Consumer-Oriented Versus Advertiser-Oriented Language: Comprehensibility and Salience of the Advertising Message

ABSTRACT - While the effectiveness of advertising is directly related to a receiver's ability to comprehend its message, too frequently advertising utilizes language which is neither salient nor understandable to the receiver. This paper addresses this problem of advertiser-consumer language compatibility in advertising, and illustrates a method, based upon a qualitative-quantitative research progression, for insuring understandable and meaningful copy in one's advertising.


Martin R. Lautman and Larry Percy (1978) ,"Consumer-Oriented Versus Advertiser-Oriented Language: Comprehensibility and Salience of the Advertising Message", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 52-56.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 52-56


Martin R. Lautman, Associates for Research in Behavior, Inc.

Larry Percy, Gardner Advertising, Co.


While the effectiveness of advertising is directly related to a receiver's ability to comprehend its message, too frequently advertising utilizes language which is neither salient nor understandable to the receiver. This paper addresses this problem of advertiser-consumer language compatibility in advertising, and illustrates a method, based upon a qualitative-quantitative research progression, for insuring understandable and meaningful copy in one's advertising.


The effectiveness of an advertisement is directly related to the ability of a target audience to comprehend its message. This comprehension is a function of the message being presented in a manner highly compatible in both linguistic structure and semantic content with that commonly experienced and expected by the target audience (Lautman, 1974). In the broadest sense, to the extent the audience must make a series of simplifying "transformations" of the message to understand it, comprehension can be expected to suffer. Various studies have been directed toward these issues. For example, it has been shown that certain sentence structures (Wright, 1969; Olson and Filby, 1972) and various technical wordings (Lautman, Siegel, and Burkett, 1973; Siegel, Lautman, and Burkett, 1974) tend to affect the comprehensibility of a prose message.

The results of these and other psycholinguistic studies directly relate to the issue of advertising comprehensibility. Frequently, an advertiser is concerned that detailed or technical attributes of his product be clearly communicated to consumers. He is apt to select some specific technological superiority and use that "benefit" as the basis for differentiating his product. Or, more commonly, he may wish to include all of the features he perceives to be important, regardless of their inherent meaningfulness or salience to the consumer.

In attempting to execute copy describing these technical features, a copywriter often finds that descriptions and terminology must be included which may have little meaning to the consumer. More often than not, there is a strong tendency to use the advertiser's technical terminology rather than the consumer's language in composing these product descriptions.

A somewhat different scenario with similar results occurs when the advertiser uses terminology which over time has acquired alternative meanings. In the pharmaceutical area, for example, usage of the term "broader spectrum" for an antibiotic can mean either effective against more strains of a single type of bacteria or effective against more types of bacteria. Once again, in order to accurately advertise his product and make clear its advantages the advertiser is faced with understanding how his target audience perceives this frequently used technical term. It is with these concerns in mind that this study is directed towards the problem of advertiser-consumer language compatibility and illustrates a method for insuring understandable and meaningful copy in one's advertising.

Key to this approach is a research strategy based on a qualitative-quantitative progression. Qualitative exploratory work alone, while generally able to develop a consumer language and identify salient attributes, may fail to answer for the advertiser both how best to use the consumer's language in his advertising, as well as how the consumer comprehends and perceives the salience of competitive messages. Exploratory quantitative work, while generally able to deal with these latter two questions effectively, without the benefit of the earlier qualitative exploration runs the dual risk of not identifying the most salient areas to the consumer and not developing an advertising language meaningful to him.

It should be pointed out that this qualitative-quantitative progression should not be viewed in the usual "hypotheses generating-validating" mode frequently assigned the step-wise use of focus groups and subsequent survey work. Rather, each contributes in its own right, with the initial qualitative work generating the parameters of consumer language and the subsequent quantitative exploration comparing those parameters with existing advertiser language.

This distinction is in part discussed by Calder (1976) in describing approaches for evaluating qualitative research goals. His "exploratory" approach follows the typical pattern of using focus groups to generate or select hypotheses which one plans to verify by fielding a large sample survey. A second approach, referred to as "clinical," belies the need for quantitative follow-up and relies on the "clinical" judgment of a specially trained analyst--frequently a psychologist--to reveal the underlying causes of behavior. His third approach closely follows the role of qualitative research as it is considered here within the qualitative-quantitative progression as applied to consumer vs. advertiser language. This Calder terms the "phenomenological" approach.

The phenomenological approach to qualitative research offers a description of how consumers perceive reality in their own terms. Calder points out that the goals of what he calls the phenomenological approach to qualitative marketing research is identical to that of phenomenological sociology as derived from Schutz (1967). For this reason, the phenomenological approach is ideal for describing the role qualitative research must play in the progression being suggested here for the study of consumer-advertiser language compatibility.

The advertiser for the most part, belongs to a social grouping whose perceptions are generally not the same as their target market. Reality to the advertiser is frequently divorced from that of the consumer. This appears to be especially true when the advertised products tend to be more "technologically" oriented (for example, electronics equipment) or when common usage of technical terms among a group of specialists (such as physicians) tends to vary from traditional definitions. Using qualitative research to understand how consumers perceive a product, in their own terms, helps to bridge this social distance between the advertiser and consumer.

Quantitative research, still in an exploratory mode, is then able to juxtapose the consumer developed language from the focus groups with that used by the advertiser in an effort to sort out commonalties and misinterpretations, and provide guidance for those message points, again based upon consumer language, important to a positive buyer response to the advertising.


In an effort to develop a consumer-relevant language for an electronics product, and assess the degree of congruence between the consumer-relevant language and that used by various advertisers in the category in describing product benefits, a two-part research study following the qualitative-quantitative progression outlined above was conducted. A general outline of the study design is shown in Figure 1.




Six focus groups were conducted among men and women owners, and those expressing an interest in owning an electronic product. Three groups were conducted in St. Louis and three in Philadelphia. In addition to the global concern of generating the parameters of consumer language, information was sought concerning awareness of brands in the category, specific evaluations of different product features, situational effects, etc. as they related to consumer conceptualizations of the entire product area.

Follow-up exploratory quantitative work was conducted among 120 male and female respondents in three cities: Pittsburgh, Tampa, and Phoenix. Personal interviews were conducted with a sample selected on an area-wide cluster basis, stratified to insure representation along a broad demographic base. Two basic exercises were conducted: 1) pairwise similarity data and a preference ordering in terms of intention to buy were gathered among selected advertising claims; 2) perceived pairwise belief congruence strength was measured among consumer suggested features along with a preference ordering in terms of importance of the features in a brand.

In the first exercise each subject was asked to provide pairwise similarity data on eight brand appeals currently in use by major category manufacturers by sorting a set of 28 cards, where each card contained one of the n(n-1)/2 pairs of appeals. Subjects were asked to look through all of the cards, placing those cards they felt contained similar appeals into one pile and all those cards they felt contained appeals which were not similar into a second. They were then asked to rank the first pile from the card containing the two most similar appeals, and to rank the cards in the second pile from those containing the two most dissimilar appeals. The order of the second pile was then inverted and added to the first, providing a ranking or all 28 pairs from most to least alike. Following this sort, each subject ranked the appeals in ascending order according to their likelihood of buying a product if all they knew about that particular brand was that it was advertised in the way described on each card.

Next, pairwise belief congruence ratings were collected for each of 28 pairs of salient attributes described in consumer-relevant terms, as identified by consumers in the initial qualitative focus groups (each pair representing one of the n(n-1)/2 pairs of eight attributes). Using a five-point Likert-type belief scale, each respondent was asked whether they thought a typical brand in this category that contained one attribute feature would also contain another.



Finally, considering each attribute individually, they were asked to rank the features from most to least important in terms of their brand choice decision. The eight advertiser-derived appeals and eight consumer-attributes are shown in Table 1.

Analytic Design

The date collected in the pairwise similarity rankings of the eight current advertiser-derived appeals were submitted to Kruskal's (1969) M-D-SCAL 5M program for non-metric multidimensional scaling. Solutions were sought in three, two and one dimensions. The rank-order "likelihood-to-buy" data were then imbedded into the solution space via Carroll and Chang's (1967) PREFMAP. Solutions were explored for both Phases III and IV. This joint solution provides a geometric interpretation of the perceived cognitive similarity among existing product appeals as expressed in advertiser language, along with "ideal points" reflecting those appeals most likely to attract consumer interest.

The second exercise provided mean ratings on a five-point Likert-type belief scale for each pair of eight consumer-derived attributes. Rank ordering these means provided a belief proximity measure which was introduced into Kruskal's (1969) M-D-SCAL 5M program, solving for three, two, and one dimensional solutions. The rank order preference data for the eight attributes were then imbedded into the solution space via PREFMAP giving a geometrical representation of the belief congruence associated with the consumer-derived attributes and the salience of those attributes with respect to product preference.


The first step in our qualitative-quantitative progression was to generate an understanding of how consumers talk about specific consumer electronics products. The results of the focus group discussions revealed a set of eight specific product attributes, described in the consumer's own language. In addition, probing of specific technical terms indicated little consumer understanding of what a manufacturer meant when using those terms. These findings provided the necessary consumer input for the exploratory quantitative follow-up, along with a strong indication that the advertiser's language in this category was generally not understood by the consumer.

The next step was to utilize these results, along with a set of advertiser-derived appeals, in an effort to determine the impact of each on general consumer understanding and preference. Utilizing Kruskal's M-D-SCAL 5M to analyze the ri(n-l)/2 pairwise similarities rankings of the eight current advertiser-derived appeals considered provided a usable solution configuration in two dimensions. The results shown in Figure 2 demonstrate a significant amount of perceived discrimination among the various advertiser-derived appeals. It would appear that the executions of the Dependability, Rugged, and Strength appeals, which one might reasonably expect to be quite similar, are in fact perceived as highly dissimilar. While it should be cautioned that other executions of these same appeals could produce different results, it is nonetheless significant that the appeals of these three advertisers, as expressed in their language, were not perceived to have much in common by the consumer.



Figure 3 shows the results of a PREFMAP Phase III solution based on the likelihood to purchase given the advertiser-derived appeals. Those appeals most likely to stimulate consumer interest tend to be the Dependability appeal and the two Nurturant appeals.



In an attempt to judge the extent of belief congruence among the consumer-derived attributes, the beliefs for each of the n(n-1)/2 pairs of attributes were analyzed via Kruskal's M-D-SCAL 5M. The resulting configuration shown in Figure 4 suggests that while consumers believed a product may be rugged, solid state, and have a solid guarantee, a product with these attributes had little in common with a product described by any of the other attributes. A powerful product, for example, was unlikely to be believed easily repaired or foreign made.



Figure 5 shows the results of a PREFMAP Phase III analysis of preference within the belief congruence solution configuration. It shows that while the rugged-solid guarantee features tended to be most preferred among non-owners, single product owners skewed towards powerful, and owners of two or more towards easily repaired.

Perhaps the most interesting overall finding was the extent to which little compatibility seemed to exist between the advertiser-derived appeals and the consumer-derived attributes. Advertisers were not generally addressing consumer wants with consumer language. Only the Dependability appeal appeared to be compatible with the "rugged - solid guarantee - solid state" cluster of consumer-described attributes. The advertiser's version of Rugged and Strength were not perceived as such by the consumer; and the advertiser's interest in Nurturant appeals (and miscellaneous others) did not seem to be reflected in desired consumer attributes.



The technical approach outlined here did not include a direct joint comparison of advertiser appeals and consumer-derived attributes. Two separate analyses were conducted and the results were compared. A more direct approach, and one which is advocated, is to have respondents compare the appeals in terms of the attributes. For example, the appeals might be rank ordered or rated in terms of their perceived offering of each salient attribute. An unfolding analysis might then show how much each attribute is associated with each appeal. Appeals viewed as best in terms of offering positively salient attributes might then be selected. When the observed incompatibilities are not as great as they were here, this direct approach will be a more sensitive test.


While much research has been directed towards pinpointing consumer needs and preferences (for example, Haley, 1968; Sweitzer, 1975) and selecting advertising themes and executions which reflect them (for example, Percy, Lautman, and Kordish, 1976; Smith and Lusch, 1976) little, if any, research has been channeled towards directly studying the advertiser's use of language in the copy of the ads themselves. This study has shown that for at least one technical product marketed to a mass audience, serious communication problems may exist. It was demonstrated that consumers (1) often do not understand the advertiser's use of technical language in promoting the product and (2) do not necessarily interpret advertising appeals designed to promote a particular product benefit or benefits, as was intended, finding the advertiser's language incompatible with their own consumer-oriented needs. The qualitative-quantitative research progression outlined and demonstrated here provides a methodology for identifying and bridging language gaps between the advertiser and consumer, and helping to assure comprehensible advertising appeals describing positively salient product benefits.

It is important to recognize that the results of this study should not be interpreted as suggesting that all technical wording be removed from advertising. Obviously, in the pharmaceutical, industrial and other areas advertising must be technical. What is being recommended, however, is that the advertiser test his use of technical terminology so as to insure that his target market both understands it and views it in the context of his appeal as directed towards promoting positively salient attributes.

Compatibility problems between advertiser and consumer-oriented appeals emanating from language can have various sources. First, particular words may not be generally understood. Second, particular words while generally understood may have multiple meanings and the context in which they are presented may not clearly identify which one is appropriate. Third, certain syntactic structures are more difficult to process and comprehend. Finally, the theme of the advertising may be misinterpreted or missed entirely through problems such as poor copy organization, inappropriate use of examples, unexpected or unusual presentations of the copy, etc. This study dealt only with the first, second, and, to a certain extent, the last of these sources of problems. Research on the third problem, the comprehensibility of various sentence structures, while studied extensively by psycholinguists (see Wright, 1972; Garrod and Trabasso, 1973; Kanouse, 1972; Abelson and Kanouse, 1966), has not often been directly investigated by consumer researchers in terms of identifying prose structures most suitable for advertising communication. The authors have found in an as yet unreported study that variations in sentence structure can have a significant effect on advertising headline believability, suggesting more inquiry into this area by researchers interested in consumer response to communications.

Perhaps the most important conclusion which can be drawn from this study is that advertisers cannot take for granted that a target audience will comprehend and interpret their appeals/language in the manner intended by the agency (Lautman, Percy, and Kordish, in press). In the process of translating advertising objectives into copy, care must be taken that the creative approach should not overwhelm or distort the intended communication. Even when technical terminology is not involved, usage of a consumer-oriented language can be expected to lead to easier comprehensibility of the advertiser's message. Testing that the advertiser's intended message is, in fact, the one being communicated to the target audience is a necessary step in assessing the effectiveness of any advertising copy.


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B. J. Calder, "Focus Groups and the Nature of Qualitative Marketing Research," Working Paper No. 76-23, Northwestern University, August, 1976.

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R. E. Smith and R. F. Lusch, "How Advertising Can Position a Brand," Journal of Advertising Research, 16 (February, 1976), 37-43.

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P. Wright, "Two Studies of the Depth Hypothesis," British Journal of Psychology, 60, 1969, 63-69.

P. Wright, "Some Observations on How People Answer Questions About Sentences," Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 1972, 188-195.



Martin R. Lautman, Associates for Research in Behavior, Inc.
Larry Percy, Gardner Advertising, Co.


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05 | 1978

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