You are on page 1of 10

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
K.LEWIS 2

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 researcher-

generated 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.
CONSUMER PERCEPTIONS OF ADVERTISING EFFECTS 3

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 self-

concept, which calls for detailed, informant-driven research that will allow participants to more freely express and
K.LEWIS 4

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
CONSUMER PERCEPTIONS OF ADVERTISING EFFECTS 5

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.


K.LEWIS 6

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.?

2. Does an individual’s ideal self-concept effect how s/he perceives the effects of advertising on the society in
the U.S.?

3. Does an individual’s social self-concept effect how s/he perceives the effects of advertising on personal use
in the U.S.?
CONSUMER PERCEPTIONS OF ADVERTISING EFFECTS 7

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.
K.LEWIS 8

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.
CONSUMER PERCEPTIONS OF ADVERTISING EFFECTS 9

References

Anderson, R.D., Engeldow, J.L. & Becker, H. (1978). How consumer reports subscribers see advertising.
Journal of Advertising Research, 18(6), 29-34. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global via
Proquest Direct.

Andrews, J.C. (1989). The dimensionality of beliefs toward advertising in general. Journal of Advertising,
18(1), 26-35. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest Direct.

Andrews, J.C., Durvasula, S., & Netemeyer, R.G. (1994). Testing the cross-national applicability of U.S.
and Russian advertising belief and attitude measures. Journal of Advertising, 23(1), 71-82. Retrieved
February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest Direct.

Barksdale, H.C. & Darden, W.R. (1972). Consumer attitudes toward marketing and consumerism. Journal
of Marketing, 36(4), 28-35. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest
Direct.

Barksdale, H.C., Darden, W.R. & Perreault, W.D. (1976). Changes in consumer attitudes toward
marketing, consumerism and governmental regulation: 1971-1975. Journal of Consumer Affairs, 10(2),
117-139. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest Direct.

Barksdale, H.C. & Perreault, W.D. (1980). Can consumers be satisfied? MSU Business Topics, 28(2), 19-
30. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest Direct.

Barksdale, H.C., Perreault, W.D., Arndt, J., Barnhill, J.A., French, A., Halliday, M., Zif, J. (1982). A cross-
national survey of consumer attitudes towards marketing practices, consumerism and governmental
regulations. Columbia Journal of World Business, 17(2), 71-86. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from
ABI/Inform Global via Proquest Direct.

Bauer, R.A., & Greyser S.A. (1968). Advertising in America: The Consumer View. Boston: Harvard.

Belk, R.W. (1988). Possessions and the extended self. Journal of Consumer Research, 15, 139-168.

Belk, R.W., & Pollay, R.W. (1985). Images of ourselves: the good life in the twentieth century advertising.
Journal of Consumer Research, 11(4), 887-897. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global via
Proquest Direct.

Calfee, J.E., & Ringold, D.J. (1994). The 70% majority: Enduring consumer beliefs about advertising.
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 13(2), 228-238. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform
Global via Proquest Direct.

Coulter, R.A., Zaltman, G., & Coulter, K.S. (2001). Interpreting consumer perceptions of advertising: An
application of the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique. Journal of Advertising, 30(4), 1-21. Retrieved
February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest Direct.

Dolich, I.J. (1969). Congruence relationships between self images and product brands. Journal of
Marketing Research, 6(1), 80-84. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest
Direct.

Ewen, S. (1988). All Consuming Images. New York: Basic Books.

Ford, G.T., & Calfee, J.E. (1986). Recent developments in FTC policy on deception. Journal of Marketing,
50(3), 82-103. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest Direct.

Grubb, E.L., & Grathwohl, H.L. (1967). Consumer self-concept, symbolism, and market behavior: A
K.LEWIS 10

theoretical approach. Journal of Marketing, 31(4), 22-27. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform
Global via Proquest Direct.

Haller, T.F. (1974). What students think of advertising. Journal of Advertising Research, 14(February), 33-
38.

Hong, J.W. & Zinkhan, G.M. (1995). Self-concept and advertising effectiveness: The influence of
congruency, conspicuousness, and response mode. Journal of Psychology and Marketing, 12(1), 53-77.
Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest Direct.

Lasch, C. (1978). The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an age of diminishing expectations. New
York: Norton.

McCracken, G. (1988). Culture and Consumption. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mehta, A. (1999). Using self-concept to assess advertising effectiveness. Journal of Advertising Research,
39(1), 81-89. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest Direct.

Muehling, D.D. (1987). An investigation of factors underlying attitude-toward-advertising-in-general.


Journal of Advertising, 16(1), 32-40. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest
Direct.

Pollay, (1986). The distorted mirror: Reflections on the unintended consequences of advertising. Journal of
Marketing, 50(2), 18-36. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest Direct.

Pollay, R.W., & Mittal, B. (1993). Here’s the beef: Factors, determinants, and segments in the consumer
criticism of advertising. Journal of Marketing, 57(3), 99-114. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from
ABI/Inform Global via Proquest Direct.

Reid, L.N. & Soley, L.C. (1982). Generalized and personalized attitudes toward advertising’s social and
economic effects. Journal of Advertising, 11(3), 3-7. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global
via Proquest Direct.

Richins, M. (1991). Social comparison and the idealized images of advertising. Journal of Consumer
Research, 18(1), 7-83. Retrieved September 20, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest Direct.

Shavitt, S., Lowrey, P. & Haefner, J. (1998). Public attitudes toward advertising: More favorable than you
might think. Journal of Advertising Research, 38(4), 7-22. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform
Global via Proquest Direct.

Sirgy, M.J. (1980). Self-concept in consumer behavior: A critical review. Journal of Consumer Research,
9(3), 287-300. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest Direct.

Tharp, M. & Scott, L.M. (1990). The role of marketing processes in creating cultural meaning. Journal of
Macromarketing, 10(2), 47-60. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest Direct.

Wills, J.R., & Ryans, J.K. (1982). Attitudes toward advertising: A multinational study. Journal of
International Business, 13(3), 121-131. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/Inform Global via Proquest
Direct.