characteristic of many traditional venues for marketing communications. For example, does the nature of the Internet make various communication modalities differently influential; that is, is there an advantage of modality type? Also, do different sequences of modalities affect aspects of information processing in systematic and predictable ways? Finally, are there optimal combinations of modalities, in terms of type and of sequencing, for accomplishing various marketing goals (e.g., increased recall, positive attitude change)? We propose that the enhanced media richness, combined with interactivity and the ability of consumers to selectively develop information presentations in Internet-type environments necessitates further research into the effects of communications modalities on decision making.

To develop support for our proposition, we address four objectives in the present research. First, we briefly review research pertinent to aspects of cross-modal information use and the Internet. Second, we define the areas, based on our review, in which additional research insights are desirable. Third, we discuss alternative theoretical frameworks for conducting research in these areas. Fourth, we develop a set of research propositions designed to further our insight and understanding of cross-modal effects on aspects related to decision making in Internet-type information environments.


Researchers have adopted a variety of often contradictory classification systems for studying the effects of communications on aspects of decision behavior. Some researchers focus on the modality of communications. For example, Chaiken and Eagly (1976, 1983) study persuasion as a function of written, audiotaped, or videotaped messages, characterizing modality as a channel for communication. In contrast, Jacoby, Hoyer and Zimmer (1983) focus on media, classifying media in terms of the sensory systems that are stimulated. With this approach, radio is an audio-only medium, printBwhich may combine written material with graphical materialBis a visual medium, and television is an audio-visual medium.

To facilitate our review and discussion, we adopt a methodological framework proposed by Griffith and Northcraft (1994). They merge elements of the earlier work and extend it by introducing the idea of media features. In contrast to Chaiken and Eagly, Griffith and Northcraft (1994) view a communications medium as a combination of features, which may include communications modalities and the channels of transmission for the modalities. Their media features represent characteristics of a medium that are not represented by modalities and their channels of transmission (e.g., verbal and nonerbal information). For example, the Internet enables active, selective exposure to information (a "pull," rather than the "push" of traditional broadcast media) and interactivity, thus allowing consumers to structure the representation of information (Stewart 1992).


Previous research provides a wide variety of insights into the effects of communications modalitiesCand the media they constituteCon consumer behavior. We characterize the research as pertaining to one of three aspects of behavior: 1) information search/acquisition, 2) information use/processing, and 3) outcomes and results. With respect to traditional media, research on information search has examined such topics as attention differences due to modality. Information use is reflected by research on comprehension, which is the result of processes for learning and remembering acquired information. The outcomes of information search and use have been frequently examined in studies of attitudes, through persuasion processes, and through decision making. In the interest of brevity, we provide a representative, though not exhaustive, sample of research in each aspect. This review serves as the basis for delimiting gaps in the knowledge we need in order to develop maximally effective communications for Internet-type media.

Information Search

Different types of media, characterized by different types and combinations of modalities, have been shown to differentially induce levels of attention to message information. Much of the research conducted in this area hasBwhether explicitly or implicitlyCexplored richness and vividness as characteristics of a message. For example, in a field study that explored managers’ selection of communication media, Daft, Lengel and Trevino (1987) found support for the relationship between media richness and message equivocality, when richness is defined as the capacity of media to facilitate shared meaning. [Face-to face communication is considered the richest communication medium.] While Rice (1992) extended the work of Daft, et al., testing the direction and form of these relationships, neither of the research programs was designed to specifically examine effects of particular types and combination of modalities on the development/sharing of meaning.

One element of richness generally proposed to affect attention is vividness of the message. For example, vivid information may attract and hold attention because of its ability to induce consumers to generate visual images, or because it has personal relevance, due to its sensory immediacy or ability to evoke emotion (Nisbett and Ross 1980). (See also Taylor and Thompson (1982) and Kisielius and Sternthal (1984, 1986) for similar approaches). The empirical studies in this area typically involve comparisons between modalities (video, audio, and written) and message content (e.g., concrete versus abstract) to determine effects of manipulated message vividness on criterion variables such as attention and persuasion.

One media feature related to richness and vividness is whether the information in a message is presented in a dynamic or a static form (e.g., video versus photo). Attention to information may be influenced by motion; that is, movement itself may attract attention. For example, Singer (1980) and Reeves, et al. (1983) found that visual variation in television’s audio-visual messages, as well as visual movement and scene changes, enhances the ability to attract attention. Their research, along with psychology research in visual orienting as a cross-modal priming effect (e.g., Spence, et al. 1998), suggests that media effects research should be expanded to consider not only the effects of alternative combinations of modalities, but also the effects of communication transmission features that differentiate messages within modality.

Information Use

Message comprehension is another goal of information processing that has been examined as a function of communication modality. Chaiken and Eagly (1976) found equivalent message comprehension for easy messages in videotaped, audiotaped, and written modalities, but better comprehension for difficult messages in a written modality. Subsequently, Jacoby, Hoyer, and Zimmer (1983) found different effects of different modalities on message comprehension. Specifically, print was comprehended better than television or audio, though no difference was found in audio-visual versus audio only.

Explicit memory tasks, such as recall and recognition, are often used to assess message comprehension. Some of the tasks used in studies of media and modality effects have themselves been shown to differ as a function of media. For example, Greene (1985) described an enhanced recency effect for vocalized items when subjects performed a vocalized distractor task before and after each item, an effect not observed for visually presented items. In addition, he noted long-term modality effects in free recall tasks, but not for serial item recall. This study underscores the need to consider possible interference effects of modalities, and it suggests the need for cautious development and acceptance of conclusions about modality effects based solely on one form of measurement.

Outcomes and Results

A third aspect of behavior in message processing involves the effects of communication modalities on the outcomes and results of decision making. Chaiken and Eagly (1976) demonstrated that messages conveyed through video, audio, or written modes differ in the impact they have on persuasion. Specifically, videotaped messages were found to be most persuasive, audiotaped messages were moderately persuasive, and written were least persuasive. This is a key finding for marketers, because it suggests that the extent to which an advertising message is persuasive can be influenced by the selection of appropriate modalities.

More recently, Chaiken and Eagly (1983) conducted a study in which videotaped and audiotaped modalities enhanced the salience of communicator-related information, which serves as a cue in persuasion. In related research, Liu and Stout (1987) found that audiovisual messages elicited more counterarguments than audio-only messages. They also demonstrated that pictures and words, or pictures alone, are more effective than words alone in facilitating message recall and in inducing favorable thoughts and attitudes. In conjunction with research on attention and information use, this set of results suggests that modality effects should be considered in terms of their applicability for accomplishing particular marketing objectives, such as comprehension and persuasion.

Kisielius and Sternthal (1984) also examined persuasion, in the form of attitudinal judgments. They proposed that vividness is not a stimulus characteristic, but a result of the type of processing a stimulus instigates. Their results suggest that vividness effects on attitudinal judgments can be obtained by creating stimuli thatBregardless of modalityBinduce cognitive elaboration. They note that additional research is needed to explicate the conditions, such as modality and message combinations, under which attitudinal judgments will be influenced. Unnava and Burnkrant (1991) present a similar viewpoint, arguing that different processing (e.g., internally generated visual imagery versus externally provided pictures) contributes to the understanding of vividness.

Review Summary

These studies demonstrate a need for further research on cross-modal effects in information processing. As indicated by the research we have reviewed, the majority of studies have been focused on explaining the effects of communications modalities, often in conjunction with message characteristics. This review of he modality effects literature suggests a gap in our knowledge of the role of the message receiver, such as the role of consumer knowledge or experience in determining preference and use of modalities. This omission is understandable, as traditional media tend to operate in a mass communication, push-style format; a television commercial is what it isBa planned, prepared, and presented combination of visual and aural message elements. Although traditional media do enable consumers to exercise some attentional selectivity, the format of the communication is still predetermined by the marketer.

Because consumers can pick and choose the format for information received via the Internet, structuring the form of information for decision making as well as the content, we need to understand how consumer characteristics may interact with modality and message to affect behavior. In the following section, we develop a framework and rationale for research that attempts to address these gaps in knowledge.


Many of the activities that consumers undertake when viewing marketer-provided information (e.g., advertising) are completed with an overarching goal of making some type of decision about the product (cf., Heckler and Childers (1992) for a similar perspective). For example, these decisions include determining whether more knowledge is needed (i.e., comprehension), how good or bad the product is (i.e., evaluation), or whether to buy (i.e., choice). Thus, our framework is predicated on a superordinate consumer goal of decision making. We elaborate the framework by including the sets of factors that influence decision making, and the stages typically observed in decision making.

Two sets of factors that are often used to characterize the contingent nature of decision behavior are task effects and context effects. Task effects include structural features of the decision, such as the number of alternatives or attributes to consider, and the presence or absence of time pressure. Context factors describe the nature of the information itself, such as the redundancy of information. As such, task factors comprise the form of the information, while context factors reflect the content. A third set of person factors may interact with task and context effects (Coupey, Irwin, and Payne 1998). Person factors include knowledge and familiarity, involvement, and individual difference variables.

We use this three-set classification as the basis for delimiting areas of needed research. For our purposes, communications modalities and media features are task factors, while message characteristics are context factors. As noted earlier, the preponderance of research on modality effects has considered task and context effects, individually and jointly. Acknowledging the importance of selectivity and interactivity as media features underscores the need for research that explicitly considers person factors.

To develop testable predictions about the relationships that may exist in interactive, electronic environments between task and person factors, we incorporate the notion of decision stages into our framework. In our review, we organized past research with respect to its emphasis on aspects of information search, information use, or the outcomes of processes in these stages. Our objective now is to further refine our focus, developing the rationale for research that considers the facets of person, task, and context factors within decision stages.


In communications environments in which a message in set form and content is delivered to consumers, aspects of information search may be guided by factors such as attention, involvement, and knowledge. In these traditional environments, information search pertains to the construction of an internal representation of content for the consumer, as a function of exposure to the presented message. Thus, understanding how modality interacts with message to influence information search and attention is a necessary precursor to understanding what aspects of the presented information are likely to be used in the latter stages of the decision

In an Internet-type environment, however, the search for information, or content, implies the presence of exposure and motivation; the consumer actively sought the information. In this environment, the difference between presented and acquired, or attended to, message content largely vanishes. [Of course, a consumer might acquire information, only to find post-acquisition that it is not useful. In this case, as in the case of incidental information acquisition, we assume that the information is not retained, and therefore its impact on subsequent decision processing is minimal.] As a result, the emphasis noted in past research on predicting and explaining information search as a result of the interaction between message characteristics (context) and modality (task) becomes less relevant in Internet-type environments. In contrast, the interaction between person factors and modalities that determines the form in which the content will be represented for information use becomes more important. Given these differences, we refine our focus, directing our attention to the information use and outcome stages of the decision process.

Kleinmuntz and Schkade (1990) find that the mode of information presentation (e.g., numbers or words) exerts a greater effect on information use than on information acquisition. That is, presented displays of information affected search, but the form of the information affected its use in the decision task. Their results lend support to our reasoning that in environments that enable information selectivity, emphasis should be directed to the information use and the outcomes of such use.

P1: In traditional media, the primary locus of effect of modality is on processes for information search, while in the Internet medium, the primary effect is on processes of information use and on outcomes of these processes.


Two different perspectives have been used to characterize the nature of consumer information use for decision making: perceptual frameworks and cost-benefit frameworks (Payne 1982). Perceptual frameworks emphasize the representation of information, as affected by framing and editing processes (e.g., Kahneman and Tversky 1979). In a cost-benefit approach, consumers are assumed to trade off costs (e.g., mental effort, need for justification) against anticipated benefits (e.g., decision quality, choice satisfaction, incentives) to select a strategy for making the decision.

A theoretical foundation premised on perceptual noticing is less tenable in situations that require a consumer to actively select information, both in terms of modality and content, than when a context or display is provided. Research on display processing suggests that decision strategies seem to follow displays (Jarvenpaa 1989). For example, receiving information in a brand-by-brand format tends to result in brand-based evaluation (Bettman and Kakkar 1977) and brand-based storage in memory (Biehal and Chakravarti 1982). These findings lend support to the principle of concreteness (Slovic 1972), which characterizes people as cognitive misers who tend to process information #as-is’, rather than exerting the effort to change it.

Although consumers may detect aspects of the display that suggest appropriate strategy use, the decision of which strategy to use can not be completely explained by perception alone. An effort/accuracy perspective may provide a more complete conceptual characterization of infomation use. Kleinmuntz and Schkade (1990) develop an explanation of display processing that incorporates an effort/accuracy perspective as the theoretical mechanism that directs strategy selection. They suggest that different displays set up different expectations for effort and accuracy tradeoffs. As a result, consumers may select strategies for information processing with some concern directed to completing actions that the display makes easier. In addition, Coupey (1994) suggests that the tendency to alter a display may be moderated by people’s ability to effect changes. Her results demonstrate that consumer tend to restructure information displays to enable use of desired strategies, trading off effort and accuracy in the process.

The effort/accuracy rationale can be extended to an Internet-type environment. If a consumer can create or alter the display, then the structure/format imposed by the consumer may be guided by the incentives (i.e., anticipated effort/accuracy tradeoffs) perceived by the consumer. For example, a consumer searching for service statistics about a considered set of cars may choose not to select pictures and simulated driving experiences. As a result, preferred strategies for processing the information (e.g., a lexicographic scan of service statistics) may guide display construction, rather than being selected post hoc and based on the presented display. Note that this perspective emphasizes the role of person factors, such as those that influence the development and expression of anticipations of effort and accuracy.

P2: An effort/accuracy perspective can be used to explain modality choices, in that consumers’ anticipations of the format that best enables them to implement desired effort/accuracy tradeoffs guide modality selection.


In this section, we present a sample of predictions based on our framework to illustrate the anticipated effects of person and task factor interactions in information use and outcome expression aspects of media construction and message processing. These predictions provide a specific instantiation of the two propositions introduced in preceding sections. Our predictions include consideration of person factors in the form of consumer knowledge and expertise and task factors represented by different modalities.

Knowledge and Modality-Induced Expectations in Information Use

Past research has examined the types of information sought and used in decisions as a function of prior knowledge (e.g., Bettman and Parks 1980; Brucks 1985). The results of this research indicate that lower levels of knowledge are related to increased acquisition and use of evaluative information, such as attribute standards or dealer evaluations. From research on media and modality effects, audio and visual combinations exert greater influence on persuasion than do written media. We propose that evaluative types of information are more closely related to goals of persuasion than of comprehension. Extending this conclusion to modality effects and their interaction with consumer characteristics, we predict that consumers with less domain-specific knowledge will tend to exhibit greater modal selectivity for audio-visual presentations of information than textual modes. Consumers with higher levels of domain knowledge will tend to select textual information, rather than audio-visual presentations. [Johnson and Russo (1984) present results that indicate a U-shaped relation between knowledge and information search. Extended to our research, these findings suggest that consumers with moderate knowledge will prefer textual information, while low and high knowledge consumers will seek audio-visual information. Different information use goals may guide the selection of a/v information, however (e.g., evaluation and inference goals for low knowledge, confirmation for high knowledge).]

Developing this reasoning in terms of our framework, we suggest that if modality selection is based on anticipations of effective effort/accuracy tradeoffs, then consumers’ perceptions of the different informational value of various modalities must be considered.

The literature on media ichness (e.g., Daft, et al. 1987) suggests that people view richer media (i.e., media with more cues for developing meaning) as more informative. This finding suggests that people who believe that their knowledge is impoverished may use perceptions of media richness as a cue for informational content.

The preceding rationale assumes that consumers behave in accord with their levels of knowledge. There is, however, much research that indicates that consumers are not always well calibrated in their perceptions of knowledge; consumers often exhibit over- or underconfidence. For consumers who accurately perceive their knowledge, richer media in the form of multiple modalities may provide anticipated benefits in the form of more cues available for storing information in memory, thus enhancing comprehension. For underconfident consumers, however, the modality-specific presentation of information may compete with information previously stored in memory, resulting in decreased comprehension.

The form in which consumers’ knowledge is stored in memory may also influence modality selection and its effects on information use and outcomes. The context in which information is initially processed may affect the storage of information and serve as a cue for retrieval (Tulving and Thomson 1973). This #encoding specificity principle’ can be extended to encompass the idea that the modality in which information is initially processed affects the encoding and subsequent accessibility of the information (Smith, Glenberg and Bjork 1978). Incorporating an effort/accuracy explanation suggests that if information is stored with respect to format, then consumers may opt to receive information in modalities that offer an implicit match with encoded information, due to anticipation of increased processing efficiency and reduced cognitive effort.

Another prediction extends the insights provided by Chaiken and Eagly (1976). We suggest that their finding of differential comprehension as a function of a message complexity by modality type interaction may be influenced by a consumer’s level of knowledge. To wit, additional media-based cues, such as a multi-modal presentation, may facilitate and augment comprehension for knowledgeable consumers, but may serve as a distractionBincreasing complexityBfor less knowledgeable consumers. [In an alternative conceptualization, the interactive environment may influence attitudes and behavior by serving as a peripheral cue, similar to those described in the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) Petty and Cacioppo, 1984). With the combined effects of video, text, and sound, interactive environments provide a richer context for decision making than traditional media. This context may contain a wider variety of peripheral cues that have the potential to shift information processing from the central route to the peripheral route when involvement is moderate.]

This prediction implicitly suggests that the informational value of a modality may serve as an attribute that consumers consider in their formation of expectations about desirable effort/accuracy tradeoffs in modality selection. Formulated more explicitly, we propose that modality may influence consumers’ perceptions of the importance of information, creating a task (modality) by context (message content) effect. Anticipations of the relation between modality and informational value may lead consumers to systema-tically overweight information obtained from actively selected modality presentations, relative to information obtained from sources where no modality choice was availableBeven when the informational content is the same. If such a distorting effect of anticipatory tradeoffs does exist, it suggests that consumers may also exhibit a persuasion bias, evaluating items or messages presented in selected modality combinations more positively than items in single modality situations, even if comprehension is constant or reduced.


The increasing adoption of the Internet as an avenue for marketing products and information creates an opportunity to determine whether conclusions from research on the effects of communications modalities on consumer behavior apply in the new medium. The Internet medium is distinguished from traditional media by increased media richness, by interactivity, and by increased selectivity. The latter two features can be used to create information environments that emphasize the importance of the consumer as an active participant in the construction of the form of he message, rather than as merely a passive recipient. Our review of extant modality research reveals a dearth of attention to consumer characteristics that appear central to message processing in interactive media.

To address the shortcoming we described, we developed a framework that enables predictions about the impact of alternative combinations of person factors (e.g., knowledge), and task factors (e.g., modality), given specified contextual characteristics (e.g., message complexity). Our framework is premised on the idea that consumer message processing can be conceptualized as an instantiation of decision making activities. We develop a rationale for an effort/accuracy approach to predict how person factors are integrated with situational characteristics in the form of anticipated cost/benefit tradeoffs to guide selection of modalities in media that enable selectivity of informational form and content.

The conceptual integration of person factors with modality and media features through effort/accuracy considerations offers insights for marketers. Internet-based information displays may be constructed in ways that increase the likelihood of achieving marketing objectives (e.g., brand awareness, persuasion, purchase, knowledge enhancement), and that reduce expenditures on web site features that are not likely to be selected, given consumers’ expected effort/accuracy tradeoffs.

In the consumers’ interest, information provision can be tailored according to effort/accuracy expectations so that information that would increase their ability to make good decisions is presented in forms that are likely to be selected and correctly understood, given consumer characteristics.


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Eloise Coupey, Virginia Tech
Erin Sandgathe, Virginia Tech


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27 | 2000

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