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Advertising clutter in consumer magazines: dimensions and effects.

Is advertising clutter a blessing or a curse to the advertising industry? Advertising clutter is the density of advertisements in a media vehicle. Whether or not increase in clutter level will reduce the effectiveness of an advertisement is one of the most controversial issues among advertising researchers and practitioners. Most research focuses on whether or not TV advertising clutter adversely affects an individual's memory of commercials. Empirical studies on TV clutter have yielded inconsistent results.

Two schools of thought have offered competing explanations of how clutter works against memory of advertisements. One school of thought, which employs the overload perspective, perceives clutter as a threat to advertising effectiveness because excessive amounts of advertising overload consumers with a large quantity of information (Ray and Webb, 1986; Mord and Gilson, 1985; Jacoby, Speller, and Kohn, 1974a/b). Consumers are unable to process all the information and make poor judgments because human memory capacity is limited (Miller, 1956). The other school of thought postulates that the similarity of the advertised products may create an interference effect on consumers by inhibiting brand-name recall (Burke and Srull, 1988; Keller, 1991; Kent, 1993; Postman, 1975).

Nevertheless, there are those who contend that clutter has no negative effect on advertising effectiveness. They also believe that memory capacity of human beings is fixed but argue that individuals will not be affected by an increasing number of messages because of their selective attention to messages. The concept of clutter is even criticized as one of the "verbal narcotics" of media planners (Priemer, 1989) and is only "confined to the minds of the beholders" (Advertising Age, 1993). There are also researchers that advocate the flexibility of human memory in difficult environments (Battig, 1979). A recent study by Brown and Rothschild (1993) found that the greater the level of clutter, the more commercials a consumer can recall and recognize.

Such controversy bewilders advertisers, especially magazine advertisers because there has been no research on the effect of clutter on magazines. They do not know how much weight should be put on advertising clutter as a factor in evaluating media vehicles. Despite the advantage of national coverage and a strong target focus, magazines continue to lose the confidence of advertisers who advocate target marketing. The share of magazine advertising in total U.S. advertising expenditure has been declining from 8.4 percent in the 1950s to 5.3 percent in the 1990s (McCann Erickson Inc., cf. Rukeyser et al., 1991).

Purpose of Study

Indeed, the controversy over the effect of clutter, together with conflicting research results, could probably be attributed to the poor conceptualization of clutter and advertising effects. The cognitive-information-processing approach has been the tradition in clutter research. This approach tends to examine how clutter affects memory of ads. It overlooks affective responses, such as attitudes, that can be elicited by clutter.

The purpose of this study is to examine the effects of clutter on advertising effectiveness in consumer magazines, a self-paced medium. There are three possible dimensions of clutter that constitute the density perception and account for clutter's negative effects on information processing: (1) quantity, (2) competitiveness, and (3) intrusiveness [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. The overload perspective posits that the quantity of advertisements affects the processing of advertisements. This explanation suggests a quantity dimension to clutter. Quantity is defined as both the number of advertisements and the proportion of ad space in a media vehicle, synonymous to the degree of commercialization of a media vehicle.

The interference perspective explains the effect of clutter in terms of the competitiveness of the advertisements (Kent, 1993). Competitiveness may be defined as the degree of similarity of the advertised products and the proximity between the advertisements of competitive brands in the same product category in a media vehicle. The similarity of the advertised products in a media vehicle is one of the two factors that could cause the interference. When products are similar, consumers could easily confuse one product with another. Another factor that may cause interference is the proximity between competitive advertisements. This view is based on perceptual grouping theory. Pomerantz' (1981) experiment showed that interference effect was lower when the stimuli were set far apart than when they were closely adjacent because the distance facilitates an individual to differentiate the stimuli.

Besides these two dimensions, it is proposed in this study that the interruption during the audience's consumption of editorial content caused by the infiltration of advertisements constitutes the third dimension of clutter - intrusiveness. Intrusiveness is defined as the degree to which advertisements in a media vehicle interrupt the flow of an editorial unit. Reactance theory posits that individuals like to preserve their freedom to evaluate an object. When this freedom is threatened, they will resist persuasion (Brehm and Brehm, 1981). Applying this theory in advertising contexts, the psychological discomfort caused by the infiltration of ads into the editorial domain could make the clutter intrusive to readers. When a reactance effect occurs, readers could try to establish their freedom and control by skipping the ads.

Clutter and Advertising Effectiveness

Seven advertising effectiveness measures were employed in this study to examine the impact of advertising clutter at different stages of the advertising communication process. At the advertising exposure stage, advertising effectiveness can be measured by attitudes toward advertising in a media vehicle and general ad readership. The attitude toward advertising in a media vehicle (Aav) is the evaluation of advertisements in the context of a media vehicle. General ad readership is the proportion of the ads contained in a media vehicle that a reader notices. At the attention stage, advertising effects can be measured by the degree of advertising message involvement (AMI). Advertising message involvement is the motivational state inducing ad message processing (Laczniak and Muehling, 1993).

At the processing stage, advertising effectiveness can be measured by the memory of the ad. Memory of the ad may be defined as any indication of remembered exposure to the advertisement of interest, including recognition and recall. At the evaluation stage, advertising effects can be measured by the attitude toward the ad (Aad). The attitude toward the ad is defined as the evaluation of a specific ad by an individual.

Advertising effectiveness in terms of response to the advertising can be measured by the resistance to competitive ads and brand equity. Resistance to competitive ads is defined as the degree to which an individual is uninfluenced by competitive ads to which he or she has been exposed. Individuals can be immunized against competitive persuasion by being given either counterattack messages to or supportive arguments for the original position.

In this study, brand equity is the bottom-line measure of advertising effectiveness. Customer-based brand equity is defined as the consumer's perceived value of a product based on its brand name and its image (Aaker, 1991; Keller, 1993).

This study hypothesizes that all three dimensions of clutter negatively affect the attitudes toward advertising a media vehicle and stimulate advertising avoidance shown by the decrease in the general ad readership and the lowering of advertising message involvement. The attitude toward the ad, the memory of the ad, resistance toward competitive brands, and brand equity, which are at the later stages of the advertising communication process, will not be affected by advertising clutter because the effects of clutter diminish along the stages. Additional factors may override the effect of clutter in accounting for the formation of the attitude toward the ad, memory of the ad, resistance to competitive ads, and brand equity.

Research Design

A field experiment, consisting of three experimental groups and one control group, was conducted to test the proposed research model on the effect of clutter in consumer magazines. Each treatment manipulated one of the three dimensions of advertising clutter - quantity, competitiveness, and intrusiveness - while controlling for the other two dimensions. The three dimensions of clutter were all low in the control group. The seven advertising effectiveness measures in a magazine were compared between high and low clutter levels. The items employed to measure the seven advertising effects are listed in Figure 2.

The stimulus material for the experiment was a dummy 70-page consumer magazine tailored to the taste of college students. The magazine was a mix of articles and advertisements excerpted from three popular magazines read by college students in the United States: Mademoiselle, Details, and Self. Except for the necessary deletion of two editorial articles in the high-quantity clutter manipulation and the preservation of the natural pagination of the ads, the editorial contents were basically identical in all treatments.

The ads chosen for this study were comprised of 41 ads of 32 product categories which actually appeared in the three magazines. The products encompassed the top 10 advertising product categories in consumer magazines (Advertising Age, 1994). The choice of real magazine articles and ads ensured the professional quality of the stimulus materials and added realism to the experiment.

The treatment was randomly assigned to the subjects. The ads used in the low-clutter level were also used in the high-clutter level, while different or more ads were inserted in the high-clutter treatment as appropriate. The position of the focal ad was rotated among different copies to control for the positioning effect of the advertisements. All the advertisements used in the experiment were full-page four-color ads, the most common form of magazine advertising unit. The potential confounding effect of ad size could thus be avoided.

Sampling and Procedures. The sample for the experiment was recruited from students enrolled in general education classes, such as college algebra, in two midwestern universities in the United States. This could ensure that subjects constituted a representative sample of the college population. Subjects voluntarily participated in the study. As an incentive to encourage participation, each respondent received a retractable ballpoint pen after completing the experiment. The study was conducted during the spring and summer semesters of 1994.

The focal brand in this study was Spiegel, a catalog clothing brand. It was selected because it was the highest-rated advertisement in product involvement and execution quality but relatively low in brand familiarity in an earlier screening session. The study was conducted under the guise of a preview of a new magazine. Before the experiment, subjects filled out a questionnaire on information of pre-dispositional variables such as demographics and their general magazine reading habits. Subjects were told to evaluate the magazine as potential subscribers and were given the dummy weekly magazine for a weekend to examine. They were asked to read the magazine as much as they wanted during their own leisure time. After the weekend, information about their responses to the magazine and advertisements was collected in a questionnaire.

Advertising Clutter Indexes. Three indexes were developed to measure each dimension of clutter in magazines.

Quantity Dimension of Clutter. This is the proportion of advertising space in an advertising vehicle weighted by the number of advertisements. The high-quantity clutter condition had 35 ads that constituted half of the total number of pages. The low-quantity clutter condition had only 21 ads that constituted 30 percent of all pages.

Quantity index =

number of ad pages/ total number of pages x number of ads

Competitiveness Dimension of Clutter. This is a composite index comprising of: (1) the number of product categories in the issue (NC), (2) the number of ads within the dominant product category (NA), and (3) the average number of pages (ND) between the preceding ad and the successive competitive ad in the dominating product category. The more diversified the product categories in the ads, the fewer the number of ads in the same product category, and the further away between competitive ads, the less competitive the clutter. In computing the index, a constant term of 50 was added to avoid a negative number in the index. In this study, the product categories with competitive ads were subcompact cars, apparel, skin-care products, shampoo, diet drinks, and liquor. In the high-competitiveness clutter condition, there were eight product categories with six liquor ads, and the average distance was four pages between the preceding and the successive competitive ads. In the low-competitiveness clutter condition, there were 20 product categories, with two apparel ads eight pages apart from each other.

Competitiveness Index =

50 + NA - NC - ND

High Competitiveness Index =

50 + 6 - 8 - 4 = 44

Low Competitiveness Index =

50 + 2 - 20 - 8 = 24

Intrusiveness Dimension of Clutter. This is the sum of advertisements cutting across each editorial unit (a magazine article) and advertisements in different paper texture from the paper used for the editorial content, such as inserts. In the experiment, the low-intrusiveness condition has no ads cutting across an article. The intrusiveness index was 0. In the high-intrusiveness condition, there were 12 ads cutting across the articles. The intrusiveness index was 12. Since there were only 21 ads in the issue, 12 ads meant over 50 percent of the ads were intrusive. Those ads that were inserted between the articles were not counted as intrusive ads.

Intrusiveness Index =

No. of ads within an article + no. of ads in different texture

Data Analysis

Profile of Sample. A total of 133 subjects participated in the first phase of the experiment, 15 of them did not participate in the second phase of the experiment, and 6 read more than three articles of the dummy magazine prior to the experiment, yielding 112 usable responses. The sample represents students at different levels majoring in a wide variety of subjects. There were more female (64 percent) than male (36 percent) subjects. Slightly less than [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] half (47.7 percent) of the subjects were majoring in science subjects such as pre-medicine and engineering. Many of the subjects were freshmen (29.7 percent) and sophomores (36 percent) with a median age of 20.

Subjects reported spending a median of 30 minutes on reading the magazines and two articles. As expected, over 90 percent of the subjects read the magazine more than two days before answering the questionnaire. Most of the subjects (70.9 percent) are general interest magazine readers, and 12.7 percent of them are readers of the magazine titles used in the study. Almost half of them read no more than one magazine every two weeks.

T-tests were then performed to compare the difference between the high-clutter and low-clutter groups on each dependent variable as they are appropriate statistical analyses for experimental designs (Hunter and Schmidt, 1990). To control the multiplicity effect in multiple pairwise comparisons using the same sample, the Bonferroni procedure, a more conservative estimate with a more stringent significance level suggested by Fisher (Hochberg and Tamhane, 1987), is used. In this study, hypotheses will only be accepted when the significance level is 0.001. The high Cronbach's alphas for all the advertising effectiveness measures ranging from 0.91 to 0.98 show that the scales used to measure advertising effectiveness in this study are reliable.

Manipulation Check. To examine whether or not the manipulation of the level of the three dimensions of clutter was successful, three t-tests were conducted to compare the manipulated level and the subjects' self-reported perception of the clutter level of that dimension. Table 1 shows that only the quantity manipulation was successful in eliciting a perception of too many advertisements (t = 2.84, df = 61, p [less than] 0.01). The competitiveness and the intrusiveness manipulations failed to create a corresponding perception of high competitiveness or high intrusiveness (t = .14, df = 56, p = .35; t = 0, df = 65, p = 1). These results suggest that there may be individual differences in the perception of clutter level in terms of competitiveness and intrusiveness. In subsequent testing of the hypotheses on the effects of clutter, the individual's perception of the clutter level of the dimensions of quantity, competitiveness, and intrusiveness were used instead of the manipulated level. All 112 cases were differentiated into high and low groups based on the average scores of their perceived level of each clutter dimension.

Effects of the Quantity Dimension of Clutter. Clutter was hypothesized to negatively affect attitudes toward advertising in a media vehicle (Aav), general ad readership, and advertising message involvement. The t-test comparison of the mean scores of Aav between low- and high-clutter levels in Table 2 shows that there is a significantly higher Aav score among subjects perceiving a low quantity of clutter (t = 11.58, df = 100, p [less than] .001). However, there are no significant differences between subjects perceiving high- and low-quantity clutter in general ad readership (t = -1.19, df = 98, p = .16), and advertising message involvement in the focal ad (t = . 16, df = 100, p = .44). As expected, the increase in the quantity of clutter has no significant impact on memory of the focal ad, attitude toward the ad (Aad), resistance toward competitive ads, and brand equity.

Effects of the Competitiveness Dimension of Clutter. Contrary to the prediction, competitiveness of the clutter does not significantly affect the Aav of the subjects (t = .43, df = 110, p = .34), as shown in Table 3. Surprisingly, the general ad readership is higher among subjects perceiving high competitiveness (t = -1.78, df = 108, p = .04). Moreover, those subjects [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 2 OMITTED] perceiving high competitiveness also have higher advertising message involvement than subjects perceiving low competitiveness, though such difference is not statistically significant (t = -1.38, df = 104, p = .08). Consistent with the research model, competitiveness has no significant effect on the later stages of the communication process, such as memory of the focal ad, Aad, resistance toward competitive ad, and brand equity.

Effects of the Intrusiveness Dimension of Clutter. The intrusiveness dimension of clutter exhibited the same pattern as the quantity dimension in Table 4. Subjects perceiving a low level of intrusiveness of clutter displayed a significantly higher Aav score than subjects perceiving a high level of intrusiveness (t = 9.45, df = 110, p [less than] .001). Intrusiveness does not affect the general ad readership (t = .29, df = 108, p = .39) and advertising message involvement (t = 1.1, df = 104, p = .14). Most strikingly, subjects perceiving a low intrusiveness level of clutter have better memory of the focal ad than subjects perceiving a high intrusiveness of clutter (t = 1.95, df = 96, p = .03). As expected, intrusiveness does not have any significant effect on Aad, resistance to competitive ads, and brand equity.

Implications of This Study

One major discovery of this study is the individual differences in the perceived level of ' clutter. Past studies have assumed that there is a common high-clutter level for every individual and the effect of clutter is across the board. Results of this study show that this assumption is far from valid, especially in the intrusiveness dimension of clutter. Some consumers may welcome advertising so much that they do not perceive advertising as interrupting their consumption of the media content. Some consumers may be so hostile toward advertising that even [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 3 OMITTED] the arrangement of the ads does not interrupt their reading; they still consider the ads intrusive. The intrusive dimension of clutter demonstrates its effects on Aav only when the individual's perception of intrusiveness level is used, but not in a manipulated intrusiveness level situation. Thus, perceived intrusiveness is a better predictor than actual intrusiveness of the advertising arrangement on audience behavior.

This study attempts to simulate the actual reading environment for magazine advertising. The presence of both editorial content and advertisements in the stimulus materials can test the synergy between the editorial content and advertisements in an editorial medium such as magazines. This factor has been largely ignored in most studies of magazine ads which isolate magazine ads from the editorial content. Since advertising media contain both editorial content and ads, both can compete for the attention of the reader. The low memory scores of the focal ad obtained in this study is a reflection of the result of such competition.

The worry of advertisers about the effect of clutter on advertising effectiveness is partially supported in this study. Both the quantity and intrusiveness dimensions of clutter lower the Aav, while the intrusiveness dimension also reduces the memory of the focal ad among the subjects. The three dimensions of clutter identified in this study may serve as an additional evaluative measure of a media vehicle for an advertiser.

Advertising media owners can benefit from this study by reviewing the three dimensions of clutter in their own media. The [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 4 OMITTED] large quantity of ads could produce an unfavorable environment for consumers to process the ads by the resultant negative Aav. When advertisers become suspicious of the quality of the advertising environment of the media vehicle, they may withdraw their advertising support. The short-term gain in advertising pages may not be able to compensate the media for its eventual loss of advertising effectiveness in the long run.

The industry's belief that a more intrusive arrangement of ads will get better attention is not supported in this study. In the manipulated intrusiveness conditions, there is no significant difference in the general ad readership and advertising message involvement score between the high- and low-intrusiveness level. When intrusiveness is determined by subjects' perceptions, high-intrusiveness levels can create a negative impact on Aav and memory. This result has great implications on the arrangement of the advertising pod. If intrusiveness does not yield gain in general ad readership nor AMI, the media should not risk the resistance from the readers by interrupting their reading of the media content. Advertisements do not necessarily need to infiltrate into an editorial unit to create an impact.

Figure 2

Measures of the Effects of Clutter(#)

Attitude toward Advertising in a Media Vehicle (Aav)

U1. Too much space is devoted to advertisements in this issue of College Voice(*)

U2. Advertisements interrupt my reading of this issue of College Voice.(*)

U3. There are too many advertisements in this issue of College Voice.(*)

U4. I like the advertisements in this issue of College Voice.

General Ad Readership

V1. How many ads in this issue of College Voice did you notice (0 to 100%)?

Advertising Message Involvement

W1. I paid attention to the content of the ad.

W2. I carefully read the content of the ad.

W3. When I saw the ad, I concentrated on its contents.

W4. I expended effort looking at the content of this ad.

Attitude toward the Ad

X1. This ad was pleasant/unpleasant.

X2. This ad was useful/not useful.

X3. This ad was entertaining/not entertaining.

X4. This ad was interesting/uninteresting.

X5. I liked this ad/disliked this ad.

Resistance to Competitive Ads

Y1. The claims in the ads of these other brands are more credible than Spiegel.

Y2. The ads of these other brands are better in quality than Spiegel.

Y3. If I were to choose one of the clothing brands (or your best-remembered brand's product category) advertised in this issue for purchase, I would choose . . .

Brand Equity

a) Positive Association

Z1. The image of Spiegel is the same as the other clothing brands.(*)

Z2. The image of Spiegel represents what I would like to be.

Z3. I feel bad using this brand.(*)

b) Brand Loyalty

Z4. I would rank this brand as my _____ choice if I purchase clothes.(*)

Z5. I won't mind paying a higher price for this brand.

Z6. If the catalog of this brand is not sent to me free, I am willing to pay to get one.

c) Perceived Quality

Z7. I agree with the claim that Spiegel products are simple, stylish, and of good value.

Z8. The quality of this brand is superior to other brands.

Z9. Spiegel is most suitable to my needs.

d) Top-of-mind Awareness

Z10. Spiegel is the most popular brand in the category.

Z11. When I need to buy clothes, I will think of Spiegel immediately.

Z12. When asked about brands in clothing, Spiegel will come to my mind immediately.

* Reverse scored items

# Except general ad readership, attitude toward the ad, Y3 and Z4, all the variables are measured with a seven-point likert-scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

References

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Brown, Tom, and Michael L. Rothschild. "Reassessing the Impact of Advertising Clutter." Journal of Consumer Research 20, 1 (1993): 138-46.

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Keller, Kervin L. "Conceptualizing, Measuring and Managing Customer-based Brand Equity." Journal of Marketing 57, 1 (1993): 1-22.

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Laczniak, Russell N., and Darrel D. Muehling. "Toward a Better Understanding of the Role of Advertising Message Involvement in Ad Processing." Psychology and Marketing 10, 4 (1993): 301-19.

Miller, G. A. "The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information." Psychological Review 63 (1956): 81-97.

Mord, Marvin S., and Edith Gilson. "Shorter Units: Risk - Responsibility - Reward." Journal of Advertising Research 25, 4 (1985): 9-19.

Pomerantz, James R. "Perceptual Organization in Information Processing." In Perceptual Organization, M. Kubovy and J. R. Pomerantz, eds. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1981.

Postman, Leo. "Interference Theory Revisited." In Recall and Recognition, John Brown, ed. London: Wiley & Sons, 1975.

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Ray, Michael L., and Peter H. Webb. "Three Prescriptions for Clutter." Journal of Advertising Research 26, 1 (1986): 69-77.
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Date:Jul 1, 1996
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