Giving the Wrong Impression? The Susceptibility of Brand Impressions
to Associative Processes under Incidental Learning
Instead of positioning a brand with a positive message, some companies choose to
use a double negative message. Normally a negative statement or imagery is shown first
and associated with the brand or its respective product category, and then the brand is
implied to be the opposite of that. The prevalence of double negative advertisements with
little accompanying support on its effectiveness should be investigated to determine how
consumers process such information. The questions of interest in this study are whether
viewers form the intended impression of brands and whether their impressions depend on
how they were formed (incidentally or intentionally).
This study examines brand impression formation where ads are manipulated on
three factors: message type (positive and double negative), impression type (incidental and
intentional), persuasive appeal (affect- and cognitive-based). It is proposed that
impressions formed incidentally are more vulnerable to associative processes than those
formed intentionally since they involve more superficial processing (Carlston and Mae
2002). However, since impressions formed incidentally draw on superficial processing,
they are expected to be less persistent than those formed intentionally (Baddeley 1990). It
is also proposed that under incidental learning cognitive-based messages will result in less
accurate impressions than affect-based messages because they require more systematic
A popular advertising method used to convey brand personality or positioning is to
explicitly describe or imply what a brand is not. For example, recent television
advertisements for Avis show what it would be like if the car rental company did not try
harder. The commercials feature long lines, inattentive employees, and unattractive car
rental facilities. In order for this message to be interpreted correctly, consumers must
engage in inferential processing to account for the context. With Avis, consumers must
understand that since Avis does try harder, they can expect exactly the opposite type of
service from that shown in the advertisement. Is it possible, however, that distracted or
unmotivated viewers do not make this connection and simply link the imagery shown in
the advertisement with the brand, thus associating Avis with incompetence?
Marketing messages that utilize the double negative approach tend to follow a
similar sequence. They begin by presenting negative messages and imagery, often in the
form of an incompetent competitor, whether real or imagined, or a consumer having an
unpleasant purchase or consumption experience. Then the brand is disassociated from the
negative messages and imagery by implying or stating that the brand of interest and one’s
experience with it is the opposite of that depicted in the advertisement. The key
presumption is that consumers will form positive associations and impressions with the
brand of interest and negative associations with competing brands.
This study attempts to show differences in impressions depending on the type of
marketing message (positive versus double negative) under incidental and intentional
impression formation. It is proposed that incidental impressions are formed more through
associative processes than intentional impressions, which would adversely affect
interpretation of double negative messages. In addition, the type of persuasive appeal may
influence how information is processed depending on whether it is primarily affect- or
cognitive-based. Research suggests affective and cognitive attitudes differ in complexity,
implying different persuasive appeals may require differing amounts of processing.
Therefore, the persuasive appeal will also be examined to determine if it interacts with
message type and impression type.
The crux of this study rests on previous work in impression formation, a topic that
has received considerable attention in the literatures of Social Psychology and Social
Cognition (e.g. Chen, Ybarra, and Kiefer 2004; Flynn 2005; Vazire and Gosling 2004).
The following section will define key concepts in impression formation, including how
impressions may be formed, to lay the foundation for this study. Attitudinal research on
attitude bases will also be discussed as it is proposed that different appeals may affect the
extent to which consumers process information. Finally, associative and inferential
processes will be reviewed as they are proposed to account for differences in brand
impression evaluations for positive and double negative advertisements.
Impression formation addresses how people make judgments about others,
specifically the attribution of personality traits to other individuals. However, impression
formation can also refer to how judgments are made about any object, including brands.
The impression formation paradigm is likely to be robust to brands because people tend to
think of and describe brands using human characteristics (Gilmore 1919). The brand
personality scale developed by Aaker (1997) possesses similar traits to those of the Big
Five, which provides support for similarity in how people describe brands and humans.
Since impression formation research involves the measurement of perceived personality
traits, the process should apply equally well to brands as it does to humans.
The process of becoming aware of and forming impressions of brands can be
likened to one’s experience in meeting people. When meeting new others, one often tries
to control his or her appearance and behavior to convey a desired impression, much like
how marketers attempt to portray a brand in a certain light. However, impression
formation is not always a deliberate process as people are often too distracted or busy to
systematically process information about others (or brands) they encounter (e.g. Gilbert et
al. 1988; MacInnis, Moorman, and Jaworski 1991). Consequently, marketers may find
themselves surprised that particular marketing messages result in unexpected impressions
by consumers who incorporate peripheral cues and engage in associative processing.
Consumers’ impressions of brands and their meaning may depend on how they
originally process information. Sometimes consumers are purposeful evaluators,
attempting to understand brands and learn what they stand for. At other times, their
learning of brands tends to be an accidental by-product of other goals where they lack
sufficient motivation and engagement to deliberately and purposefully process marketing
communications (Carlston and Mae 2003). Gilbert et al. (1988) suggest that the demands
of everyday life leave people “cognitively busy,” with their limited mental resources
focused on the most immediate demands of conversation and interaction with other people.
As a result, cognitive processes associated with superficial processing are often
incorporated into the impression formation process, resulting in rash and possibly
inaccurate impressions of brands.
Intentional and Incidental Impression Formation
A formal distinction is made between intentional and incidental impression
formation. Intentional impression formation is the process of consciously and willfully
making inferences, attributions, or appraisals of a target object either during the processing
of stimulus information or later, during its recall. In contrast, incidental impression
formation is knowledge about an individual that is acquired inadvertently, during the
course of activities that are not directed at forming an impression (Carlston and Mae 2003).
It is proposed that most brand impressions are likely formed incidentally as consumers are
too busy to carefully process marketing messages or simply because they are overwhelmed
with seemingly endless advertising barrages (MacInnis, Moorman, and Jaworski 1991).
Consequently, since many impressions are not goal-oriented or purposeful, consumers
probably process information less intensively and more superficially.
The effects of incidental exposure to marketing communications have been
thoroughly researched. Due to the sheer volume of advertising clutter and constraints on
our mind, researchers have found that our attention to and processing of ads is limited
(MacInnis, Moorman, and Jaworski 1991). Nonetheless, even incidental exposures to an
advertisement can increase the likelihood of the depicted brand being considered for
purchase even if consumers have no explicit memory of the ad (Shapiro, MacInnis, and
Heckler 1997). Research has also found that incidental exposure to advertisements
positively influences liking for brand names and product packages included in the
advertisement (Janiszewski 1990, 1993). The present study attempts to go beyond
showing effects of incidental learning and to show the differences in brand personality
attributions depending on whether impressions were formed incidentally or intentionally.
There are obvious parallels between incidental and intentional impression
formation and incidental and intentional learning, dual process models (i.e. superficial vs.
systematic processing), implicit and explicit memory, and episodic and semantic memory.
A key assumption in this paper is that intentional impression formation is most often
systematic (i.e. involving attributional analyses of central, diagnostic cues, etc.), but that it
may sometimes be heuristic, relying on stereotypes or other peripheral cues. In contrast,
incidental impression processes are assumed to always be processed superficially (Carlston
and Mae 2003).
Persuasive Appeal and Attitude Base
Attitudinal research often breaks attitudes down into affective and cognitive
components. Affective attitudes are evaluative responses about an attitude object resulting
from feelings and emotions, whereas cognitive attitudes are evaluative responses involving
thoughts and beliefs. Consumers’ attitudes toward most brands likely possess both
affective- and cognitive-based attitudes, although the relative strength of these attitude
bases may differ greatly. Research has demonstrated that consumers sometimes hold
predominantly affective attitudes for some brands and predominantly cognitive attitudes
for other brands (e.g. Millar and Millar 1990, Drolet and Aaker 2002). A significant
amount of research has examined how the persuasive appeal (affect- or cognitive-based) of
a marketing message affects persuasion depending on initial attitudes toward brands (e.g.
Edwards 1990). Studies have found support for the notion that affective and cognitive
attitudes differ in complexity or dimensionality (Edwards 1990, Zajonc 1980).
Attitudes based on affect tend to have a more unidimensional structure organized
along a global evaluative dimension where specific attributes are either assimilated or
discounted (Edwards 1990). In contrast, cognitive attitudes have a multidimensional
structure based on a multitude of quality attributes. Support for this conclusion is found in
other studies that show affective attitudes are retrieved faster than cognitive attitudes
(Pham et al. 2001) and are better predictors of consumer choice than cognitive attitudes
under time constraints (Shiv and Fedorikhin 1999). Since cognitive attitudes have more
evaluative attributes than affective attitudes, it becomes more difficult to develop an appeal
targeted toward any specific cognitive dimension. Therefore, the increased complexity of
cognitive attitudes likely increases the amount of cognitive capacity needed to process
cognitive-based appeals. As a result, cognitive-based appeals likely require more
systematic processing than affective-based appeals.
Associative and Inferential Processes
Marketers seek to create strong associations in consumers’ minds by linking
various cues and messages with their brands. As consumers pair these cues and messages
with brands, they may utilize different cognitive processes. Associative processes in a
marketing context involve consumers linking any cues shown in a marketing
communication with a brand while not taking into account the context or relation of the
cue to the brand. In contrast, inferential processes incorporate context and setting into
understanding the relationship between cues and brands.
This distinction is important because of the popularity of double negative
advertisements which create negative cues and then disassociate them with the brand.
They require that consumers use inferential processing in order to correctly interpret the
message and form the desired impression. The Avis advertisement discussed earlier will
now be used to illustrate impression formation under associative and inferential processes.
Viewers processing the advertisement under associative processes will relate the imagery
shown (i.e. long lines and inattentive employees) and the brand in the commercial, but fail
to take the relationship of the two into account. Therefore, Avis would become associated
with incompetence under associative processing.
Viewers processing this advertisement using inferential processes understand that
the poor car rental service illustrated in the commercial is a representation of what Avis’
service would be like if it did not try harder. And assuming they are aware that Avis’
motto and tagline is “We try harder”, the viewer understands that the actual service is
supposed to be the opposite of that displayed in the commercial. Consumers using
inferential processes should ultimately associate Avis with competence, and they may also
infer that other car rental companies are incompetent, presumably because they do not try
harder like Avis. Thus, a single message may be interpreted completely differently
depending on whether associative or inferential processes are employed.
THEORY AND HYPOTHESES
It is proposed that incidental impressions are more likely to involve associative
processes because consumers do not purposefully process information as they do under
intentional impressions. The lack of cognitive effort put into the impression formation will
ignore situational indicators and context and simply pair cues with brands, regardless of
the supposed relationship between the two. It is expected that subjects that form incidental
impressions for double negative messages will ultimately come to associate the negative
aspects of the advertisement with the brand.
H1: Incidental impressions are more likely to involve associative processes than
Inferential processing requires more cognitive effort than associative processing.
Therefore, the ability to utilize inferential processing with cognitive-based appeals should
be even harder than for affect-based appeals because of the more complex,
multidimensional structure of cognitive-based attitudes. Regardless of how impressions
are formed, consumers are more likely to default to associative processes with cognitive-
based appeals compared to affect-based appeals because of cognitive overload.
H2: Cognitive-based appeals are more likely to involve associative processes
than affect-based appeals for both incidental and intentional impressions
Understanding cognitive-based appeals should be harder under incidental
impression formation than under intentional impression formation. The lack of systematic
processing associated with incidental impressions will prevent consumers from using
inferential processing. In contrast, affective attitudes likely will not differ significantly
depending on impression type because of their more simple, unidimensional nature that
requires less systematic processing.
H3: Incidental impressions for cognitive-based appeals will be more likely to
involve associative processes than for affect-based appeals
Persistence of impressions depends on the extent to which one engages in memory-
enhancing processes such as rehearsal or organization (Baddeley 1990). Since intentional
impressions are formed consciously, sometimes through extensive cognitive work, one
might expect these to be more accessible, more readily and often retrieved, and ultimately
more enduring (Carlston and Mae 2003). On the other hand, incidental impressions are
generally formed with less conscious thought and receive less processing. Therefore, it is
proposed that impressions formed incidentally are less persistent and less accessible.
H4: Incidental impressions are less persistent than intentional impressions
The study will be conducted as a 2 x 2 x 2 mixed design experiment with the
following factors: impression type (incidental or intentional), message type (positive or
double negative), and persuasive appeal (affect- or cognitive-based). The dependent
variables will be personality traits relevant to each target advertisement. The experiment
will be carried out with undergraduate students that will receive course credit for a
The target advertisements and the respective brands they represent will be designed
to convey certain personality traits. The first step in their generation will be to identify
unique personality traits for each ad concept to ensure that there is no cross contamination
from one target advertisement into another. Next, relevant product categories will be
chosen for each personality trait. For example, if “stable” or “strong” is chosen as a
personality trait, then a relevant product category where stability or strength is an
important attribute could be an insurance or financial services company. After the
personality traits and relevant product categories are selected and pretested to ensure
subjects perceive the traits are relevant to the product categories, basic ad concepts will be
created to emphasize the personality trait that is being conveyed.
The next step will be to assign brand names to the products depicted in each ad
concept. Examining brand impression formation is much more difficult than impression
formation as applied to humans because of participants’ familiarity with and knowledge of
most brands. Namely, if participants are already familiar with brands in the study, they
already have preexisting impressions. Therefore, the brand names used for the
products/services in the study will have to be unknown and made up, and they will be
pretested to ensure they are relatively neutral.
For each brand/ad concept, four different advertisements will be created, although
each subject will only see one of the versions for each brand. They will differ on message
type (positive and double negative) and persuasive appeal (affect- and cognitive-based),
but they will all convey the same personality trait. An affect- and cognitive-based ad will
be created both for a positive and nonnegative message. Using the Avis example with the
trait “competence”, a positive affect-based ad could show a customer being handed the
keys to a rental car with the tagline “Enjoy peace of mind with Avis” and a positive
cognitive-based ad could show the same scene but with the tagline “Ranked #1 in customer
satisfaction by J.D. Power & Associates”. As for double negative ads, an affect-based ad
could show a customer waiting in long lines with the tagline “Stressed out with
unprofessional service? Choose Avis” and a cognitive-based ad could show the same
scene but with the tagline “According to J.D. Power & Associates, other rental car
companies can’t compare to Avis’ customer satisfaction”.
Participant’s impression type (incidental versus intentional) will be manipulated
based on their instructions for the experiment. Subjects will be told that an important
consideration in advertising is how people process advertisements that are buried in
magazines with a significant number of other ads and material. Consequently, they will be
told that the ads that they are to consider carefully are interspersed with other filler ads that
are not really relevant except to help provide context. Subjects will then be told that to
make things easier for them, they will be given a list of products about which they will be
asked, and these ads will be highlighted in some way when they appear. Subjects will be
directed to half of the actual target ads, and not to the other half, so that they process some
intentionally and some incidentally.
Subjects will be exposed to 20 advertisements, 12 of which will be fillers and eight
of which will be brands of interest. There will be four main treatment groups, with each
group viewing only one version of each brand/ad concept. Each group will view four
positive target ads (two affect-based and two cognitive-based) and four double negative
ads (also two affect-based and two cognitive-based) for different brands. Participants will
view the ads as still images on a computer monitor. Each image will be shown for ten
seconds and will contain distinct imagery, persuasive appeals, and brand name.
Since brands will be shown relatively briefly, the presentation will make it difficult
for participants to recall the specific imagery and taglines that were present when they
encountered each specific brand. To further ensure that their short-term memory is
flushed, participants will be asked to engage in an unrelated filler task following exposure
to the brands. Then participants will be shown the names of brands with imagery and
taglines deleted, and will then be asked to report their impression of each brand by rating
the brand on personality scales (Aaker 1997) theorized to be affected by the different ads
presented (e.g. Avis and competence), along with their liking of the brand. A memory
check will also be conducted to ensure subjects cannot make post-hoc impressions from
memory. Finally, in order to test the persistence of such impressions, this last step will be
repeated one week after the initial experiment.
Experimental data will be analyzed with repeated measures ANOVA with
personality traits and overall brand evaluations as the dependent variables. If associative
processes are present, it is expected that the negative aspect of the double negative
message will ultimately become associated with the brands. The effect of attitude base
will also be examined to determine if brand impressions depend on the type of persuasive
appeal of an ad, affect- or cognitive-based, and if this differs under message type (positive
and double negative) and on how impressions were formed (incidentally and intentionally).
The same analysis will be repeated with the data taken a week after the experiment
to test the persistence of impressions formed incidentally and intentionally. The
participants’ recall of imagery and taglines associated with specific brands will be analyzed
as a manipulation check to make sure that they have minimal explicit memory of the
Understanding impression formation and the differences between impressions
formed incidentally versus intentionally has important implications for branding.
Companies carefully position brands through advertising and by orchestrating the
marketing mix to achieve a desired positioning in the consumers’ mind. Nonetheless, great
variability may exist among consumers’ impression of brands based on how information
was originally processed. Companies must understand the context in which marketing
communications will be seen and prevent against misattributions from incidental
The pervasive use of negative imagery illustrating what a brand is not may
potentially backfire on a company. Consumers may ignore the relation between the
negative cues and the brand and ultimately associate the two together. Consequently,
significant effort to build a brand and create positive associations with it may potentially
have the opposite effect. Therefore, if companies insist on using these appeals, they must
ensure that consumers will be making impressions intentionally and not incidentally. The
consumers’ interest must somehow be piqued in order for intentional impression formation
to occur, possibly through striking images or incongruent information (Meyers-Levy and
The way in which consumers process information may also depend on whether it
was embedded in an affect- or cognitive-based message. Perhaps the double negative
message actually works with a particular attitude-based appeal due to the type of
processing involved. Another possibility is that different personality dimensions that
brands are trying to convey may be more associated with one attitude base over another.
Some dimensions may elicit very predominant affective attitudes, while other dimensions
will elicit primarily cognitive attitudes. The present research is designed with an eye
toward answering such critical questions.
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