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Giving advertisers the benefit of the doubt : trust, cooperative communication, and consumer acceptance of implication in advertising Ritchie, Robin John Brent


This dissertation seeks to expand our understanding of why consumers "go with the gist" of ads that imply more than they literally claim. Such persuasion is especially surprising in light of several facts: (1) the goal o f advertising is to induce purchase, giving advertisers an incentive to exaggerate through implication in order to maximize the appeal of their products; (2) polls have consistently found a high level of public cynicism toward marketers, and; (3) consumers are generally believed to be active and skeptical users of information. Working from linguistics research on conversational implicature, I develop a conceptual framework to explain the process by which implied advertising claims persuade. A central element of this framework is the cooperative principle o f conversation - the presumption that speakers will normally try to design messages that are truthful, unambiguous, and mindful of both the context of the conversation and the pre-existing knowledge of the recipient. Conversational implicature theory holds that widespread adherence to the cooperative principle in everyday communication (a) makes it possible for listeners to reconstruct the intended meaning of a message, and (b) makes it reasonable for them to favor this meaning over its literal interpretation. However, such cooperativeness on the part of the recipient is believed to occur only when that individual has at least a nominal level of trust in the communicator, implying that phenomena which undermine trust will have particularly negative consequences for advertisements in which claims are implied rather than explicitly stated. Hypotheses flowing from the proposed framework are tested using two experiments, which manipulate individuals' general level of suspicion toward advertising (high vs. low) and the nature of the advertising claim (implied vs. stated), and investigate the effects of these manipulations on attitudes and information processing. The first experiment establishes the effects for two types of implied advertising claims (qualified claim and missing information), while the second clarifies some questions raised by the initial study, and explores the moderating effects of having a reputable brand. Results from these two studies provide reasonable support for the notion that consumers accept implied advertising claims because they are acting as cooperative message recipients whose goal is to infer the intended meaning of the communicator. Under normal circumstances, individuals expressed a moderate level of trust toward the advertiser, and there was no difference in the effectiveness of stated claims and claims made by implication. However, when feelings of general suspicion toward marketers were induced, trust in the specific advertiser was undermined and implied claims resulted in less favorable attribute beliefs and product attitudes than did claims that were stated outright.

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