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Advertising corporate social responsibility initiatives to communicate corporate image

Inhibiting scepticism to enhance persuasion
Alan Pomering
Faculty of Commerce, School of Management and Marketing, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, Australia, and

Received July 2008 Revised December 2008, February 2009, June 2009 Accepted July 2009

Lester W. Johnson
Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne, Carlton, Australia
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to develop a set of research propositions concerned with how the alignment between socially responsible corporate image and corporate identity might be enhanced through the reduction of scepticism by considering diagnostic dimensions of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) image advertising claim. Design/methodology/approach The paper reviews corporate image advertising, the tool investigated for informing about the rms CSR record, discusses the scepticism construct and theoretical explanations of why this communication approach might induce scepticism, considers extant empirical ndings that lend support to these theories, and describes several elements of CSR advertising claims considered to be diagnostic and capable of inhibiting scepticism responses to CSR image advertisements among consumers. Research propositions are advanced and discussed. Findings The paper provides conceptual insights into reducing consumer scepticism toward CSR-based corporate identity communicated via corporate image advertising. Research limitations/implications The paper advances four research propositions, and proposes a method for testing these propositions. Practical implications The paper acknowledges the increase in CSR-based corporate image advertising, discusses why such communication approaches may be prone to consumer scepticism, and considers message elements to inhibit this persuasion-eroding cognitive response. Originality/value This paper suggests a study to understand how corporate identity based on CSR achievements can be more persuasively communicated via CSR-based corporate image advertising Keywords Consumers, Corporate identity, Corporate social responsibility, Corporate branding, Advertising Paper type Research paper

Corporate Communications: An International Journal Vol. 14 No. 4, 2009 pp. 420-439 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 1356-3289 DOI 10.1108/13563280910998763

Introduction Amid widespread and growing distrust of large corporations (Verschoor, 2008), rms are increasingly turning to corporate image advertising campaigns based on corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives (Becker-Olsen et al., 2006) to meet consumer demand for information on businesss concern for and impacts on society (Dawkins, 2004). These campaigns project desired corporate identities (van Rekom, 1997) that seek to shape corporate image perceptions. While such advertising may seek to inuence various stakeholder audiences, this paper focuses on consumers, a key

stakeholder audience with the ability to shape the destiny of individual rms and economies (Hansen and Schrader, 1997). In this paper, we examine the potential for consumer scepticism to such identity-based communication appeals. In doing so, we develop a set of research propositions to test how the alignment between desired CSR-based corporate identity messages and perceived corporate image might be enhanced through the inhibition of scepticism. Diagnostic dimensions of the corporate image advertising message structure that echo Albert and Whettens (1985) central, enduring, and distinctive requirements for corporate identity are argued to mitigate scepticism to CSR claims. The paper marks a contribution to our understanding of identity-based corporate image advertising communication by examining the role of diagnostic message elements in increasing effectiveness of such advertising appeals. A rms external constituencies, including such diverse groups as legislators, directors, shareholders, employees, suppliers, and community members, will form an image of the rm, at least in part, in response to identity-based communications (Hatch and Schultz, 1997, p. 356). This corporate image can be described as the totality of a stakeholders perceptions of the way an organization presents itself, either deliberately or accidentally (Markwick and Fill, 1997, p. 396). This totality of perceptions is formed from the corporate identity, and goes beyond visual symbols and is revealed through behaviour, communications, as well as through symbolism to internal and external audiences (van Riel and Balmer, 1997, p. 340). Corporate image advertising, along with other marketing communications opportunities for manufactured publicity (Rossiter and Bellman, 2005, p. 375), such as public relations and sponsorships, allows the rm to inform key stakeholder audiences about desired corporate identity cues, what we say we are (Balmer and Greyser, 2006, p. 735). Corporate image advertising will be used to project what van Rekom (1997) describes as the desired corporate identity, which may differ from the factual identity that may be communicated by less-controlled channels. Overly positive corporate claims, particularly in the non-economic domain, run the risk of increased scrutiny and even a backlash (Ashforth and Gibbs, 1990). This study considers the potential for limiting such a backlash to such corporate image advertising, through the manipulation of message structure. The paper will proceed as follows: corporate image advertising, as the tool to inform about the rms identity-based CSR record, is discussed, leading to a discussion of the scepticism construct and theoretical explanations for why this communication approach might induce scepticism. Several persuasion and cognitive psychology theories are drawn upon to inform this discussion. Extant empirical ndings that lend support to these theories are then presented. On the basis of this discussion, several elements of CSR-identity-based advertising claims will be put forward as diagnostic message dimensions capable of inhibiting scepticism. To conclude, potential research propositions will be advanced, and theoretical and managerial implications discussed. Corporate image advertising and the CSR positioning paradox Corporate image advertising is just one of a variety of communication tools that might be used to promote the desired corporate identity of the corporate brand or master brand rather than specic products or services (Rossiter and Bellman, 2005). Such advertising may also take a less direct, or advocacy form, in which the company does not promote itself directly but rather promotes an issue or cause that has an indirect

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bearing on its operations (Rossiter and Percy, 1997, p. 335). Rossiter and Bellman estimate that around 70 percent of US companies engage in corporate image advertising, but note that, on average, it receives only a small percentage of marketing communications budgets. Corporate image advertising is a popular promotional tool as it permits greater creativity, and communication value and exibility in terms of target audience reach and reach pattern (Rossiter and Bellman, 2005). The corporate image advertisement conveys the desired corporate identity via the advertisements executional elements. One way to achieve this is through the advertisements visual elements. British Petroleum (BP), for example, in order to reposition itself as caring for the environment and distinguish itself from other oil companies, used lower-case bp letters in a smoother, more child-like font in its logo, to stand for beyond petroleum rather than BP, made tonal changes to the green and yellow colours used, and made a greater use of yellow the incorporation of a sun-like image to convey a sense of solar rather than oil power (Wells et al., 2008, p. 481). In BPs case, the visual changes were intended to be diagnostic. While much of the early work on corporate identity focused on such visual aspects of corporate brands (Markwick and Fill, 1997), the diagnostic elements of CSR advertising to be advanced in this paper will deal with the specic message structure of the advertising copy rather than executional style elements. CSR image advertising is based around positive CSR-identity cues that claim the rm has a commitment to contribute to sustainable economic development, working with employees, their families, the local community and society at large to improve their quality of life (World Business Council for Sustainable Development, 2004). Carroll (1979) has articulated this CSR commitment to be supported by four pillars of responsibility: economic, legal, ethical, and philanthropic, or discretionary. Other authors, for example, Petkus and Woodruff (1992), argue that a rms meeting its social responsibility, which includes responsibility for the physical environment, requires it going beyond minimal legal requirements, which may lag behind changing social attitudes. CSR advertising claims might also be based on how the rm is reducing the negative externalities or increasing the positive externalities of its operating activities. The benets of establishing a perceived CSR-identity-based corporate image are argued to be many: enhanced brand differentiation (McWilliams and Siegel, 2001); brand equity (Hoefer and Keller, 2002); competitive advantage (Porter and Kramer, 2002); and customer loyalty and other positive post-purchase outcomes (Bhattacharya and Sen, 2003; Maignan et al., 1999). A meta-analysis by Orlitzky et al.(2003) has found that CSR can deliver superior nancial performance, primarily through reputation effects. CSR advertising claims are potentially fruitful for a companys identity-based image (Maignan, 2001), as, regardless of a businesss actual CSR performance, consumer evaluations of its performance are contingent upon the information they receive (Maignan and Ferrell, 2001). Such claims, however, are susceptible to consumer scepticism (Forehand and Grier, 2003; Pirsch et al., 2007; Roberts, 1996; Schultz and Morsing, 2003). This scepticism diminishes communication effectiveness. Such scepticism may be implicated in Mohr and Webbs (2005, p. 124) observation, if consumer response to CSR was reliable and strong, most all companies would have embraced the concept by now. The next section explores the potentiality for scepticism toward CSR advertising claims.

A potentiality for scepticism Scepticism is one potential cognitive response to advertising exposure. Cognitive responses are message-relevant thoughts that arise during elaboration as a result of ones relation of message material to other message content or to prior knowledge and attitudes stored in memory, with persuasion reecting net favourableness of ones cognitive responses (Meyers-Levy and Malaviya, 1999). Cognitive responses to advertising exposure have been found to affect brand evaluations (Hastak and Olson, 1989), and those effects have been found to be persistent over time (Chattopadhyay and Alba, 1988). Scepticism has received considerable attention in relation to advertising (Boush et al., 1994; Calfee and Ringold, 1994; Darley and Smith, 1993; Ford et al., 1986, 1990; Gaski and Etzel, 1986; Koslow and Beltramini, 2002; Mangleburg and Bristol, 1998; Moore-Shay and Lutz, 1988), dealing with disbelief of stated claims (Darley and Smith, 1993; Ford et al., 1990), however, several studies (Boush et al., 1994; Forehand and Grier, 2003), and distrust of the rms motives (Forehand and Grier, 2003), a dimension often associated with cynicism (Kanter and Wortzel, 1985). Obermiller and Spangenberg (1998, p. 161) argue that ones sceptical disposition toward advertising is a marketplace belief, based on socialisation and experiences, but that situational factors, such as claim substantiation, prior knowledge, message variables, and source characteristics should play roles in determining acceptance of claims in specic advertisements. To the extent that one is sceptical, one is more likely to examine the claims made in advertisements in a critical way and not accept them at face value (Mangleburg and Bristol, 1998). Consumers have been found to be more sceptical toward advertising than other forms of communication (Obermiller et al., 2005). Although scepticism is defended on the basis that it is a critical approach to evaluating and coping with advertising messages, and therefore an important skill for consumers to acquire (Mangleburg and Bristol, 1998; Mohr et al., 1998), Pollay and Mittal (1993, p. 99) argue that it impedes advertising credibility and reduces marketplace efciencies. Obermiller and Spangenberg (1998, p. 164) note too that if consumers are predisposed to disbelieve ad claims, one fundamental route to persuasion is closed. Corporate marketing communicators attempts to shape a desired corporate image with this particular stakeholder audience, through appeals based on desired identity cues, will be impaired as a result. van Rekom (1997, p. 410) notes that:
[. . .] if management wishes to inuence the content of the innumerable messages the organization sends consciously or unconsciously into the world, it has to do so within the constraints within which a company can communicate with various target groups.

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Consumer scepticism is one such important constraint on corporate image advertising. CSR advertising claims and persuasion theory The use of advertising to communicate CSR-based identity cues has been found to be distasteful to some consumers (Schultz and Morsing, 2003). Keller (1991) relates the dual-process theories to processing goals, and considers two alternative yet common processing goals to be ad evaluation and brand evaluation. An ad evaluation goal motivates a respondent to:
[. . .] decide whether or not they like the ad execution and how the brand claims are made (e.g. the creative aspects of the ad). Consumers with a brand evaluation goal, in contrast, would be motivated to decide whether or not they like the advertised brand (Keller, 1991, p. 43).

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For an ad evaluation goal, only the cognitive resources necessary to evaluate the merits of the ad execution would be activated from memory, while for a brand execution goal, the consumer would be expected to retrieve from memory product category knowledge sufcient to process any product information in the ad to form their attitude toward the brand (Keller, 1991, p. 43). MacKenzie and Lutz (1989) show the relationship between the heuristic and central processing routes of the dual-process theories, adding that evaluation of the ad itself may inuence brand evaluation. Davis (1994) complements Kellers (1991) argument from an ethics perspective. Davis argues that two elements of consumer scepticism toward rms CSR initiatives may arise in response to CSR advertising claims: advertiser ethical attributions, which deal with the consumers attempt to evaluate the underlying ethics of the advertiser, and message ethical attributions, which deal with the consumers attempt to evaluate the underlying ethics of the advertising claim itself. Consumers tend to use simple heuristics such as a schemer schema (Wright, 1985), or their persuasion knowledge (Friestad and Wright, 1994) to judge the appropriateness of the rms use of advertising claims. This heuristic, or short-hand processing judgment, will allow the consumer to determine whether further message processing is warranted. Consumers will attempt to reduce the dissonance promoted when faced with new information that conicts with prior beliefs, in line with dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957). Social judgment theory posits that peoples prior attitudes distort their perceptions of persuasive messages (see Eagly and Chaiken, 1993, p. 363 for a discussion). In a similar manner, cognitive responses theory (Wright, 1973) argues that new information will be evaluated against already-held cognitions that serve as a frame of reference for new messages. Cognitive-response theory assumes that the respondent is motivated to try to make sense of incoming information from the advertisement (Rossiter and Percy, 1997, p. 269). Dual-process theories, such as the elaboration likelihood model (Petty and Cacioppo, 1981, 1986) and the heuristic-systematic model (Chaiken, 1980), suggest a systematic (central) and a heuristic (peripheral) route to persuasion, with the relative strength of each route determined by the extent of respondent elaboration. When motivation and ability are high, elaboration likelihood is high, and more effortful (central) processing is expected to generate a relatively large number of both ad and brand cognitions. When motivation or ability is low, elaboration likelihood is low, and processing is linked to relatively few advertisement and brand cognitions, with judgments likely formed by heuristics (Chaiken, 1980; Chaiken and Maheswaran, 1994; Petty and Cacioppo, 1979). Motivation is inuenced by individual differences, such as ones need for cognition (Cacioppo and Petty, 1982) and personal relevance of the communication (Petty and Wegener, 1999), while ability is determined by both situational factors, such as repetition and distraction, and individual differences, such as knowledge (Kang and Herr, 2006). Kang and Herr argue that source effects determine whether an advertisement looks right, such that if the source is perceived as credible by the respondent, this may positively heighten attention to the message, with subsequent systematic processing of the message. Since the rm is typically the source of its CSR-identity-based message in corporate image advertising, its message is likely to face heightened scrutiny.

An individual who perceives CSR to be an inappropriate theme for marketing communications, or does not support the notion of CSR in general, may automatically process a message heuristically and sceptically, whereas a respondent responding to a favourable source effect may then go on to scrutinize the message in greater depth. The supplying of only minimal cognitive resources to the processing task is in line with Eagly and Chaikens (1993) sufciency threshold principle. This source effect suggests a potential moderation of scepticism towards CSR-based, desired identity advertising claims. Biased processing of CSR claims Rather than process information objectively, consumers may be motivated by goals other than accuracy, and may selectively process message-relevant information in line with those other goals (Johar et al., 2006). This may be in line with social judgment theorys distortion of perceptions of new information by prior attitudes, and how such perceptions mediate persuasion (Eagly and Chaiken, 1993). One such biasing inuence is defense motivation (Agrawal and Maheswaran, 2005; Ahluwalia, 2002; Eagly and Chaiken, 1993). Consumers may be accuracy motivated to process advertising communications in a systematic and objective manner (Ratneshwar and Chaiken, 1991), or they may also be defense motivated, using heuristics to protect vested interests, attitudinal commitments, or other preferences (Koslow, 2000, p. 247). Srull and Wyer (1986, pp. 541-2) argue that processing goals:
[. . .] often determine what we attend to, how we perceive objects and events, how we use reasoning processes to make inferences about causal connections, how these events are organized and represented in memory, how they affect both long-term storage and retrieval of information (or lack thereof) to make higher order judgments and how they enter into possible affective reactions.

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Keller (1991) agrees that the fact that processing goals inuence the information that consumers notice, evaluate, or respond to in an advertisement is critically important. Defensively motivated consumers may employ forms of psychological reactance (Brehm, 1966; Brehm and Brehm, 1981) through which they attempt to resist persuasion to preserve personal freedom (Eiser, 1990) Wrights (1985) schemer schema and the change-of-meaning event of Friestad and Wrights (1994) persuasion knowledge model, discussed earlier, are both types such reactance or protect self-image or material interests (Darke and Chaiken, 2005). Defense goals tend to bias processing in a way that reduces such personal threats (Darke and Ritchie, 2007). When the threat is minor, the resort to simple cues in defense-biased heuristic processing is believed to neutralise the threatening information (Liberman and Chaiken, 1992). A negative stereotype about the source of the message may be evoked to undermine its credibility (Sinclair and Kunda, 1999). This defensive stereotyping tends to be automatic when an individual responds to a perceived threat (Spencer et al., 1998). In this way, the advertising sceptic regards advertising as not credible and, therefore, not worth processing (Obermiller et al., 2005). A lack of credibility will therefore lead to heuristic message processing, based on the consumers defense goal. While a defensive motivation may prompt a heuristic message judgment and scepticism response, defensive information processors may also engage in systematic processing, involving counterarguments and elaboration biased toward self-protection if the threat from a persuasive message is considered to be relatively high

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(Liberman and Chaiken, 1992). Kisielius and Sternthal (1986) argue that scepticism may lead to greater elaboration, counterarguing, and less positive evaluations and beliefs, but presumably only for high-involvement individuals who are motivated to assess the threat level. Whether a heuristic or systematic processing route, or both, is adopted by the consumer, persuasion will reect net favourableness of ones cognitive responses (Meyers-Levy and Malaviya, 1999). Overcoming scepticism toward desired identity-based appeals is therefore important if the desired corporate image is to be formed in audience minds. CSR from a resource matching perspective Extant research points to consumers typically lacking the prior knowledge, referred to as social topic knowledge, needed to effectively process CSR advertising claims (Auger et al., 2003). Or such knowledge may be moderately accessible and not easy to recall on demand (Tybout et al., 2005). Tybout et al. (2005) argue that the retrieval ease of moderately accessible knowledge would be diagnostic. Thus, an involved consumer responding to a CSR advertising claim but lacking the social topic knowledge that allows one to place the rms claim into context is likely to turn to a more peripheral processing route (Kahneman and Tversky, 1973). The consumers ability to process a message therefore depends not only on the supply of cognitive resources but also the resource demands of the message imposed by its complexity (Meyers-Levy and Malaviya, 1999, p. 47). Resource-matching theory addresses this consideration. Resource-matching theory (Anand and Sternthal, 1989) holds that persuasion of any message, whether strong or weak, is dependent on the commensurability between demand for and supply of cognitive resources, with persuasion optimised if the levels of cognitive resources required and made available are comparable (Keller and Block, 1997; Meyers-Levy and Malaviya, 1999). Coulter and Punj (2004) conrm that persuasion is enhanced when cognitive resources are matched, but only under strong message conditions. If less cognitive resources are allocated to the processing task than are required, persuasion is likely to be diminished due to incomplete, supercial, or inefcient message processing (Meyers-Levy and Malaviya, 1999), for example, if the respondent considers CSR ad claims inappropriate, or if they are not supportive of CSR in general. Should more cognitive resources be allocated to the processing task than are required, questioning or counter-argument, or advocacy-irrelevant, idiosyncratic thoughts are likely to ensue. It is expected that the difculty for consumers to be cognisant of various social problems engaged with in rms CSR programs may increase the cognitive complexity of the consumers information-processing requirements, often beyond his or her capacity for efcient cognitive processing, or sufciency threshold (see Eagly and Chaiken, 1993, pp. 330-3 for a discussion). Mohr et al. (1998) contend that when consumers are faced with the new or changing conditions of rms CSR initiatives they may not have developed adequate knowledge structures to make good use of CSR advertising claims. Social topic information will be argued to assist the development of these structures. The CSR positioning paradox While there is general consumer support for rms providing CSR-identity-based cues, as demonstrated in scenario-based studies (Brown and Dacin, 1997; Sen and

Bhattacharya, 2001) and marketplace polls (Cone Inc., 2004; Dawkins, 2004), the communication of this information via advertising is problematic (Dawkins, 2004). Increasingly cynical consumers (Nye et al., 1997) appear to be suspicious of overly positive advertising claims. Goldberg and Hartwick (1990) nd overly positive claims are often discounted, while Koslow (2000, p. 262) observes that, when:
[. . .] advertisers try honest, veried, and persuasive advertising, consumers may be concerned that it is too good to be true and are on guard for discovering a hidden and unfamiliar persuasive tactic.

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Obermiller and Spangenberg (1998) develop the construct of ad skepticism to describe a consumers general scepticism toward advertising. Brown and Dacin (1997) warn that consumers may believe the company promoting its CSR record is trying to hide something. Osterhus (1997) argues a backlash is likely if consumers question the validity of such claims. Despite the Danish telecommunications company TDCs attempts to reposition itself from a high-prot, shareholder driven company to a more socially responsible organization, its CSR message was met with scepticism, disbelief, and accusations of window-dressing (Morsing, 2006, p. 176). Drumwright (1996, p. 71) identies a dilemma for rms wishing to inuence corporate image through advertising, observing that company advertisements with a social dimension have been among the most controversial of marketing approaches, seen on the one hand as marketings greatest contribution to society, while on the other, as marketings most unabashed exploitation. Kanter and Wortzel (1985, p. 9) simply warn that sincerity is suspect. Attempts to communicate overly positive claims, such as CSR claims, are faced with what Ashforth and Gibbs (1990, p. 188) refer to as the self-promoters paradox, whereby the conspicuous promotion of good deeds is likely to backre and evoke scepticism, as protestation of legitimacy is interpreted as signalling legitimacy is in fact in doubt. Conspicuous CSR communications are often associated with rms facing legitimacy problems, with the more problematic the legitimacy, the greater the protestation (Ashforth and Gibbs, 1990, p. 185). Product type will inuence advertising claim acceptance (Obermiller and Spangenberg, 1998), with some product categories, for example, demonised or sin industries, like tobacco or gambling, or others beset by negative social attitudes, suffering a guilt-by-association prejudice. For this reason, BP, as discussed earlier, sought to reposition itself, differentiating itself from other oil companies. The rst communication task of such advertising will be to gain attention, which execution tactics such as identity-based cues can assist. Following attention, respondents need to be engaged with the product. The product featured in a rms CSR advertising claims is the rms CSR- based identity characteristic, or promise that it is acting in a socially responsible manner in one or more aspects of its business activities, across one or more CSR domains, such as the environment, or community or employee relations. As with all information processing, the perceiver must be motivated to process for persuasion to occur. Involvement with the social issue must therefore be expected for persuasion to be effected, which is supported by extant research (Sen and Bhattacharya, 2001). Such CSR-identity-based claims are not easily veried as they typically lack search or experience characteristics (Nelson, 1970) and therefore confront respondents with

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a credence information situation (Darby and Karni, 1973). Credence information can never be obtained, is too costly to obtain, or is too complex and requires signicant expert knowledge to evaluate (Bloom and Pailin, 1995). Bloom and Pailin argue consumers should be more distrustful of credence information situations than search or experience situations. van Riel (1995) observes that the gap between a rms factual corporate identity, what the organization actually is at a particular moment in time (van Rekom, 1997) and what Balmer and Greyser (2006, p. 735) describe as what we indubitably are, summarised as the rms character, and the desired identity is important in inuencing communication effectiveness, but consumers typically have low knowledge of rms factual identities (Sen and Bhattacharya, 2001). As well as presenting consumers with a credence claim, CSR advertising claims also confront consumers with a mixed-motive information-processing task, requiring respondents to evaluate both an organizations economic and non-economic social performance. The rms CSR-based-identity claims, and the direct benets to the consumer of the societal initiatives within CSR advertising claims are difcult to communicate to the consumer (James, 2002). In the context of fair trade products, James notes that the added societal value inherent in the product, what Strong (1997, p. 35) refers to as the communication of the human element of sustainability, can never be as tangible to the consumer as more functional benets. Further, adding a social dimension to commercial messages increases the complexity of the consumers processing task (Drumwright, 1996), often beyond the perceivers capacity for efcient cognitive processing, or sufciency threshold. Consumers will be sceptical of advertising claims unless they have credible bases for evaluating the claims (Calfree and Ringold, 1994). Environmental marketing claims found to be unclear or misleading (Gray-Lee et al., 1994) have consequently provoked considerable scepticism, leading to the term green-washing entering the vocabulary. Similar scepticism toward CSR has lead to accusations of blue-washing when corporations disingenuously attempt to wrap themselves in the ag of the United Nations for publicity purposes, through claimed adherence to the principles of its Global Compact (Willard, 2005). It is against this scepticism-charged communications backdrop that marketplace pressures are enticing corporate marketing managers to publicise their CSR activities (Dawkins, 2004; Environics, 1999). Corporate image advertising provides the creative exibility and target audience reach marketing communications managers seek, yet use of this tool is problematic. The next sections consider how CSR-identity-based messages that are appropriately diagnostic might assist these managers by inhibiting scepticism. Inhibiting scepticism through diagnostic CSR information Diagnostic advertising claims are claims that discriminate between alternative hypotheses, interpretations, or categorizations (Herr et al., 1991, p. 457). Through this discrimination, diagnostic claims are expected to reduce processing complexity by providing consumers with increased processing ability. Without these knowledge structures in place, the information-processing task for consumers will be more difcult and effective communication less likely. A recent study by Forehand and Grier (2003) has demonstrated that consumer scepticism toward a rms motives can be inhibited by the rms public

acknowledgement of the strategic benets it may enjoy as a result of its CSR initiative, along with the benets that are expected to accrue to society. Forehand and Griers study of the informational content of CSR advertising claims makes a very useful contribution to the CSR communication discussion; consumers appear to appreciate the transparency of such disclosures. Chang (2007) has also demonstrated that the resources required to process an advertisement may be altered by ad content, reiterating that informations diagnosticity, rather than its abundance, is critical for persuasion. We propose three CSR advertising message variables are critical to diagnosticity, social topic information, CSR commitment, and CSR impact specicity. While the rst of these aims to assist development of the knowledge structures needed for effective processing, the latter two message variables reect Albert and Whettens (1985) three requirements for corporate identity: claimed central character; claimed distinctiveness; and claimed temporal continuity. In the sections that follow, we articulate and defend research propositions to test the propensity of these message variables to inhibit scepticism toward CSR-identity-based advertising claims. Research propositions We open this section by stressing that the message elements in the rst three of the four research propositions set out below must be accurate and real. Disingenuous claims would merely contribute to the charges of green- or blue-washing that have harmed corporate reputations. Since consumers are wary of advertising claims from the outset, open, honest, and diagnostic information, that allows audiences to make sense of the rms claimed identity, what Balmer and Greyser (2006) refer to as the rms character, is critical if a positive brand image is to be built, on trust. Social topic information Social, including environmental, problems are myriad, and consumers have been found to lack familiarity with the social and environmental issues engaged in rms CSR initiatives (Auger et al., 2003; Sen and Bhattacharya, 2001). That is, consumers lack social topic knowledge. By providing social topic information, as in the sick baby/well baby appeals common to social marketing (Fine, 1990), rms CSR claims can be made more diagnostic. Obermiller (1995, p. 55) explains that whereas the sick baby appeal works by increasing concern for the problem, the well baby appeal works by increasing the belief that one can do something to solve the problem. Theories from cognitive psychology, such as contextualisation, priming, and assimilation (Ashcraft, 2006) support the notion that informing about a social problem will allow respondents to draw on those associations in order to activate socially evaluative criteria, allowing the ease with which such information comes to mind to serve as the basis for judgment (Tybout et al., 2005). This explanation also conforms to the earlier discussion of cognitive resource matching theory, as social topic information might provide the background detail that allows the rms CSR claims to be given real meaning. Hence, we advance the following research proposition: P1. The inclusion of social topic information in CSR image advertisements will (a) increase message diagnosticity, and (b) inhibit scepticism toward the message.

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CSR commitment Consumers are reportedly sceptical of rms CSR claims due to attributions of self-interest to rms actions (Barone et al., 2000; Forehand and Grier, 2003; Lichtenstein et al., 2004; Webb and Mohr, 1998). Pirsch et al. (2007) report that institutionalised CSR, that is, a long-term commitment to CSR across different operating activities of the rm, as opposed to more short-term and opportunistic promotional CSR, provokes less consumer scepticism. This long-term commitment echoes Albert and Whettens (1985) claimed central character and claimed temporal continuity corporate identity requirements. Forehand and Grier (2003) demonstrate how admission of how the rm will benet from its CSR initiative, along with how society will benet, can also inhibit scepticism. On this basis, we expect that information that establishes a rms long-term commitment to CSR that delivers benets to both the rm and society will be diagnostic in CSR messages. Establishing that CSR behaviour is also part of a rms strategic values, as demonstrated by its commitment to the social issue(s) over the long-term is also important. As discussed earlier, the essence of social judgment theory, cognitive response theory, and attribution theory is the biasing role of prior-held beliefs; conrming institutionalised CSR values by revealing a long-term, strategic commitment to working to alleviate a social problem may give rise to a questioning of prior negative beliefs, and an afrmation of positive beliefs. We do not rule out the potential for some residual effect of prior beliefs to diminish our proposed ability of diagnostic information to inhibit scepticism, and account for this potentiality in P4 below. We argue, however, that establishing an air of authenticity of a rms CSR program is an important message inclusion. Hence, we propose: P2. The inclusion of message content that establishes a rms long-term commitment to CSR, which benets both the rm and society will (a) increase message diagnosticity, and (b) inhibit scepticism toward the message.

CSR impact specicity CSR claim specicity provides a measure of what the rm is doing to avoid worsening or helping to alleviate a particular social problem, a judgment found to affect consumer response to cause-related marketing (CRM) campaigns (Pracejus et al., 2003/2004). In their study of the specicity of CRM claims, Pracejus et al. (2003/2004) found CRM campaigns overwhelmingly provided abstract, non-specic information on the donation amount to the rms partner cause, which impaired consumer choice. Wood (1991) argues that information on the social impacts of a rms CSR should be more diagnostic than mere information regarding policies or programs. Specic information detailing the impacts of the rms CSR initiatives permits consumers, and other stakeholders, to distinguish between rms that are committed to CSR, that is strategic, institutionalised CSR, from those that simply pay lip service to or seek to opportunistically exploit the concept. Albert and Whettens (1985) claimed distinctiveness is echoed here. We might expect, also, that information about the specic impacts of a rms CSR initiatives might go some way to negating the mechanism behind the self-promoters paradox from the consumer perspective. On this basis, we propose:


The use of specic social impact, rather than policy or program, claims, will (a) increase message diagnosticity, and (b) inhibit scepticism toward the message.

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Moderation by corporate personality cues A major challenge arises for rms that seek to alter perceptions of their corporate identity, as Morsing (2006) has highlighted. While identity-based corporate image advertising is unlikely to be the only communication tool used to calibrate, or position, the desired corporate image, such marketing communications may stumble if they are discordant with the current perceived corporate identity. The sum of unintentional or emergent cues being transmitted by the rm, its employees, or its activities (Markwick and Fill, 1997) and other external cues, for example, word-of-mouth, provide what Bernstein (1984) describes as the corporate personality, from which the corporate identity is generated, and, in turn, the corporate image amalgam formed. The effects of these corporate personality cues on planned corporate image advertising is therefore expected to moderate the effects diagnostic CSR information may have on the inhibition of consumers scepticism cognitions. This relationship is specied in the following proposition: P4. Unplanned corporate personality cues will moderate the size and/or direction of the effects of diagnostic CSR image advertising cues on consumer scepticism toward such cues.


Conclusion We have proposed that consumer scepticism toward CSR-identity-based advertising appeals might be mitigated by diagnostic dimensions of the corporate image message structure, dimensions that echo Albert and Whettens (1985) central, enduring, and distinctive requirements for the desired corporate identity to promote the desired corporate image. The diagnostic message variables for CSR advertising claims proposed here have the potential, we feel, to span the range of a rms stakeholders, and might also have some degree of application across the range of corporate communication tools, in particular, corporate reporting and public relations. We have limited our discussion to consumers and to the communication tool of corporate image advertising, which we would argue reects businesss recent and increasing interest in the overt projection of desired socially responsible identities for the building of CSR-based corporate images. The benets of what Hoefer and Keller (2002) refer to as corporate societal marketing are attractive to rms not only keen to set themselves apart from their competitors but also legitimise their brands in the eyes of stakeholders, especially consumers. Our focus on consumers is due to their ability to act as rewarding and punishing authorities, able to inuence the prots of competing rms, and indirectly also the direction of the economy (Hansen and Schrader, 1997, p. 447). However, consumers typically face asymmetries of information in regard to rms CSR programs; they lack knowledge of both social and environmental issues and rms initiatives in relation to different social and environmental issues. Hansen and Schrader (1997), for example, report that 75 percent of Germans feel inadequately informed about the social and ecological impacts of business activities. Dawkins (2004) reports that UK consumers are critical of businesss approach to CSR, with 70 percent agreeing industry and

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commerce does not pay enough attention to their social responsibilities, but around 75 percent indicate more information about companies social, ethical, and environmental behaviour would inuence what they buy. The importance of the t between the desired corporate identity projected through deliberate communications to selected audiences and the resulting corporate image that takes shape in the minds of these audiences has been highlighted in extant literature (van Rekom, 1997; van Riel, 1995). We contribute to corporate identity and image theories by casting light on how identity-based corporate image advertising communications might be rendered more effective through attention to diagnostic message elements. We propose key diagnostic message elements have particular importance in CSR-identity-based appeals, a context with a unique set of communication challenges, but suggest a possible wider application of our thesis. These diagnostic message elements t closely the corporate identity requirements of Albert and Whetten (1985), and build on their framework by adding the need for social topic information in order to develop the knowledge structures needed for effective CSR-identity-based corporate image advertising appeals. Corporate image advertising is an important tool used by corporate marketers to convey desired corporate identity characteristics, what we say we are (Balmer and Greyser, 2006). Corporate claims of we say we are a socially responsible rm are particularly prone to consumer scepticism, potentially hindering the construction of the desired corporate image in the minds of critical stakeholders, such as consumers. We have developed several propositions in which the manipulation of three key dimensions of CSR message content might be investigated to assess their contribution to message diagnosticity and the inhibition of consumer cognitive responses of scepticism. An advertising copy experimental design, involving manipulation of the key message variables we have outlined above, which support the work of Albert and Whetten (1985) and inform dimensions of consumers perceived corporate image formulations, would allow the testing of our propositions. Given the increased use of corporate societal initiatives in constructing identity-based corporate image advertising campaigns, several implications of this study emerge for practice. First, while consumers seek information on rms CSR initiatives, and the specic impacts of those initiatives, Pracejus et al. (2003/2004) nd that, in the area of CRM at least, stakeholder audiences are provided little in the way of substance in rms announcements of their pro-social commitment claims. Second, we argue that the demand for such information might be, in part, met through corporate image advertising campaigns that are diagnostic, and thereby provide audiences with the identity-based evidence needed to dismantle barriers of scepticism, often a natural tendency in such overtly positive and non-economic message situations. Our diagnostic message elements borrow, in part, from the corporate identity requirements of Albert and Whetten (1985), and therefore build on extant research in the corporate identity area, allowing a seamless integration, rather than a revolution, of thinking. At a time when consumers are keen to learn of rms societal practices and achievements (Dawkins, 2004), the provision of more diagnostic corporate image advertising appeals offers to meet these information demands and reduce scepticism toward such communication efforts. Wood (1991) has suggested that stakeholders seek information not only on rms CSR policies and practices but also on the specic impacts of those policies and practices. Consumers indicate they want such diagnostic

information, and will direct their spending accordingly, inviting managers to respond to their information needs and differentiate their brands on this basis. Dawkins (2004) reports a large proportion of consumers purchase decisions could be affect by information on CSR performances, and anecdotal evidence of the success of rms such as The Body Shop attest that consumers are willing to get behind corporations that do good. The challenge is to convincingly communicate this pro-social face of the corporation. As scepticism inuences brand evaluations that will persist through time, the inhibition of scepticism is an important goal for CSR advertising claims.
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Further reading Morsing, M. and Schultz, M. (2006), Corporate social responsibility communication: stakeholder information, response and involvement strategies, Business Ethics: A European Review, Vol. 15 No. 4, pp. 323-38. Peracchio, L.A. and Meyers-Levy, J. (1997), Evaluating persuasion-enhancing techniques from a resource-matching perspective, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 24 No. 2, pp. 178-91. About the authors Alan Pomering is a Lecturer in Marketing Subjects at the University of Wollongong, Australia. His main research interests focus on CSR, advertising, sustainability, strategy, and tourism. He recently completed his doctorate, investigating the ability of message variables to inhibit consumer scepticism toward CSR advertising claims. Alan Pomering is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: Lester W. Johnson currently serves as a Professor of Management (Marketing) at the Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne, Australia.

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