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Enhancing advertising effectiveness through the use of culturally meaningful symbols.

What role can advertising play in changing perceptions and reversing sales for a mature product? The folks at Lintas: Campbell-Ewald, the advertising agency for Chevrolet, are thinking a major role. In fact, Chevrolet is hoping the new ads for the redesigned Chevrolet Camaro will help it became the leader again in the small sporty car segment. Even though the Camaro has been redesigned, it faces a tall order if it is to overtake the Ford Mustang and the Ford Probe in that market segment.

A part of this new strategy for the Camaro centers on the estimated $30 million advertising campaign. Chevy is launching its redesigned Camaro with the proposition that the car is as American as rock 'n' roll. Chevrolet and its advertising agency are attempting to capitalize on our country's current sense of pride in America with this new ad campaign. And, what's more American than rock 'n' roll! What Chevrolet advertising is attempting to do is to utilize a culturally meaningful symbol (rock 'n' roll) and transfer that meaning to a brand (Chevrolet Camaro). In some instances the use of a widely accepted cultural symbol can facilitate communication where words may not.

Advertising is a form of mass communication. The word communication is derived from the Latin word communis, which means "common." Communication then can be thought of as the process of establishing a commonness or oneness of thought between a sender/advertiser and a receiver/consumer. There must be a commonness of thought developed between advertiser and consumer if communication is to occur. The successful advertiser is the one who can establish that commonness or oneness between their company and its consumers via an effective advertising message.

Developing that oneness of thought between an advertiser and a consumer is extremely difficult because of the nature of mass communication. There are two basic forms of communication--mass and interpersonal. Both share the same basic purpose. However, several unique characteristics of mass communication make it quite different from interpersonal or face-to-face communication. For example, mass communication is indirect because it uses some technical vehicle like a television network or newspaper to connect the source with the receivers/consumers. To complicate matters, the receivers/consumers are removed from the source in time, space, or both. Since the sender/advertiser is virtually separated from its receiver/consumer because of a technical vehicle like TV or radio, there is no possibility for immediate feedback from the receiver/consumer.

The lack of immediate feedback associated with mass communication makes the advertiser's job of creating oneness of thought between themselves and the audience much more challenging than one involved with interpersonal communication. Therefore, advertising or mass communication is one-way communication, at least in the short run. Being one-way communication, advertising does not afford the communicator the opportunity to alter the message as the need or situation might dictate. On the other hand, communicators involved in face-to-face or interpersonal communications can receive immediate feedback from their audience and often have the opportunity to alter messages as might be dictated by the situation.

Advertising, then, is a more complicated and less controllable form of communication. Advertisers must make sure their messages are completely understood (commonness of thought) before creating and communicating them to their audiences. Advertisers may not know if one word or phrase is not completely understood and oneness of thought is not achieved because of the lack of feedback associated with advertising. For today's national advertisers this mis-communication can mean millions of dollars wasted in media spending because this oneness of thought between advertiser and consumer was not established initially.

Establishing a Commonness of Thought with Your Audience

In communicating, advertisers have a thought to share with their audiences. The exact thought or message can only be shared if oneness of thought is achieved. The difficulty here is that thought itself cannot simply be picked up and placed in another person's head. Thus, a communicator must select some vehicle or sign that both sender and receiver can understand in order for thoughts to be exchanged. Two of the most common signs used by advertisers for sharing thoughts are verbal signs (i.e., words) and nonverbal signs or symbols.

The most basic type of sign used by advertisers to share thoughts is language or words. If you are an advertiser, the difficulty here is that you must realize that words themselves do not have meaning. Instead, people have meanings for words. Meanings are internal reactions people have toward external stimuli. What advertisers must understand is that many times people assign different meanings for the same words because of diverse backgrounds and experiences. Therefore, advertisers must be absolutely certain that the words used in their advertisements have the same meaning for all consumers in their target market. If not, effective communication will not occur.

In order for advertisers to communicate effectively, they must choose words that convey their intended thought and have the same meaning to those in their target market. However, many of the advertisements today seem to do a poor job communicating a thought to an audience because of choosing words with several meanings. One of the most popular words in advertising today is "quality." What does quality really mean? If you asked one hundred of your customers what "quality" means, you'd probably get several different responses. Is this what you want your advertisements to communicate? Another important advertising buzzword of the 1990's is "value." Again, what does "value" mean to your customers and is this meaning the one you intended to convey with your advertisements?

While the selection of certain words to convey a thought might work for many advertisers, it may not work for everyone. Advertisers must carefully research a word and determine what it means to their customers and prospective customers. It seems like advertisers are using certain words today so often that they may have little or no meaning to consumers. For example, what does "nutritious" mean? How do you think your customers would define such popular advertising words as "light," "lite," "fat free," etc.? What does the phrase "environmentally safe" mean to you?

Such words may evoke different meanings among different consumers. Such meanings are called connotative meanings. A connotative meaning is based on the relationship between a sign, an object, and a person and are highly personal. Words such as "dependable," "quality," and "value" elicit different responses from different people. Accuracy in communication decreases as connotation increases, and vice versa. If advertisers are going to use specific words to convey certain thoughts which generate connotative meanings from their advertisements, knowing the consumers and how they view certain words is extremely important.

Use of Culturally Meaningful Symbols to Establish Commonness with Your Audience

Given the inherent challenges involved in using verbal signs/words to communicate, advertisers might want to consider the use of nonverbal signs or symbols to supplement the words in their advertisements. Another way consumers assign meaning to signs is with contextual meaning. Consumers regularly use context or the surrounding symbols to interpret messages.

If individuals have difficulty assigning meaning to verbal words or even nonverbal signs in a message, they will seek out other symbols or signs in the message to assign meaning to the communication. For example, let's assume a consumer sees a print advertisement for an unfamiliar product. The only word mentioned in the ad is the product's name. The ad neglects to say anything about the price or image of the new product. Chances are the consumer will extract little meaning concerning, say, the price of the product from the brand name. However, if the ad is stylish, with high quality print, and is in a prestigious magazine, the consumer may extract meaning from these cues that the product is expensive because of the surrounding or contextual cues. Consumers use context cues to assign meaning when all the words used in the message are unfamiliar or even familiar to them.

Advertisers can facilitate communication by considering the use of various cultural symbols to enhance contextual meaning among consumers. As mentioned earlier, certain words can elicit responses that are highly individualized (i.e., highly connotative). When this happens, accuracy in communication decreases. In an attempt to enhance communication accuracy, advertisers often seek meaningful cultural symbols which can become part of the surroundings or contextual meaning.

In the 1950's, Marlboro cigarettes had a difficult time attracting males because of being one of the first filter cigarettes. Marlboro was considered feminine to many males. Instead of convincing male smokers that Marlboros were for men via words and lengthy verbal advertising copy, the advertiser chose to communicate this idea or thought through the contextual cue of a cowboy. The straight-forward, well-recognized cultural symbol of masculinity--the cowboy--did a better job of communicating Marlboro's image than several paragraphs of ad copy ever could. In this instance there was less likelihood of miscommunication or the assignment of incorrect meaning because few words were used to convey the intended message. Since virtually everyone knows what a cowboy represents, oneness of thought was accomplished between advertiser and consumer.

Many advertisers are currently using deeply entrenched cultural symbols to increase the accuracy of their communications as well as to help differentiate their brands from competitors. The essential task here is for advertisers to identify something that is very meaningful to consumers that other competitors are not using and to associate the brand with that symbol. Here are a few examples of successful advertisers who have increased the accuracy of their mass communications by supplementing words with culturally meaningful symbols:

* The Wells Fargo Bank uses a stagecoach pulled by a team of horses and nostalgic background music to communicate itself as the bank that opened up the West--the Frontier.

* Acura Automobiles has used such symbols as race cars and airplanes to communicate the high technology and sportiness of its cars.

* Levi's blue jeans emphasized the "blues" in its award-winning ads. Blues musicians and music were used to communicate Levi's as long-lasting, laid back, and comfortable jeans.

* The U.S. Army used computers and other high-tech gadgetry in its "Be All You Can Be" campaign to emphasize the new, modern army.

* Greyhound Bus uses the greyhound dog to communicate its image to consumers.

* Jeep Cherokee advertising currently uses what appears to be a newly developed cultural symbol--the sound of a car door slamming--to communicate a quiet, safe, and well-built vehicle.

Use of Cultural Symbols and Service Firms

Advertisers of services face an additional challenge in communicating a service or the benefits of services to their customers. Services are unique from products in that they are intangible. It is extremely difficult to extol the virtues of something in an advertisement that consumers cannot touch or grasp physically (e.g., stocks and bonds, insurance, etc.). Creating that oneness or commonness of thought between service marketer and consumer is even more challenging. However, many successful service marketers also use culturally meaningful symbols to enhance the communication accuracy of their advertising as well as to help make tangible their intangible services. Examples of successful service companies utilizing culturally meaningful symbols follows:

* Merrill Lynch uses the bull to help communicate its image and benefits in its "Bullish on America" advertisements.

* Prudential Insurance company uses the "rock" to communicate its strength and stability to its consumers.

* Allstate Insurance company in its "Good Hands" advertisements communicates its protection and strength attributes.

Good communicators and advertisers are people who select verbal and nonverbal signs that they feel will elicit the intended meaning. Advertisers must be especially careful to communicate their products and services using signs that will evoke the intended thought in prospective buyers. All too often a company communicates its products or services in terms or signs familiar to itself and not in terms familiar to its potential customers. If the use of a well-established, meaningful symbol in an advertisement has the potential to increase the likelihood that potential customers will elicit the communicator's intended meaning, it is certainly a tactic worth considering.

Dr. Bush is an associate professor in the Department of Marketing at Memphis State University.
COPYRIGHT 1993 University of Memphis
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Bush, Alan
Publication:Business Perspectives
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:2006
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