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Perceptions of handbills as a promotional medium: an exploratory study.

A handbill (i.e., a leaflet distributed by hand) is a form of advertising especially common in high-traffic pedestrian districts. However, there are no previous reports in the literature relating to consumer perceptions of handbills as a promotional medium. This article reports on a telephone survey of a random sample of 240 interviewees in Hong Kong and represents a starting point for research on this topic. One hundred and seventy-four (72.5 percent) of the interviewees were classified as handbill acceptors, and 66 (27.5 percent) were classified as handbill nonacceptors. Among the handbill acceptors, 71.8 percent actually read the handbills. In addition, handbill acceptors were more likely to be female, younger, and to have had secondary or tertiary education. The main reason acceptors gave for taking handbills was to help the distributor finish his or her work promptly. The main reason nonacceptors gave for refusing handbills was that the handbills are distributed during peak hours, when they are too busy to stop. Handbill acceptors predictably had more favorable perceptions of handbill attributes than handbill nonacceptors. The findings are discussed in terms of their implications for advertisers and future research.


THE FIRST PROBLEM that arises in doing research on handbills involves trying to classify handbills in the marketing communications mix. The literature has no clear definition of a handbill. For the purpose of this article, therefore, we define handbills as a medium in which information about a product, service, or company is printed on a single sheet of paper or in a small brochure and distributed (by hand) free of charge from distributors to pedestrians passing by. This definition then excludes leaflets that are distributed directly to mailboxes. In fact, handbills can be classified as advertising. While many definitions of advertising have emerged over the years, the most recent definition of substance was given by Richards and Curran (2002). According to their Delphi study of advertising experts, advertising can be defined as "a paid form of communication from an identifiable source, designed to persuade the receiver to take some action, now or in the future". Handbills, as a promotional medium, fit this definition of advertising.

Handbills are normally distributed outdoors, or at least outside the home. Some of the advantages of outdoor media such as handbills are their ability to reach consumers in specific geographic areas (i.e., spatial reach) and their ability to create awareness fast (i.e., temporal reach) (Belch and Belch, 1998). The use of handbills as a promotional medium is especially concentrated in high-traffic pedestrian districts, which are common in Hong Kong.

With increasing clutter as competing firms scramble for unoccupied advertising spaces, it is important to understand consumer perceptions of handbills as a promotional medium. This research compared the demographic characteristics and perceptions of handbill acceptors and nonacceptors. Such information is important for advertisers, because handbills as a promotional medium are widely used by many companies in Hong Kong and elsewhere, yet nothing is known about who receives or rejects them and their corresponding perceptions of handbills. This article represents a starting point for handbill research, in the hope that further work in the area might be carried out in other cities around the world.


Because handbills are typically distributed outdoors and enable precise geographical targeting, the closest and most relevant research relates to outdoor advertising. For instance, Donthu, Cherian, and Bhargava (1993) carried out telephone interviews in a U.S. city assessing aided and unaided recall of billboard advertisements. While billboard advertising is not handbill advertising, they do share the same geographic specificity, and they are both outside-the-home media. The study revealed that factors like the location of outdoor advertising, its position, color, number of words, and respondents' involvement affected outdoor advertising's effectiveness.

In a completely different cultural context, Prendergast and Chan (1999) carried out research in Hong Kong to examine the effectiveness of exterior bus advertising. They discovered that exposure to exterior bus advertisements is high, but recall of the advertisements is low. They also found that the product types advertised affected customers' perceptions of bus advertising. Again, bus advertisements share the geographic specificity of handbills and are outside the home.

A year later, Bhargava and Donthu (1999) published the results of two field experiments looking at the sales response to outdoor advertising. Their findings showed that, in addition to the weight of the outdoor media, temporal, spatial, and promotional effects were significant. In addition, their findings showed that outdoor media have spatial effectiveness when used as a part of a multimedia campaign.

This previous research, while interesting, is limited in its ability to guide practitioners in the use of handbills. What is needed is a study devoted to handbills: who accepts them, who does not, and how they are perceived.


Given the sparse literature in this area, and the resulting exploratory nature of this research, the following research questions were posed:

RQ1: Are there demographic differences between handbill acceptors and nonacceptors?

RQ2: Why do acceptors accept handbills, and why do nonacceptors reject them?

RQ3: How do acceptors and nonacceptors differ in their perceptions of handbills?


Data collection and sampling

Hong Kong was chosen as the location for the study because, having a population of 6 million living in an area of only 1,084 [km.sup.2], it is a city with one of the highest pedestrian concentrations in the world. The distribution of handbills on the street is a very common means of promotion.

The data were collected through telephone interviews with households because the majority of Hong Kong households have a registered telephone line. All questions were presented in the same order and wording. All interviews were conducted in the evening from 8:00 PM to 10:00 PM.

Prospective interviewees for the study were selected from the white pages directory using a systematic sampling method. The reason for choosing systematic sampling was that the skip interval would ensure the entire list would be covered. The skip interval was calculated based on the population list size and the desired sample size. If there was an unregistered telephone number, the telephone number prior to the targeted one was selected.

Subjects were called up to three times if they could not be reached initially. Call back procedures were also in place for engaged numbers. In total, 33 percent of the usable numbers (i.e., in-service residential numbers) contacted agreed to complete the questionnaire. Given this response of only one-third, it was important to test for unit nonresponse bias (Heckman, 1990) by following up a sample of nonresponders and identifying their demographic profile. Comparison of responders' and nonresponders' profiles revealed no significant differences. Hence, the results might reasonably be regarded as broadly representative of the original sample, and therefore a suitable basis for making limited generalizations.

Before interviewing, respondents were screened for age, and only those who professed to be aged 16 or above were interviewed. Because the questionnaire was prepared in Chinese, non-Chinese speaking people (who comprise only a few percent of Hong Kong's population) were not included in the study. In total, 240 successful interviews were completed.

Questionnaire design

As a starting point, focus group interviews involving a cross section (by age, occupation, and education) of consumers were conducted to gain insights into both acceptors' and nonacceptors' perceptions of handbills. These insights were applied in the questionnaire design. The final questionnaire employed both multiple choice questions and Likert-scale questions. The questionnaire had five main sections:

Part 1 identified the respondent as a handbill acceptor or nonacceptor. Interviewees were asked if they normally do or do not accept handbills offered to them in the street.

Part 2 was for handbill acceptors only. Questions concerned the number of times they received handbills per week, types of handbills received, whether or not they read the handbills, and their reasons for accepting handbills.

Part 3 was answered by nonacceptors to investigate their reasons for refusing handbills.

Part 4 was collected for comparing the perceptions of both acceptors and nonacceptors toward handbills.

Part 5 asked for demographic information: age, occupation, education level, monthly income, and gender.

Twenty people, selected from the telephone directory on a convenience basis, participated in a pretest. This pretest was especially important to test the feasibility of using 5-point scales over the telephone. After the pretest, the formal survey was carried out.


Demographics of handbill acceptors and nonacceptors

Table 1 gives details of the sample demographics. The sample was then split into two groups: 174 (72.5 percent) were classified as handbill acceptors and the remaining 66 (27.5 percent) were classified as handbill nonacceptors. Acceptors and nonacceptors were compared according to their demographics. The results showed that handbill acceptors were the larger proportion in both genders. For males, 66.1 percent (76 interviewees) were handbill acceptors and 33.9 percent (39 interviewees) were handbill nonacceptors. However, for females, a larger proportion of interviewees were acceptors (78.4 percent, i.e., 98 interviewees). This difference was significant ([chi square] = 3.958, df = 1, p = .033).

Table 2 shows the distribution of age groups between acceptors and nonacceptors. The 30-39-year-old group had the largest percentage of nonacceptors (43.6 percent i.e., 24 interviewees). The below-20-year-old group had the smallest number of nonacceptors. A chi-squared test ([chi square] = 17.78, df = 4, p = .002) confirmed that there was a significant relationship between age and willingness to accept handbills. The younger age groups were more likely to contain acceptors.

In terms of education, the matriculation group had the largest percentage of handbill nonacceptors (48.5 percent of that group were nonacceptors), while the undergraduate group had the lowest proportion of nonacceptors (10.8 percent). This is shown in Table 3. A chi-squared test ([chi square] = 20.08, df = 4, p = .000) confirmed a significant relationship between education and the professed willingness to accept handbills. It seems that those with secondary and/or tertiary education are more likely to accept them.

Why do acceptors accept handbills?

Before asking acceptors why they accepted handbills, they were first asked questions relating to their frequency of receiving handbills and their general response after receiving a handbill.

Frequency of receiving handbills. Acceptors were asked how many times they received handbills in a week. Over one-third (31 percent) of the acceptors said that they received handbills twice a week, 25.9 percent received handbills once a week, and only 9.8 percent received handbills four times per week or more.

General response after receiving a handbill. Acceptors were asked about their general response after receiving a handbill--whether they would not read it at all, read it themselves only, or read it with their family members or friends. One hundred and nine acceptors (i.e., 62.6 percent of the acceptors) read the received handbill themselves only, 9.2 percent of acceptors read the handbill with their family members or friends, and 49 (28.2 percent) acceptors said that they do not read handbills at all, even though they will accept them.

Reasons for accepting handbills. Acceptors were asked to rank the three main reasons why they are willing to accept handbills. The results are shown in Table 4. Table 4 shows that among the 174 acceptors, 63 of them ranked "help distributor finish their work" as the most important reason for their willingness to accept a handbill. The second most important reason was that the handbill was attached to a coupon, free sample, or free gift. The third most important reason was that the handbill might provide updated information.

Why do nonacceptors refuse handbills?

Nonacceptors were asked the reasons why they refuse handbills. Table 5 shows that the most common reason for nonacceptors refusing handbills was that they are distributed during peak hours. The second most prevalent reason was that they think too many handbills are distributed.

How do acceptors and nonacceptors differ in their perceptions of handbills?

With the aim of developing a deeper understanding of the perceptions of different groups toward handbills, the nine items used to measure perceptions of handbills were subjected to principal components analysis (PCA). The PCA revealed the presence of two components with eigenvalues exceeding 1, and factor loadings of .3 and above. An inspection of the screeplot revealed a clear break after the second component. To aid in the interpretation of these two factors, the varimax rotational method was used. The rotated solution revealed the presence of simple structures, with the two components showing a number of strong loadings, as shown in Table 6.

The two factor solution explained a total of 57.7 percent of the variance. The two factors (with alpha scores) measuring handbill perceptions are labeled as:
1. Handbill content     .8135
2. Handbill appearance  .7430

After confirming the reliability of the data, perceptions of handbills were compared among different groups (acceptors and nonacceptors, male and female, different age groups, and different educational levels). The results comparing acceptors and nonacceptors are shown in Table 7.

Applying Student's t test to the data in Table 7 confirms that there were significant differences between acceptors and nonacceptors (p < .05) for all the items. The perceptions of acceptors toward handbills were understandably more favorable than those of nonacceptors. For instance, acceptors agreed that handbills are entertaining, informative, and reliable, but nonacceptors held the opposite opinion. However, neither group felt that handbills normally have well-matched colors, are well designed, or are printed on high-quality paper.

Regarding demographics, although females and males showed no significant differences in their perceptions of handbills, ANOVA (combined with post hoc tests to identify effect size) revealed some significant differences when comparing the means of other demographic groups. Looking first at age, significant differences were found regarding the perception of handbills as being entertaining (p < .05), informative (p < .05), and providing updated information (p < .05). More specifically, younger persons generally felt that handbills were more entertaining, informative, and can provide updated information. The middle age groups (30-50) were generally more negative toward handbills and felt that handbill information was unreliable. Looking at education, ANOVA revealed significant differences regarding perceptions of handbills being easy to understand (p < .001) and the reliability of handbill information (p < .001). More specifically, those who had received more education more often felt that handbill information was easy to understand. The matriculation group, however, felt that handbill information was unreliable, and this is consistent with this group having a relatively large proportion of handbill nonacceptors.


The results of this study provide implications for advertisers in Hong Kong and a starting point for action and research for advertisers in other countries. From the results, it can be seen that handbill acceptors are more likely to be female, younger, with secondary and/or tertiary education. Therefore, handbills aimed at this group may result in less communication wastage. Relative to other media, the cost of handbills is low, so reaching this group with handbills may be very cost-effective. For companies whose target market is the middle aged and the relatively less educated, however, handbills may not be an effective means of communication.

The most common reason acceptors gave for accepting handbills was that they wanted to help distributors finish their work promptly. This indicates that these acceptors may not really read the handbills, even though they received them. However, attaching coupons a free sample, or a free gift to the handbill may result in the handbill's being accepted for more positive reasons.

Most acceptors receive handbills around twice a week. Because handbill distribution is so common in Hong Kong, one might speculate from this result that most acceptors are not willing to receive handbills every day, and they will accept handbills only occasionally.

Nearly a third of acceptors do not even read the handbills. These, perhaps, are the same people who receive handbills in order to help the distributor finish his or her work. Marketers have probably always known that a certain proportion of handbill acceptors never read the handbills, and some wastage is inevitable, yet no study until now has revealed the magnitude of this proportion.

The main reason for nonacceptors to refuse handbills was because they were distributed during the peak hours when they were busy. Therefore, especially if targeting the 30-39-year-old group, it may be wise for marketers not to distribute handbills during peak hours, but rather at off-peak times. Distributing handbills at off-peak times may mean that the number of pedestrians is lower, but the pick up rate may be higher.

Acceptors had a more favorable perception of handbills in all respects, relative to nonacceptors. However, both groups gave relatively low scores to handbills' color schemes, design, and quality of paper. Advertisers should put more effort into improving these aspects of handbills in order to encourage more people to accept them. In addition, the results show that different ages have different perceptions of handbills. Youngsters seem to have more favorable perceptions. In particular, they felt handbills were entertaining, informative, and can provide updated information. It is not surprising, therefore, that youngsters were more likely than other age groups to accept handbills. The results also show that the middle aged felt that handbill information was unreliable, and advertisers need to make efforts to improve the credibility of handbills in the eyes of these customers. Similar efforts also need to be made with the less-educated groups because these consumers had similar perceptions.

Despite the importance of this exploratory study, certain limitations must be recognized. First, the study involved only Hong Kong consumers. Therefore, the results can only suggest what the response in other cities might be. Second, the survey instrument relied mainly on respondents' ability to recall the handbills they had received in the past and why. However, receiving handbills may be a very low-involvement activity for consumers, and therefore their recall may not be accurate.


Despite an exhaustive literature search prior to this study, no published work was found relating to consumer perceptions of handbills as a promotional medium. This gap in the literature may not seem too remarkable for some countries or cities that are sparsely populated, but for other countries with a high population density, and a resulting high use of handbills as a promotional medium, this gap in the literature requires filling. The research reported in this article, through an empirical study in Hong Kong, has identified the demographic differences between handbill acceptors and nonacceptors, the reasons for acceptors accepting handbills and nonacceptors rejecting handbills, and the differences in the perceptions of handbills between acceptors and nonacceptors.

This was, as mentioned, an exploratory study, and as such one of its aims was to generate areas of focus for future research. A replication of this study may help to confirm the results. In addition, studies in other countries and cultures are required because the response to handbills in Hong Kong may not be the same as in New York, London, or other cities with high population densities, and the resulting frequent use of handbills. It is also necessary to specifically examine how the type of product or service being advertised affects handbill acceptance. Further research may also confirm a hypothesis resulting from this work: That people who accept handbills to please the distributor do not actually read them. Finally, this study has focused on handbills in isolation. Future research might examine how handbills can be used in combination with other promotional tools as part of an integrated marketing communications mix.

GERARD PRENDERGAST is associate professor of marketing at Hong Kong Baptist University. Previously he held positions at Aston Business School. Henley Management College, and the National University of Singapore. He has published in journals such as the Journal of Advertising, International Journal of Advertising, Public Relations Review, Journal of Marketing Communications, and Journal of Promotions Management.

YUEN SZE MAN is a research affiliate in the School of Business, Hong Kong Baptist University.


BELCH, GEORGE, and MICHAEL BELCH. Advertising and Promotions: An Integrated Marketing Communications Perspective, 4th ed. Boston, MA: Irwin McGraw-Hill, 1998.

BHARGAVA, MUKESH, and NAVEEN DONTHU. "Sales Response to Outdoor Advertising." Journal of Advertising Research 39, 4 (1999): 7-17.

DONTHU, NAVEEN, JOSEPH CHERIAN, and MUKESH BHARGAVA. "Factors Influencing Recall of Outdoor Advertising." Journal of Advertising Research 33, 3 (1993): 64-72.

HECKMAN, J. J. "Varieties of Selection Bias." American Economic Review 80, 2 (1990): 313-18.

PRENDERGAST, GERARD, and CHI HANG CHAN. "The Effectiveness of Exterior Bus Advertising." Journal of International Constumer Marketing 11, 3 (1999): 33-50.

RICHARDS, JEF, and CATHARINE CURRAN. "Oracles on Advertising: Searching for a Definition." Journal of Advertising 31, 2 (2002): 63-77.


School of Business, Hong Kong Baptist University


School of Business, Hong Kong Baptist University
TABLE 1 Sample Demographics

Classification            Frequency  Percentage (%)

  Male                    115        47.9
  Female                  125        52.1
  Less than 20             20         8.3
  20-29                    93        38.8
  30-39                    55        22.9
  40-49                    44        18.3
  50 or more               28        11.7
  Primary education        43        17.9
  Secondary education      99        41.2
  Matriculation            33        13.8
  Undergraduate or above   65        27.1
Monthly income (HK$)
  Less than $9,999        127        52.9
  $10,000-$19,999          77        32.1
  $20,000-$29,999          26        10.8
  $30,000 or more           8         5.2
  Missing                   2          .8

TABLE 2 Percentage of Handbill Acceptors and Nonacceptors among
Different Age Groups

                       Less than 20  20-29   30-39   40-49   50 or more

Handbill acceptors      95%           80.6%   56.4%   63.6%   75%
Handbill nonacceptors    5%           19.4%   43.6%   36.4%   25%
Total                  100%          100%    100%    100%    100%

[chi square] = 17.78; degrees of freedom = 4

TABLE 3 Percentage of Handbill Acceptors and Nonacceptors among
Different Education Groups

                     Primary    Secondary                 Undergraduate
                     Education  Education  Matriculation  or Above

Handbill acceptors    59%        76%        51.5%          89.2%
Handbill              41%        24%        48.5%          10.8%
Total                100%       100%       100%           100%

[chi square] = 20.08; degrees of freedom = 4

TABLE 4 Acceptors' Reasons for Accepting Handbills

Reasons                               1   2   3

Updated information                   16  24  30
Reliable information                   2   8   8
Interesting information               12  10  21
Colorful                               5  13  16
Coupons, free samples, or free gifts  49  31  24
Received by other acceptors            3  15  20
Credible or beautiful distributor     13  11  10
Help distributor finish their work    63  45  24
Others                                 3   5   1

TABLE 5 Reasons for Nonacceptors Refusing Handbills

Reasons                 1   2   3

No useful information    2  19  25
Unreliable information   2   4   1
Misleading information   4   2   2
Peak time distribution  35  11   3
Overdistribution        16  11   7
Environmental concern    6  19  28
Others                   0   0   0

TABLE 6 Rotated Component Matrix: Handbill Perceptions

                                              1     2

Handbill may provide updated information.     .772
Handbill is informative.                      .767
Handbill information is unreliable. (a)       .749
Handbill provides little product choice. (a)  .708
Handbill is entertaining.                     .679
Handbill content is easy to understand.       .436
Handbill design is good.                            .862
Handbill color match is good.                       .830
Handbill is printed on high-quality paper.          .663

Extraction method: Principal Component Analysis.
Rotation method: Varimax with Kaiser Normalization.
Rotation converged in three iterations.
(a) Reverse scaled.

TABLE 7 Comparison of Perceptions between Acceptors and Nonacceptors

                                                               Sig. at
                                 Receiving                     the 0.05
Items                            Handbill   Mean (a)  t-Value  Level?

Handbill content
  Handbill may provide updated   Yes        4.04      11.01    Y
                                 No         2.91
  Handbill is informative.       Yes        3.95       9.56    Y
                                 No         2.86
  Handbill information is        Yes        2.56      -6.60    Y
                                 No         3.89
  Handbill provides little       Yes        2.37       9.84    Y
    product choice.
                                 No         3.35
  Handbill is entertaining.      Yes        3.14      12.34    Y
                                 No         1.80
  Handbill content is easy to    Yes        3.42       7.96    Y
                                 No         2.48
Handbill appearance
  Handbill design is good.       Yes        2.72       5.36    Y
                                 No         2.11
  Handbill color match is good.  Yes        2.78       5.62    Y
                                 No         2.12
  Handbill is printed on high-   Yes        2.58       5.00    Y
    quality paper.
                                 No         1.98

(a) 1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree
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Comment:Perceptions of handbills as a promotional medium: an exploratory study.
Author:Prendergast, Gerard; Man, Yuen Sze
Publication:Journal of Advertising Research
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Date:Mar 1, 2005
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