Advertising reflects an understanding of cognitive-behavioural theory

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Advertising agencies have for years been trying to influence behaviour, regardless of whether that behaviour is sales of a product, votes in an election, or donations to a cause. The advertising industry has long been challenged to explain how advertising works (Ambach & Hess, 2000; Vaughn, 1980). That it does work is not an issue, but how it works and why it works are critical concerns still trying to be resolved. Advertising is unlike the direct communication between two people which involves a give and take experience.

It is a one way exchange that is impersonal in format. People can selectively notice or avoid, accept or reject, remember or forget the experience and therefore confuse and bewilder the best of advertising plans (Vaughn, 1980). Trying to understand how the consumer thinks and behaves is a goal of most advertising agencies and an understanding of cognitive-behavioural psychology can help them achieve this.

According to Mayer, ‘Cognitive psychology is the scientific analysis of human mental processes and memory structures in order to understand human behaviour’ (1991, p. ). Cognitive psychology has a scientific basis and refers to the fact that all people should be able to come up with the same result following the same procedure. Therefore, your own intuitions and feelings about how your mind works are not acceptable bases for cognitive psychology because these are not directly observable by others. The main tool that cognitive psychology uses to explain mental processes is the information processing model (Reynolds & Flagg, 1977).

This model is based on the idea that humans are processors of information. Information comes in through our sense receptors, we apply a mental operation to it and thus change it, we apply another operation and change it again, until we have an output ready to be stored in memory or used to generate some behaviour (Mayer, 1991). According to the cognitive approach, a person does not acquire behaviour directly but rather acquires a higher-order procedure or rule system that can be used to generate behaviour in many situations.

This ‘flow chart’ like approach to describing mental processes can be linked to current psychological theories and research into advertising via; the AIDA, cognition-information, persuasive hierarchy, low involvement hierarchy, cognitive affective and integrative models of advertising.

In 1898, E. St. Elmo Lewis suggested the Attention-Interest-Desire-Action model of how advertising works (Haynes, 2003), which stipulates that advertising works by changing brand attitudes.

This model posits that the attention or awareness of a brand precedes the interest one has in it, which in turn dictates the desire for the brand and finally the behaviour or action that results. The model assumes that the individuals mind is a blank slate and that awareness of a brand eventually leads to action by eliciting the right emotions, desires or interests in the brand. This suggests a hierarchy of effects and can be linked to Julian Rotter’s cognitive-behavioural theory of why we make the choices that we do (Haynes, 2002).

However, what this model fails to take into account is that the consumer’s mind is not just a blank slate waiting to be imprinted upon by advertising but contains conscious and unconscious feelings, memories or desires acquired from previous product purchasing and usage which according to Vakratsas and Ambler (1999), comes under the heading of ‘experience’. Vakratsas and Ambler (1999) have recently reviewed how advertising works and how it reflects an understanding of cognitive-behavioural theory via their taxonomical analysis of a various number of advertising models. Read also about the role of cognition in learning

By using their simple framework for studying how advertising works the authors suggest that the effects of advertising should be evaluated in a three dimensional space with cognition, affect and experience as the three dimensions. The first model is the cognitive-information model which assumes that the consumer makes a rational decision in determining what brand or product to buy (Vakratsas & Ambler, 1999). The advertising purely provides factual information.

Nelson (1974, cited in Vakratsas and Ambler, 1999) classifies goods into two major categories: experience and search. If an advertisement provides information to the consumer about a product that has been used before then the choice of that same product will be due to experience (Nelson, 1974). Experience of a product may be high, meaning that a lot of use is needed before a choice is made of that product, and low.

For search goods the consumer assesses the advertisement and makes a decision based on the objective information provided about the product, for example, value for money. Verma (1980, cited in Vakratsas & Ambler, 1999) believes that advertising is more effective for experience than search goods because experience of the product can provide more information than the objective information that the search goods can provide. Another feature of the cognitive-information model is that advertising effects consumer price sensitivity which ultimately impinges on consumer behaviour.

Consequently, according to the market power theory (Cumanor & Wilson, 1979, cited in Vakratsas & Ambler, 1999) firms such as IBM that produce high-quality products can lower consumer price sensitivity and slowly increase the price of their goods without being to obvious. In contrast however, Chiplin and Sturgess, (1981, cited in Vakratsas and Ambler, 1999) propose the economics of information theory which suggests that advertising increases price sensitivity which affects behaviour because it initiates the consumer to cognitively acknowledge the price of goods and look for the best valued product.

Analysis of the cognitive-information model of advertising clearly emphasises the importance that cognition plays in affecting the consumer’s action. However, it believes that affect plays no effect in the decision making process of the consumer. The model assumes that the consumer logically analyses the information that the advertisement displays and makes a rational decision based on that analysis. But research by Holbrook and Batra (1987) emphasises the impact emotions can play on decision making, which the cognitive-information sadly excludes.

The idea that a hierarchy of effects is used to process information when linked to the advertising industry can be reflected in the persuasive and low involvement hierarchy models of how advertising works (Vakratsas & Ambler, 1999). The persuasive hierarchy model posits that cognitions influence emotions which in turn affect behaviour. However, in a study conducted by Batra and Ray (1985), results found that acknowledgement must be given to the antecedents of cognitive response production which can influence whether or not an advertisement will affect the consumer.

These antecedents, which can ‘block’ potential advertising messages from getting through, involve the consumer’s motivation and involvement with the message. For example, an advert for outdoor equipment (such as a tent) will have more influence on a consumer that has a high involvement and motivation in a recreational activity like camping. The consumer witnesses the advertisement, cognitively processes that he or she has a high involvement concerning the content of the advert, their affect is then triggered which in turn affects their behaviour.

On the other hand, advertising that has low involvement properties with the consumer must try other avenues of eliciting arousal and this can be done via persuasive techniques. One of the most common persuasive models for advertising is the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) (Petty and Cacioppo, 1984). The ELM distinguishes between central (high need for cognition) and peripheral (low need) routes to persuasion. The alternative paths follow the same hierarchy of cognition followed by affect.

A psychological theory that can be linked to the cognitive-affective model of advertising is the cognitive-schemata theory or heuristic learning. According to Narvaez & Bock, ‘schemas are sets of expectations, hypotheses and concepts that are formed as the individual notices similarities and recurrence in experience’ (2002, p. 297). Schemas operate constantly in the mind, being evoked or activated by a current stimulus that resembles the stimuli that created the schema in the first place (Rock, 1997). According to Chaiken (1980) persons process information in both systematic and heuristic ways.

Schemas or heuristic processing involves the use of simple cues in order to arrive at a conclusion (brand preference). Thus, consumers may sometimes use simple decision rules in their behaviour such as buying a brand name; buying the brand advertised by an expert, attractive or trustworthy spokesperson; buying the brand that most people use; or buying the brand that is advertised the most (for example, Coca-Cola and Hungry Jacks) (Manis, 1993). Heuristic processing can be linked back to the ELM’s peripheral route to persuasion where a low need for cognition is used in processing information.

The mental short cuts that the consumer uses to evaluate products can also be linked to George Kelly’s psychological construct theory (Haynes, 2002). Kelly’s construct theory posits that the individual creates constructs that are then used to make the world understandable. For example, if after shopping around a consumer notices the prices of new computers to be around the two thousand dollar mark then he or she will then create a construct that places all new computers around the same price that has previously been witnessed.

However, if the consumer then witnesses the price of a new computer to be around the one thousand dollar mark then he or she will alter their original construct they had for the price of computers and form a new construction on what they believe the price of a new computer could be. Other findings that have eventuated from the cognitive-affective model of advertising concerns brand recall and attitude (Stapel, 1998; Hall, 2002). The great majority of advertising is devoted to brands that are extremely well known in their category (Coca-Cola, McDonalds, and IBM).

The hierarchical model, such as the cognitive-affective model (Vakratsas & Ambler, 1999) would suggest that once a brand becomes established in the consumer’s mind, it should no longer be necessary to advertise more than the minimum needed to keep the brand from being forgotten. However, Hall (2002) finds that if companies cut brand advertising, sales fall not because the consumer forgets to look for the product, but because their memory they had with the product begins to degrade.

Without ongoing advertising the consumer fails to cognitively experience the product and consequently fails to recall it in memory (Huey, 1999). Analysis of the cognitive-affective approach to advertising shows that ‘different people respond to different advertisements in different ways, depending upon their involvement’ (Vakratsas & Ambler, 1999, p. 33). There is little support for the idea that ads first inform, then persuade, but there is a lot of support for a multi-path approach such as the ELM model of persuasion (Vakratsas & Ambler, 1999).

The alternative to the persuasive approach is the low-involvement hierarchy model which posits that experience of a product dominates advertising influence on beliefs, attitudes and behaviour (Vakratsas & Ambler, 1999). The cognitive element in this model may be nothing more than a passing awareness in products in which the consumer has low involvement. According to Ehrenberg’s (1974) reinforcement model it suggests that product preferences are formed after an initial trial, for instance after receiving a free sample of Nivea Skin Cream in the mail, you continue to buy it based on that previous experience.

A study conducted by Smith (1993) found that experience has a greater impact on beliefs, attitude formation and choice than advertising, which instead reinforces behaviour. The final model suggested by Vakratsas and Ambler (1999) is the integrative model which suggests that the three dimensions of cognition, affect and experience are interchangeable and do not necessarily always come in the same order.

Vaughn (1980) suggests an FCB grid to advertising strategy which posits that sometimes there are purchase decisions where thinking is most involved and others where feeling dominates; there are situations that require more involvement and those that require less. A study conducted by McWilliam (1993) found that when there was a high need for cognition the product purchasing reflected major purchases such as: a car, house or furnishings, whereas when there was a low need for cognition product purchasing reflected most food and staple packed goods items.

What Vaughn (1980) suggests is that advertising should be designed according to the product category. For example, a product that falls into the high involvement and high need for information quadrant (a Ford Festiva) should show more emphasis in advertisement (which it does), than a product falling into the low involvement and low need for information quadrant (a tin of corn). Another psychological theory that may be used to explain the effect advertising can have on the consumer can be found in Albert Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory, which he renamed social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986).

Social cognitive theory posits that a behaviour may be learned by mere observation of that behaviour. Bandura (1977, 1986) observes that the pervasive nature of media, especially television, has dramatically increased opportunities to engage in observational learning. He states, ‘another influential source of social learning at any age is the abundant and varied symbolic modelling provided by television, films, and other visual media’ (1986, p. 70). According to the social cognitive model learning is achieved through four successive steps: attention, retention, production, and motivation processes.

This four step process may be used to explain the influence advertising has on consumers’ decision to purchase a product. The first step in the social cognitive process is attention (Bandura, 1977, 1986). Consumers are heavy users of media, including print media. The design of product adverts makes them tremendously appealing to the consumer. For example, in cigarette adverts the majority of models in ads are physically attractive, are displayed in dream like settings, are often portrayed as being attractive to the opposite sex, and are engaging in interesting and exciting activities.

According to Altman, Slater, Albright and Maccoby (1987) all of these features appeal to the consumer’s needs for particular things in life such as; love, acceptance, success, identity and sexuality. Consumers are repeatedly exposed to appealing ads, increasing the possibility that they will attend to the behaviour portrayed therein, such as; smoking, drinking, using a particular brand of shampoo. The second step in the social cognitive process is retention (Bandura, 1977, 1986). Advertisements make considerable use of slogans to aid in retention. For example, Pepsi uses, ‘the taste for a new generation! ‘.

Visual imagery is particularly effective for storing information that is not easily reducible to verbal equivalents (laBarbera, Weingard, & Yorkston, 1998). Print cigarette ads make effective use of visual imagery. For example, the familiar ‘Malboro Man’ campaign incorporates virtually no verbal element, relying instead on pictures of nature and connects smoking to rewarding activities, like retreating to the country and being independent. Bandura (1977, 1986) states that mental rehearsal is a valuable aid to retention and often occurs when actual reproduction of an observed behaviour can not take place due to lack of opportunity.

So through recall of ad slogans (Toyota’s, ‘oh what a feeling’) and compelling visual imagery, as well as through mental rehearsal, consumers are more likely to retain the information presented in advertisements. The third step in social learning is production of the new behaviour, and finally the fourth step is once the behaviour has been attended to and retained the individual must make a decision about whether to engage in the new behaviour, via motivation (Bandura, 1977, 1986).

According to Taylor (1998), ‘reinforcements come to be seen as motivators, affecting primarily the performance, rather than the learning, of a behaviour sequence’ (p. 66). What this means is that behaviours observed to have a positive consequence are more likely to be reproduced, while behaviours observed to have a negative consequence are less likely to be reproduced. Often the conceptual model that has been applied to advertising is a simple causal ‘hierarchy of effects’ (Vakratsas & Ambler, 1999).

Consumers change their minds about a product, they then change their attitude, and then they act. However, Vakratsas and Ambler have failed to locate a theoretical construct that assigns cognition to the true role it plays in the consumers mind. Advertising theories claim that cognition affects our choices but there is little objective research that can concretely back up the claim. Bruce (2002) states that more recognition must be given to the intervening role that emotions have in shaping attitudes towards a brand or product.

Holbrook and Batra (1987) elaborated on the theory that cognition precedes affect which precedes behaviour by demonstrating the effect of emotions, such as pleasure, arousal, and domination, on brand attitudes. Bruce (2002) has taken it further and proposed a perception, experience, memory, model of advertising. This model posits that there is a greatly reduced role of cognition, and emotions, feelings, affect and experience dominate cognition at every stage of the process.

There are three phases in the flow of the model: pre-experience, enhancing experience and post experience exposure of advertising. The main goal of the model posits that advertising tries to frame perception. To create anticipation towards a product. An example of how this works is food advertisings which are designed to make you hungry. McDonalds does this well by lifting the burger towards the viewer as if he or she is about to take a bite of it. In beer advertising, the moment when the cap is opened to release the carbonation, the ‘whoosh’, is an essential element.

Life insurance ads try to make us anxious about the future. Car advertisements try to give us the feel of driving. Bruce (2002) states that cognition, in the form of interpretation, enters the process only as the third level effect, after the advertising has created expectation and anticipation. Cognitive-behavioural theory, as mentioned earlier, subsumes that we process information in a set sequence with cognition predisposing behaviour. To say that that is the case with advertising hierarchical theories is purely hearsay.

Vakratsas and Ambler even stipulate, ‘the concept of hierarchy (temporal sequence) on which they are based cannot be empirically supported’ (p. 33). There are advertising theories that claim that the consumer uses cognition before affect and behaviour but they are only rational and intuitively sensible claims. That cognition plays a role in decision making, there is no doubt, but to what extent that impact is, is disputable. I believe the significance here is that people will not necessarily see the brand or product unless they expect to see it. Advertising must somehow tell them to expect to see it.

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