Emotional effects of advertising on young adults of lower socio-economic status
Andrew L. Mendelson
Paul D. Bolls
Washington State University
Ads, family income, and young adults
October 18, 2002
Department of Journalism, Public Relations & Advertising
2020 N. 13th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122
An extended abstract submitted to the Information Systems division
of the International Communication Association for the 2003 annual conference, San Diego
Emotional effects of advertising on children of lower socio-economic status
Traditional hierarchy-of-effects models of advertising state that advertising exposure leads to cognitions, such as memory about the ad, the product and/or the brand; which in turn leads to attitudes, such as product liking and attitude toward possible purchase; which in the end leads to behaviors, such as buying the advertised product (Albion & Farris, 1981). One issue that has not been raised in this area of research is what happens to a consumer who is not able to carry out the desired behavior because of lack of economic resources. Research has suggested that people of lesser economic means are particularly harmed by constant media messages of consumerism because they have no way to relieve the created consumerist wants and desires (West, 1994). It is possible that the inability to pursue wants and desires evoked by ads for luxury products could lead to differential patterns of emotional cognitive responding during processing of an advertisement. This study investigates differences in emotional and cognitive responses as revealed through physiological responses (heart rate, skin conductance, and facial EMG) for young college students of different socio-economic levels.
Advertising , materialism, and SES
One of the established effects of advertising is that it increases peoples' desires for consumer goods and promotes materialism. Some researchers, e.g., Galbraith (1967), even see advertising as "relentless propaganda on behalf of goods in general." Advertising, it is argued, stirs, or creates, desires and needs in people for more material goods. These needs are never completely satisfied, however, because, once a product is bought, a new one appears in the market to replace it, creating yet a new need (Galbraith, 1958). Thus, as Crisp (1987) argues, advertising overrides a consumer's autonomy of decision making in the creation of these desires, by offering an unshakable link between products and the fulfillment of desires for them.
A number of studies have investigated the association between advertising and materialism levels, but none has focused specifically on the role of socio-economic status as a potential intervening variable in that process. Nevertheless, the findings of previous research on advertising, materialism levels, and demographics are instructive in the formulation of a proposition to be tested in this research.
In general, materialism is defined as the idea that people gain personal satisfaction from owning objects (Yoon, 1995). Further, materialism is a consumer value characterized by possessiveness, non-generosity and envy (Belk, 1984, 1985), and by acquisition centrality, which means that material acquisition is crucial to one's life and success (Richins & Dawson, 1992). Materialism is also associated with other negative consequences, such as self-hatred and greed.
Robertson, et al. (1989) examined the effects of advertising exposure on the level of demand displayed by children of their parents. As television viewing (the operationalization of advertising exposure) increased, the number of product requests increased. Unfortunately, that study did not look at the possible interaction with demographic variables.
Yoon (1995) investigated the relationship between attitudes toward advertising in general and materialism beliefs among Caucasians and African Americans. The sample consisted of college students and adults from the same community (found through mall-intercepts). The results showed African Americans held more materialistic values and were more positive about advertising than Caucasians. The study did not explore the differential effects of socio-economic status specifically. Consequently, it is not possible to tell whether the African American sample was of a different socio-economic status compared to the Caucasian sample.
What happens when a person is not able to satisfy the needs instilled in a materialistic culture, partly by advertising? Do these needs ferment in a person, accumulating over time, forming higher levels of anxiety, tension and frustration? Or do consumers become desensitized, as the literature on other media messages, specifically television and movie violence, has suggested?
Study general proposition and specific hypotheses
Consumption is constrained by disposable income. As a general rule, consumers cannot purchase products if they have no money. Indeed, Quarles and Jeffries (1983) show that overall consumption levels are predicted best by disposable income, not by the amount of advertising to which one is exposed. The most critical question, as these authors suggest, is how people react "when material expectations exceed economic ability" (p. 13).
There is no evidence so far that consumersí desires, created by advertising, would simply disappear when they lack disposable income. In general, people feel comfortable in a state in which their attitudes and behaviors match. If attitudes and behaviors cannot reach a congruency, people experience a motivational state of arousal (first conceptualized and tested by Festinger, 1957). Specifically, as the phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance shows, people experience a drive or pressure to reduce this arousal by changing either their beliefs, or their behaviors or both.
It is reasonable to believe that cognitive dissonance would occur among college-age consumers who, through advertising, develop a desire for a product at the present time but can not afford it. One indication of the occurrence of cognitive dissonance could be emotional responses to the ads. This study investigates the emotional state of such consumers as a result of advertising for products that they may not be able to afford.
Advertising researchers have used physiological measures to assess cognitive and emotional responses to advertising. Heart rate has been used to measure attention paid to television advertisements (Bolls, Yoon, Lang, & Potter, 1997) and presence of mental imagery during exposure to radio advertisements (Bolls & Potter, 1998). Skin conductance has been used as a measure of arousal and response to sales appeal during television advertisements (Hopkins & Fletcher, 1994). Recently, facial EMG has been used to measure the valence of emotional response to radio advertisements (Bolls, Potter, Lang, Floyd-Snyder, 1999). The measurement of physiological responses during exposure to advertisements provides information that cannot be obtained through self-report measures alone. Taken together, physiological and self-report data have the potential to provide detailed insight into the nature of emotional and cognitive responses evoked by advertisements.
Based on Robertson, et al. (1989)ís findings that advertising exposure was positively related to product requests, we expect that:
H1: People higher in pre-exposure materialism scores will report that they pay more attention to advertising, in general. In other words, there will be a positive relationship between inherent materialism levels and advertising exposure.
Building on the cognitive dissonance literature, we predict that there will be a relationship between advertising exposure, socio-economic status, and emotional responses to the ads.
H2: Consumers of lower family income will find the advertisements less pleasing.
H3: Consumers of lower family income will find the advertisements more exciting.
The study will be a 2 (high/low family income level - between subjects) x 2 (high/low product cost - within subjects) x 8 (product item - within subjects) x 4 (order - between subjects) design. All participants will be exposed to the same set of commercials. The study controls for television use, attention to advertising, previous exposure to the ads used in the study, attitudes toward the advertised products and brands, and demographic variables, such as age, gender, and racial or ethnic background.
Procedure and stimulus materials
The study will be conducted with one participant at a time in a psychophysiological lab. Participants will be college freshman. The participants will each answer a short pre-test questionnaire, probing television watching, attention paid to advertisements, materialism beliefs, and semantic-differential-scale items measuring pre-existing attitudes to the about to be seen products (bad/good; unfavorable/favorable; dislike/like).
Following this questionnaire, each participant will view a series of eight commercials for different products, four low-cost items and four high-cost items. The commercials were selected from television shows aimed at young adults. All spots are 30 seconds in length. High cost items cost at least $200 and low cost items were under $100. Four orders of exposure have been created to control for order effects.
Physiological data will be collected for a five second baseline prior to each advertisement and during exposure to the advertisements. After each commercial, the participants will fill out a series of questions in reaction to the ad: Self-Assessment Manikin (SAM) scales, attitudes toward the ad and the brand, and control questions about whether they had seen this commercial before and whether they owned the product.
After the last commercial, the participants will answer a post-test set of questions including the materialism scale and demographic items. Participants will then be debriefed, thanked, and excused.
The findings will be discussed in terms of the consequences these emotional responses may have for consumers of lower socio-economic status. Is our society raising a large group of people who are constantly exposed to, but cannot hope to participate in, the system of values advertising espouses? How do they cope with such discrepancy between the media reality and their own economically-constrained reality?
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