Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 203
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Framing Techniques in Print Ads

Researcher explores the effects of combining framing techniques in a single print ad.

There's an advertising problem you probably don't know you have. It involves stimulating multiple comparisons in advertisements, and it was the subject of a recent doctoral dissertation by Paul Berger, now at Boston University.

Comparisons can be stimulated in ads in a variety of ways. For example, an ad which states "50% off regular price," invites a comparison between the current price and the higher, regular price. Since people are attracted to bargains, this comparison is favorable. The higher, regular price is known in the trade as an "anchor," and the effect of this favorable comparison is known as a "frame," short for "frame of reference." It means that the advertiser has successfully stimulated a specific anchor to be used for a comparison that will be favorable for the product. He has influenced a person's frame of reference for evaluating an ad.

Because advertisers are a creative group of people, they've dreamed up many ways to invite favorable comparisons, and researchers have explored many of these. Berger noticed that all past studies that had explored these techniques had measured their effects one at a time. For example, the effects of a price frame, like the one used earlier, would be measured, while other framing techniques present in the same ad would be ignored. This neglect of other comparisons was necessitated by limitations in the statistical programs which were used to analyze data, but a recent advance in statistical programs has now lifted this limitation. Berger took advantage of this improvement, and his analysis of multiple framing techniques better reflects the real world of print ads.

Berger conducted an experiment with 216 women between the ages of 25-49. He asked them to react to ads for video cameras, and he varied five framing techniques in the ads: price, product features, benefits of ownership, positive vs negative anchors, and future vs past perspectives.

Anchors for product features might call attention to products with fewer, less desirable features. Anchors for benefits of ownership might call attention to limitations of less desirable models. Positive anchors would use positive terms to describe the product, for example, describing hamburger as 75% lean rather than 25% fat. Finally, future perspectives would describe happy feelings expected to occur with a purchase, while past perspectives would describe regret ("I wish I'd bought 'X' brand.")

Each of Berger's 216 women examined 2 ads and reacted to them in terms of purchase likelihood. Berger found a significant effect for price frames. If ads successfully stimulated a favorable price comparison, then his subjects were much more likely to purchase the video recorder. Interestingly, if the ad did not include a price frame, then Berger's subjects were less likely to buy the product after viewing the ad than they were before they saw it. The ad actually discouraged them from purchasing the product!

Berger also found that framing techniques used with product features significantly influenced purchase intentions. Women who considered ads that invited favorable comparisons of product features were more likely to purchase the product.

Ads featuring benefit claims that used positive anchors significantly increased purchase intentions. Benefit claims also significantly increased purchase intentions for very knowledgeable consumers (knowledgeable about video recorders), but not for moderate or low-knowledge consumers.

Berger notes with satisfaction that descriptions of product benefits have varying effects upon consumers' purchase intentions depending upon other framing techniques used in the ad, and depending upon characteristics of subgroups of consumers. In his experiment, highly knowledgeable consumers reacted more positively to combinations of framing techniques than did low or moderate-knowledge consumers.

Berger believes many more combination effects are yet to be discovered, and he invites business owners and advertisers to join in the search. He's confident improvements over current practice can be achieved with a few skillful combinations of framing techniques directed to the right market segment.

Reference: Berger, Paul D., and Gerald E. Smith (1998). The Impact of Prospect Theory Based Framing Tactics on Advertising Effectiveness. Omega, International Journal of Management Science, 26 (5), 593-609.

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