Understanding consumer perceptions of advertising effects: a self-concept perspective

Karyn N. Lewis Qualitative Research Methods Professor D. Neumann Rochester Institute of Technology Winter 2007

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Introduction Companies often look to advertising as a way of boosting sales by increasing the public’s exposure to a product or service. On any given day the typical U.S. consumer is exposed to between 3,000 and 5,000 advertisements (Coulter, Zaltman, & Coulter, 2001). As the foundation and economic lifeblood of the U.S. mass media, advertising sells a great deal more than products and services; it sells values, images, and concepts of success and worth, love and sexuality, and popularity and normalcy—essentially telling us who we are and who we should be. The social consequences of advertising has long been the subject of social commentary, with the main criticism that advertising presents an unrealistic or idealized picture of people and their lives. In effect, advertising tends to create an idealistic world in which people are rarely ugly, overweight, poor, struggling, or disabled (Lasch, 1978). Given the pervasiveness of advertising in the United States, it is not surprising that researchers have theorized about and investigated consumers’ attitudes toward advertising and the consequences of idealized images for more than three decades.

In their seminal work on attitudes toward advertising, Bauer and Greyser (1968) have suggested that advertising has two broad effects on society: economic and social. Their works, have served as a foundation for researchers examining consumers’ attitudes toward advertising. In the majority of studies on this topic, survey methods have been used to assess opinions and attitudes about advertising in general, as well as attitudes about specific economic, social, and personal functions of advertising. Several studies have illustrated that attitudes toward advertising are a function of consumers’ perceptions of the various aspects of advertising, such as its informational value and its use of idealized images (Andrews, Durvasula & Netemeyer, 1994; Muehling, 1987; Pollay & Mittal, 1993). Other avenues of research have addressed public policy issues relevant to marketing and advertising practices (Calfee & Ringold, 1994; Ford & Calfee, 1986) and advertising as it relates to cultural concerns, such as its impact on morals (Belk & Pollay, 1985; Ewen, 1988; McCracken, 1988; Pollay, 1986; Tharp & Scott, 1990). These investigations have yielded important insights about consumers’ opinions of advertising, but most have done so in the context of participants’ responses to researchergenerated questions. My intent is to contribute further to the understanding of consumers’ impressions of advertising and the meanings associated with it using a thorough qualitative approach from a self-concept perspective.

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Rationale Current studies on attitudes toward advertising and advertising effectiveness have typically included in-depth analyses of advertising performance results within relevant subgroups. The subgroup variables, however, have mostly been to be limited to demographic and usership ones such as those related to age, sex, income, household size, category and brand usage, usage frequency, and ownership. While these analyses are important and helpful in better understanding the performances of specific advertisements, other ways of classifying respondents can be as revealing, or more so, as general demographic and usership categories. Namely, more in-depth psychological analyses based on self-concept can be valuable in understanding consumer attitudes toward advertising by addressing the subjective thoughts and feelings that motivate their opinions.

Behavioral researchers have been increasingly interested in examining symbolic consumer behavior, where the value of a product is thought to hinge on the association between its subjective meaning as viewed by the consumer and the consumer’s own self-image (Hong & Zinkhan, 1995). More specifically, how individuals think and feel about themselves is thought to significantly influence how they react to a commercial’s content and execution, as well as to the advertised product itself (Mehta, 1999). All products and brands are thought to have symbolic meanings and project certain images, and the purchase, display, and use of goods communicate this meaning to the individual consumer and to others (Grubb & Grathwohl, 1967). Symbolic value is expected to tie in closely with the consumer’s self-image to have an impact on individual preference, where preferences may develop for certain brands because they are perceived as reflecting their own self-image or projecting an image that they aspire to possess. If the meaning of a product does not tie in closely with the consumer’s individual self-image, it is likely to have little influence on purchasing behavior. Thus, the impact of product symbolism depends upon its perceived image and the buyer’s own self-concept.

Because symbolism is such an important tool in advertising and affects purchase primarily when it indicates an association with the self, self-concept can be expected to play a central role in influencing advertising effectiveness. However, there has been relatively little conceptual work done to determine under what circumstances advertising appeals to one’s self-concept. This may be explored by delving into the depths of consumer’s minds to thoroughly investigate their feelings and opinions of advertising and its effectiveness as viewed from the perspective of selfconcept, which calls for detailed, informant-driven research that will allow participants to more freely express and

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expand on their thoughts and feelings of advertising overall.

Review of Related Literature As a basis for presenting the research uncovered on attitudes toward advertising, I will discuss the findings as related to self-concept, then those addressing the economic effects of advertising, the personal uses of advertising, and the societal effects of advertising.

Self-concept. Simply put, self-concept is a person’s perception of oneself. This perception is composed of multidimensional characteristics that include physical as well as psychological attributes, which interact with the various roles a person must take on (Mehta, 1999). The system of thoughts and feelings that make up one’s self-concept work to organize and guide the individual’s processing of information, which acts as the driving force for much of human behavior.

Studies on self-concept have typically made the same few assumptions about consumer attitudes and behavior. Most prevalent, consumers desire to express themselves in brand choices through products, services, and stores that tend to convey certain images beyond their functional characteristics. Thus, consumers prefer the products, services, or stores that maintain images compatible with their own personal perception of self (Dolich, 1969; Sirgy, 1980). Consumers choose the products that possess images most similar to those they perceive of themselves because they provide a means for self-expression (Belk, 1988). Unlike other attitudes, however, self-concept is an image shaped by the very individual holding the image (Zinkhan & Hong, 1995).

Economic effects of advertising. Research findings have been mixed when it comes to examining consumer perceptions of advertising’s effects on the economy. Some research, for example, indicates that consumers believe advertising is a necessary component of the marketplace, is good for the economy, and, on average, raises the standard of living (Muehling, 1987; Reid & Soley, 1982). Other studies suggest more neutral feelings about these economic effects (Andrews, 1989; Andrews, Durvasula, & Netemeyer, 1994; Pollay & Mittal, 1993). In addition, whereas some findings support the idea that advertising results in better products and promotes competition (Andrews, 1989; Anderson, Engeldow, & Becker, 1978; Muehling, 1987; Reid & Soley, 1982), others are less favorable in this regard (Haller, 1974; Pollay & Mittal, 1993). With few exceptions, the majority of studies suggest

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that consumers do not believe that advertising lowers prices of products (e.g., Andrews, Durvasula, & Netemeyer, 1994; Muehling, 1987; Shavitt, Lowrey, & Haefner, 1998). For the most part, therefore, consumers seem to be somewhat ambivalent about the effects of advertising on the economy.

Personal uses of advertising. A second focus of research involving attitudes toward advertising includes personal uses of advertising, such as a source of information about products, social roles, and lifestyle imagery, as well as a source of personal enjoyment. With regard to advertising being a source of product information, it appears that sentiment has become more favorable during the past few decades. Several studies conducted by Barksdale and colleagues in the 1970s and early 1980s (Barksdale & Darden, 1972; Barksdale, Darden, & Perreault, 1976; Barksdale & Perreault, 1980; Barksdale et al., 1982) have found that, on average, a majority of respondents do not feel advertisements are reliable sources of information about either product quality or product performance. However, Calfee and Ringold (1994), report that a strong majority of consumers do, in fact, endorse advertising as a source of information. Pollay and Mittal (1993) and Shavitt, Lowrey, and Haefner (1998), in more recent studies, concur that audiences do tend to use advertising to find out about local sales and particular brands, as well as product and service availability. Both of the latter studies report that younger audiences think of advertising as an informational source more than do older audiences, though research findings are mixed regarding the usefulness of advertising as a source of information about social roles and lifestyle imagery. It is likely, however, that these conflicting findings are a consequence of different subject groups and operationalizations of constructs. For example, Richins (1991) found that female college students felt advertising was important for helping select particular fashion and personal care or cosmetic items. However, Pollay and Mittal (1993) found that advertising is only used by a minority of respondents for learning about fashion or buying habits of specific reference groups. Pollay and Mittal (1993) also report that students had more favorable opinions about the value of advertising in providing social role/lifestyle imagery information than did adults.

Pollay and Mittal (1993) also classify entertainment as a personal use of advertising. Calfee and Ringold (1994), in their survey of studies from 1974 to 1989, report that, on average, 70% of respondents think advertising is entertaining. Pollay and Mittal (1993) and Shavitt, Lowrey, and Haefner (1998) also note the entertainment value of advertising; they find a cohort effect, with younger audiences believing that advertising was more entertaining and amusing than did older audiences.

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Societal effects of advertising. As documented in the literature, the societal effects of advertising include the encouragement of materialism, the corruption of societal values, and failure to present an accurate picture of the product or reality (Bauer & Greyser, 1968; Pollay & Mittal, 1993). Findings spanning three decades indicate that consumers perceive advertising as encouraging unnecessary purchases and promoting materialism (Anderson, Engeldow, & Becker, 1978; Andrews, 1989; Calfee & Ringold, 1988; Haller, 1974; Pollay & Mittal, 1993; Reid & Soley, 1982), as well as corrupting society's values by reinforcing stereotypes (Wills & Ryans, 1982) and promoting undesirable behaviors (Pollay & Mittal, 1993). In addition, advertising has been viewed as less than truthful, often misleading, and insulting to consumers' intelligence (Anderson, Engeldow, & Becker, 1978; Andrews, 1989; Barksdale & Darden, 1972; Barksdale, Darden, & Perreault, 1976; Barksdale & Perreault, 1980; Barksdale et al., 1982; Haller, 1974; Pollay & Mittal, 1993; Reid & Soley, 1982).

To summarize, research has documented both positive and negative perceptions about the various functions and effects of advertising. The positives are related to the information and entertainment that advertising offers, as well as to its contribution to a healthy economy. The negative perceptions include the belief that advertising fosters materialism, corrupts personal and societal values, and portrays unrealistic images and lifestyles. Because individuals may hold both positive and negative views about the functions and effects of advertising (Andrews, Durvasula, & Netemeyer, 1994; Muehling, 1987; Pollay & Mittal, 1993), studies that ask respondents to answer Likert-type questions about their attitude toward advertising in general may be misinterpreted because they yield scores close to the midpoint of the scale. Therefore, the various facets of advertising evaluations should be considered to reflect consumers' ambivalence more clearly. This calls for more qualitative-based methodologies of uncovering information as to consumers’ attitudes towards advertising, specifically looking to answer the following research questions.

Research Questions 1. Does an individual’s self-concept effect how s/he perceives the effects of advertising on the economy in the U.S.? Does an individual’s ideal self-concept effect how s/he perceives the effects of advertising on the society in the U.S.? Does an individual’s social self-concept effect how s/he perceives the effects of advertising on personal use in the U.S.?

2.

3.

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Methods My intent is to contribute further to the understanding of consumer’s impressions of advertising and the meanings associated with it from a self-concept perspective. As a means to conduct this advertising research, I propose to employ a qualitative methodology that uses semi-structured personal interviews based on visual stimuli selected by the participants. With an interview method that asks participants to supply visual images such as pictures or photographs, participants will be better able to represent their thoughts and feelings and identify issues that are both important to them and potentially unknown to the researcher. In the following description, I will discuss the recruiting procedures, participant instructions, and probing techniques to be used for this method of research.

I will recruit college-aged participants from Rochester Institute of Technology using personal solicitation as the participants for this study. Because I am interested in selecting a convenience sample of college students that will represent a balance in gender, I will include seven men and seven women for a total of fifteen separate interviews. Individuals who agree to participate will be sent a letter with instructions that will ask them to bring approximately ten or more pictures to the interview that illustrate their perceptions of advertising. The instructions will indicate that they can bring pictures from magazines, newspapers, pieces of artwork, and/or photos. The letter will specifically mention that for this research I am interested in their thoughts and feelings about advertising in general and not about particular advertisements, and that the visual images selected should be representative of these general thoughts and feelings. The images also should not be actual print advertisements. Due to the expressive power of images, these representative pictures will serve as entry points for exploring the participants’ concepts by eliciting their subconscious thought processes.

Each participant will take part in a half-hour audiotaped interview which will take place approximately two weeks after they are recruited. I will conduct each interview myself in an open classroom at RIT, using the participants’ pictures representing their impressions of advertising as the focal point for most of the interview. Using these images, I will induce storytelling as a means of uncovering key metaphors and determining their interrelationships. Each participant will be asked to describe how each picture relates to his or her impressions of advertising. I will also ask each participant if he or she has any impressions about advertising for which he or she could not find an image. I will ask him or her to discuss the impression and describe an image that might illustrate that impression. This is important because pertinent pictures may not be available within the time period of the assignment.

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A metaphor analysis will be conducted from the recorded interviews to better understand participants’ impressions of advertising. I will analyze the narratives to determine the metaphors that the participants use to discuss their thoughts or feelings about advertising. My focus is on metaphors because thought is largely metaphorical and imaginative, and through analyzing metaphors, I may be better able to understand consumer thinking.

The procedure for analysis will be grounded in qualitative data analytic procedures. The fourteen recorded interviews will be transcribed and then read individually. Each metaphorical expression used will be recorded— including words, phrases, or sentences used—which will be reviewed and developed into thematic categories as they associate with the economy, the society, and personal use. From this a discussion of my results will be formed.

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