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Understanding schema incongruity as a process in advertising: Review and future recommendations

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Information incongruent to schema has the potential to increase interest, memorability, and persuasiveness in consumers. For this reason, strategies evoking schema incongruity have often been used in advertising. Despite its presence in practice, our knowledge of how and why incongruity works in advertising is limited. The current paper proposes a four-stage process model by integrating Mandler's Schema Incongruity theory and Optimal stimulation level theory to increase our understanding of incongruity in advertising. Each stage will be discussed in detail with a focus on the impact factors that need to be addressed for using a successful incongruity strategy. Implications for marketers and advertisers as well as future research suggestions are provided.
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Journal of Marketing Communications
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Understanding schema incongruity as
a process in advertising: Review and
future recommendations
Hye Jin Yoon
a
a
Temerlin Advertising Institute, Southern Methodist University,
Dallas, TX, USA
Published online: 24 Apr 2012.
To cite this article: Hye Jin Yoon (2013) Understanding schema incongruity as a process in
advertising: Review and future recommendations, Journal of Marketing Communications, 19:5,
360-376, DOI: 10.1080/13527266.2012.671187
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13527266.2012.671187
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Journal of Marketing Communications, 2013
Vol. 19, No. 5, 360–376, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13527266.2012.671187
Understanding schema incongruity as a process in advertising: Review
and future recommendations
Hye Jin Yoon*
Temerlin Advertising Institute, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX, USA
Information incongruent to schema has the potential to increase interest, memorability,
and persuasiveness in consumers. For this reason, strategies evoking schema incongruity
have often been used in advertising. Despite its presence in practice, our knowledge of
how and why incongruity works in advertising is limited. The current paper proposes a
four-stage process model by integrating Mandler’s Schema Incongruity theory and
Optimal stimulation level theory to increase our understanding of incongruity in
advertising. Each stage will be discussed in detail with a focus on the impact factors that
need to be addressed for using a successful incongruity strategy. Implications for
marketers and advertisers as well as future research suggestions are provided.
Keywords: schema incongruity theory; optimal stimulation theory; process model of
incongruity; cognitive processing; affective processing; effective advertising strategies
Introduction
A talking baby buys stock in an online trading ad and female models with average weight
and height endorse beauty products. At their core, these ads use incongruity strategies,
generating surprise with elements that do not neatly overlap with general expectations.
When implemented well, these strategies have the potential to stand out from the clutter
and increase favorable ad and brand responses. The popularity of the strategy in practice
and our rlimited understanding of how consumers process incongruity warrant a thorough
investigation of consumer meaning-making of incongruent information. To do so, the
current paper expands on Mandler’s Schema Incongruity theory in integration with the
Optimal stimulation level (OSL) theory to propose a process model where incongruity is
understood as a series of four progressive stages.
The most unique aspect of incongruity is that it challenges our mental structure,
forcing people to rearrange pre-existing knowledge structures. Thus, consumers need to
first choose to actively participate in the challenging task (i.e., pre-processing stage),
process the unexpected information both cognitively and affectively (i.e., processing
stage), cope by making sense of the discrepancy (i.e., resolution stage), and have an
evaluative response at the end of the process (i.e., outcome stage; the full process model is
presented in Figure 1). Starting with an overview of the theories followed by
a conceptualization and operationalization of the construct, each stage of the incongruity
process will be discussed by reviewing past works in incongruity research. This will allow
us to: (1) develop a thorough understanding as to ‘how’ and ‘why’ incongruity works in
advertising; (2) recognize the important factors needed to increase success of incongruity
strategies; and (3) find gaps in the literature that point to future research.
*Email: hjyoon@smu.edu
q 2013 Taylor & Francis
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Journal of Marketing Communications 361
Incongruent stimulus
- Expectancyand relevancy
- Presence or absence ofresolution cues
Low, moderate, extreme incongruity
No Processing
Ignore incongruity
Pre-Processing
- Sensation, novelty, innovation seeking
- Stimulation during initial exposure
- Feedback loop
- Affect appraisal
Optimal range: Engage
Below or above
optimal: Not engage
Affective processing
Arousal and surprise
Cognitive processing
- Category (high fit)
- Contrast (low fit, low motivation)
- Piecemeal (low fit, high motivation)
Below or above
optimal
Optimal
stimulation
Resolution
- Ease-of-resolution
Unsuccessful resolution
Negative outcome
- Counterargument
- Avoidance
- Negative attitude
Positive outcome
- Increased memorability
- Positive attitude
Below or above
optimal
Optimal
stimulation
Successful resolution
- Assimilation
- Subtyping
- Alternative schema activation
Figure 1. A process model of incongruity in advertising.
Background
Schema incongruity theory
Bartlett (1932) posited that we actively make mental connections in our brain in the process
of meaning making. This semantic network structure is called schema. Schema allows us to
efficiently encode, store, and decode information that we encounter on a daily basis
(Anderson 1988). As we face new experiences, applicable schemas are triggered and the
meaning of the new experience is stored in relation to the existing schemas (Beals 1998).
When incoming information can be well organized into existing knowledge structures,
it can be seen as schema-congruent information (e.g., a baby model in a diaper ad). When
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362 H.J. Yoon
the information does not easily fit into the existing semantic network, the information is
schema-incongruent (Mandler 1982; e.g., a baby model in an online stock trading ad).
Because all incongruent information disrupts existing knowledge structures to some
degree, our mind tries to cope with the discrepancy by resolving the incongruity
(Katz 1993). According to Mandler’s incongruity theory (1982), although schema
congruent information may be judged favorably for its ease of comprehension, the
expectedness of it may render it unimpressionable (e.g., ‘It’s just another diaper ad with
a baby’; see also Dahle
´
n et al. 2008; Meyers-Levy and Tybout 1989). On the other hand,
incongruity can be seen as an interruption of expectations, which can be stimulating while
the subsequent resolution rewarding (McQuarrie and Mick 1992; e.g., ‘A baby trading
stocks? Oh, it’s a metaphor for how easy it is to trade!’). Affect intensity would likely be
higher for more severe incongruity leading to successful resolution (i.e., alternative
schema activation or accommodation) than slight incongruity leading to easy assimilation
(Mandler 1982). Mandler’s initial model focused mainly on the resolution and the
outcome. By reviewing research conducted since Mandler’s proposal, the current paper
expands on this discussion to present a full processing model of incongruity.
OSL theory
In their incongruity model, Lee and Schumann (2004) integrated the incongruity theory
with the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) to explain the different paths of incongruity
processing (i.e., avoidance, peripheral, and central). Although this was a meaningful
attempt at establishing when and how incongruity would most likely be processed, ELM is
a comprehensive theory that can be applied to any given message processing, not just in
the unique case of incongruity. ELM is closely connected to the idea of motivation, ability,
and opportunity (MAO) as the essential factors needed for information processing (Hoyer
and MacInnis 2004). High MAO would lead to central processing, whereas low MAO
would lead to peripheral processing (Petty and Cacioppo 1984). This would be true for any
given message type.
The theory that can be applied in greater association to the incongruity model is the
OSL theory. People have a natural need for varied stimulation (e.g., Zuckerman 1995) and
when OSL is provided, it results in greater positive outcome, such as more positive
feelings, better memory, and higher performance (Hebb 1949). Intensities below this level
would be ignored, while above it would be judged less pleasurable. Although there will be
some individual differences, a group of people that share similar characteristics would be
in close proximity to their optimal stimulation when it comes to a given stimuli, possibly
drawing a normal distribution curve (Hebb 1955). Incongruity has been recognized as
a prominent type of stimulation (Berlyne 1960), and OSL can explain for the occurrence of
different routes during incongruity processing.
Integration of incongruity and OSL
Integrating the optimal stimulation theory into Mandler’s incongruity model allows the
shift from a mostly message-focused discourse to acknowledging the importance of the
message recipients’ perceptions of the incongruity. The OSL theory is highly applicable in
explaining the occurrence of different processing routes especially during the pre-
processing, processing, and resolution stages. During the pre-processing stage, if the
incongruity is below the optimal stimulation threshold, the information would likely be
ignored. If the incongruity is too extreme to create anxiety and discomfort, perceptual
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Journal of Marketing Communications 363
blocking would occur (Mandler 1982). When the incongruity falls in the OSL range, the
individual would go onto the processing stage, but the processing would be split into high
and low motivation processing; if the incongruity stimulated the peak optimal level, there
will be greater motivation to further process, whereas, if the incongruity merely passed
the threshold in attracting attention, less motivation would be present in resolving the
problem. Because incongruity triggers processing of schemas and categories, high
motivated processing would lead to piecemeal processing (i.e., processing information
piece by piece), whereas low motivated processing would lead to contrast or category
processing (i.e., processing information in category units). The initial exposure to
incongruity is one type of stimulation, but another set of stimulation rises after solution is
found to the problem during the resolution stage (Berlyne 1960). If the experience was
unsatisfactory (e.g., ‘I thought the explanation to the puzzling element would be more
clever’), the end evaluation would not be very positive. If the experience was satisfactory
and provided optimal stimulation (i.e., ‘That was a very clever idea, how did they think of
that?’), assessment would be positive. Thus, according to how the resolution is perceived,
the valence of the incongruity outcome would be determined.
Throughout this paper, references to the OSL theory and its implications for
incongruity research will be made. In addition, message factors that need to be taken into
account to increase success of incongruity strategies will be discussed. First, a thorough
conceptualization and operationalization of the construct is conducted followed by
a detailed examination of each stage of the process model.
Conceptualizing and operationalizing schema incongruity
Although the conceptualization of incongruity may seem simple (i.e., unexpected
information that disrupts existing knowledge structures), because the situations in which
incongruity can be created in advertising are diverse, researchers have found it difficult to
operationalize the construct. Not much consensus has been established; terms have varied by
research (e.g., congruent/incongruent, expected/unexpected, consistent/discrepant;
Heckler and Childers 1992) and often, references as to the level of incongruity (e.g.,
low/medium/high) have been absent from the studies. However, a few studies have tried to
establish a clear definition, where incongruity is proposed as a two-dimensional concept of
relevancy and expectancy (Goodman 1980; Heckler and Childers 1992). Relevancy looks at
whether the information ‘contributes to or detracts from the clear identification of the theme’.
(Heckler and Childers 1992, 447). Expectancy refers to the information falling into the
predetermined pattern of the context (Goodman 1980). The different levels of incongruity
can be established with these two constructs; low incongruity information is expected and
relevant; moderate incongruity is somewhat expected and irrelevant or unexpected but
relevant within the context; and extreme incongruity is when the information is both
unexpected and contextually irrelevant. The following are some examples of incongruity in
different contexts in advertising research. Applying the above operationalizations, it can be
found that all conditions can be discussed in terms of relevancy and expectancy.
Between settings and situations in an ad
Incongruity can be generated by first cuing a familiar schema and then providing
an unexpected event (Alden, Mukherjee, and Hoyer 2000). A contrast effect will occur
between the familiar setting (e.g., school cafeteria) and the unexpected element (e.g.,a student
dancing and singing in the cafeteria), generating surprise. If the setting (e.g., a military
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364 H.J. Yoon
base) presented before introduction of incongruity (e.g., drinking) is unfamiliar, contrast
effects will occur less effectively, due to both elements being alien. Alden, Mukherjee, and
Hoyer (2000) found that the former situation (i.e., familiar-unexpected) resulted in more
positive attitude than the latter (i.e., unfamiliar-unexpected). In this example, relevancy was
discussed in terms of familiarity.
Between verbal and visual elements in an ad
The pictorial element in an ad can be unexpected in relation to the featured copy. Heckler
and Childers (1992) created different levels of incongruity by manipulating the pictorial
element. Unexpected-relevant (e.g., the copy ‘Unleash the Power’ coupled with an image
of a computer that looks like a race-car engine), unexpected-irrelevant (e.g., same copy
with pigs flying in the background), expected-relevant (e.g., same copy with an image of
computer with lightening serving as a background), and expected-irrelevant conditions
(e.g., same copy with a simple image of a computer) were created to test for memory of the
pictorial element and overall ad recognition. Unexpected-relevant, unexpected-irrelevant,
and expected-irrelevant conditions represented incongruity conditions from which the
unexpected-relevant condition had the highest recall.
Between ad and brand
Studies have manipulated ad elements that are consistent or inconsistent with its brand
associations (Dahle
´
n and Lange 2004; Lange and Dahle
´
n 2003). In a study by Dahle
´
n and
Lange (2004), congruent and incongruent levels were manipulated through expectancy.
Compared with congruity, incongruity was found to generate more positive responses.
Between brand and medium
To stand out from the increasing clutter, advertisers are making unexpected medium
choices. A recent study put this to the test by placing ads in unfamiliar and creative media
(Dahle
´
n 2005). Three conditions were given: the ad and the creative medium placement
sharing associations (i.e., unexpected-relevant: insurance brand ad placed on eggs to
signify protection), the ad and the creative medium not sharing associations (i.e.,
unexpected-irrelevant: insurance brand ad placed inside an elevator), and the ad placed in
a traditional medium (i.e., expected-neutral: insurance brand ad placed in a newspaper).
Relevancy was manipulated by similarity of associations between brand and medium and
expectancy was manipulated by creative medium choice. The unexpected-relevant
condition resulted in the most positive evaluations.
As can be seen in the examples above, a unified way of distinguishing between
multiple levels of incongruity has not yet been established. Whether explicitly mentioned
or inherent in the conditions, relevancy and expectancy are common features in the
studies. This can also help with measurement issues in incongruity research, especially as
to how to systematically test for different incongruity levels. In pre-testing different
stimuli, Heckler and Childers (1992) had subjects rate on the two key elements:
expectancy (extremely unexpected-extremely expected) and relevancy (extremely
irrelevant-extremely relevant). The current disagreement on the optimal incongruity
level in advertising may be partly reconciled with such a unified conceptualization and
operationalization of the construct (Fleck and Maille 2010; Lee and Mason 1999). From
the following section, each stage of the incongruity model is examined in detail.
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Journal of Marketing Communications 365
The pre-processing stage
From a sociological perspective, our efficiency-driven industrial societies demand that we
function as productive members of the society, engaging in ‘a routinized world of
everyday life’. This conditions us to live in a state of low attentiveness (Garfinkel 1967),
which is sustained until something interesting comes along (Davis 1971). Incongruity,
with its elements of novelty and surprise, provides this stimulation (Berlyne 1960).
Different disciplines provide additional explanations as to why people might be
attracted to incongruity. The marketing literature identifies consumers’ characteristics of
sensation seeking (Raju 1980; Zuckerman 1995), novelty seeking (Hirschman 1980), and
innovation seeking (Rogers 1995) as underlying mechanisms that explain consumer
tendency to seek stimuli that challenge and arouse schemata. In semiotics, texts that show
a way to complex readings have known to give pleasure while texts that are too simple or
opaque have not (Barthes 1985). In advertising, it was found that consumers were drawn to
moderately complex ads compared to ads with full explanations (Phillips 1997).
Although there is a general intrigue for incongruity as described above, the initial
encounter needs to create enough stimulation to motivate further process. If the stimulus
looks mundane or ordinary, it may not be interesting enough to warrant further attention.
If the initial surprise is too intense, people may not want to further engage to find the
solution. According to the incongruity literature, moderate incongruity, one that is
unexpected but relevant to the context may fall in the realm of the OSL on average than of
congruent or extremely incongruent information (Mandler 1982), which would be below
and above the optimal level, respectively. Because incongruity strategies are not successful
without further engagement, marketers and advertisers need to test the initial reactions and
work to ensure that they warrant further engagement among their target consumers.
The processing stage
After the initial exposure, consumers engage in cognitive and affective processing of
incongruity. The literature on incongruity shows much interest on cognition but relatively
less on affect processing. Both processing types will be examined with a focus on the
special facets that make up incongruity processing.
Cognitive processing of incongruity
The concept of incongruity is closely associated with the consumers’ elaboration level.
Elaboration level is the extent to which the information in working memory is integrated
with prior knowledge structures. For the mind to understand incongruity, additional
information both congruent and incongruent to the incoming information is retrieved from
schemata, which increases the number of associative pathways triggered (Hastie and
Kumar 1979). This effortful elaboration is what is known to be the cause of greater recall
of incongruent content. On the other hand, congruent information is easily integrated into
schemata, giving no opportunity for diverse pathways to develop (Heckler and Childers
1992). The category versus piecemeal processing distinction provides us with a further
explanation as to how incongruent information may increase elaboration.
Categories are grouping of instances or members that are perceived to be similar
(Fiske and Pavelchak 1986). People form categories to easily comprehend, store, and
communicate information (Lasswell 1948). When new information can be neatly organized
into previously constructed categories, category processing occurs, where evaluations
for new information are closely based on whatever affect and cognition the consumer
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366 H.J. Yoon
previously had with the pre-existing category. Whereas, for information that does not fit
easily into pre-constructed categories, piecemeal processing occurs, where the new
information is evaluated on aggregation of its specific attributes (Fiske and Pavelchak 1986;
Sujan 1985). Because piecemeal processing requires higher cognitive effort compared to
category processing, it is posited to result in higher recall and recognition.
Question then arises as to whether the different processing (category vs. piecemeal)
occurs only on the basis of information’s fit to a category. Dissatisfied with single-
determinant explanations, some researchers have attempted to integrate the informational
as well as motivational factors in predicting the type of evaluation process that may occur
(Wyer and Srull 1989). Lee (1995) tested this integration, where in addition to the ease of
information fit to a category, involvement was varied. Easily fitting information led to
category-based processing notwithstanding motivation, but unsuccessful categorization
led to either piecemeal processing or contrast processing. The latter two were determined
by involvement levels, where high involvement individuals processed the information on
a trait-by-trait basis (i.e., piecemeal processing), but low involvement individuals
evaluated the material by simply comparing and contrasting it to a pre-existing category
(i.e., contrast processing). This motivation will likely be influenced by the stimulation
generated during the initial exposure; if the incongruity was highly intriguing during initial
contact, there will be greater motivation to solve the puzzle leading to piecemeal
processing; if the incongruity merely passed the threshold in attracting attention, there will
be less motivation to invest in cognitive efforts in figuring out the incongruity leading to
contrast processing. Among the different routes, piecemeal processing, by way of effortful
processing, will not only result in greater memory, but will also have a high propensity for
successful resolution. On the other hand, contrast processing is category contrasting by
way of low motivation, which would not only lead to lesser memory of specific elements,
but also may be insufficient to lead to successful resolutions (e.g., Mandler 1982).
Although a great deal of discussion exists on cognitive processing of incongruity in the
literature, not many studies directly test this process. Instead, outcomes such as
favorability or memorability of the incongruent content are measured and category
processing or piecemeal processing is assumed to have taken place. For example, to test
for effects of ad brand incongruity, Dahle
´
n and Lange (2004) varied the levels of
incongruity and measured ad attitude and brand credibility. As explanations for moderate
incongruity were leading to most favorable results, they assumed careful elaboration.
Some studies have attempted to directly test the processing of incongruity by measuring
the process time, the number of piecemeal associations generated (Meyers-Levy and
Tybout 1989), or how important the person considered the additional information given
was to the processing of the information at hand (Lee 1995). The current paper proposes
future research to conduct incongruity research in such manners: measuring cognitive
elaborations or conducting a process-tracing study that measures moment-to-moment
responses (Alden, Mukherjee, and Hoyer 2000). This would validate the relationship often
claimed in the literature between elaboration, incongruity, and overall evaluation.
Affective processing of incongruity
Incongruity strategies are both highly cognitive and emotional. The unexpected cognitive
challenge evoked by the incongruity to the otherwise stable knowledge structure creates
feelings of arousal (Gardner, Mitchell, and Russo 1985) and surprise (Alden, Mukherjee,
and Hoyer 2000; Lee and Mason 1999). Surprise triggers intrinsic motivation to analyze the
discrepant information to resolve or remove the discrepancy (Schutzwohl and Borgstedt
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Journal of Marketing Communications 367
2005). In this regard, it is an emotion that motivates to restore control and equilibrium of the
environment (Schutzwohl and Borgstedt 2005). As will be discussed in the following
sections, the valenceneutral surprise and the increase in cognitive elaborations will likely
lead to positive evaluations when the individual can find some level of incongruity
resolution. Whichever valence of evaluations further processing may lead to, arousal and
surprise help sustain the interest and attention toward the stimuli (Stein and Levine 1987)as
well as heighten the intensity of the evaluations that follow (Mandler 1982). This mediating
role of surprise has been tested in studies; Alden, Mukherjee, and Hoyer (2000) found that
surprise mediated the relationship between incongruity and perceived humor, which
consequently led to positive ad attitudes; Filipowicz (2006) found that surprise generated
by incongruent videotapes played a significant role in increasing performance on creative
tasks. These studies provided empirical evidence that affect, especially surprise, was
indeed an important mechanism to the success of incongruity processing.
But as has been pointed out by Fiske (1982), many studies fail to recognize the specific
emotions that can be generated during incongruity processing. So far, the incongruity
literature discussed affect in terms of its valence (positivenegative) and on occasion,
arousal/surprise (Alden, Mukherjee, and Hoyer 2000). This is similar to earlier research on
emotions in marketing, where emotions were first recognized only in terms of two
dimensions, valence (pleasantunpleasant) and arousal (sleepinessarousal; Block 1957;
Mehrabian and Russell 1974). Since then, the field has come to identify the different
emotions that lie along the valence and arousal dimensions. For example, in their
investigation of feelings generated by advertising, Edell and Burke (1987) classified feelings
into three categories: upbeat (e.g., active, adventurous); negative (e.g., angry, annoyed); and
warm (e.g., calm, contemplative). Some feelings may be more likely to be generated by
incongruity than others, and the current paper proposes an exploratory study that extensively
tests for the diverse feelings that may be associated with schema incongruity. Although our
understanding of emotional responses to incongruity is limited, it can be predicted from the
existing literature on incongruity that emotions such as confusion, irritation, and surprise
may arise during processing. The type and level of emotion felt during incongruity
processing may influence responses in the next stages of incongruity resolution and
outcome. As an illustration, the level of surprise felt may determine the overall evaluation of
how amusing the ad was. Felt surprise may be positively correlated with ad and brand
evaluation. On the other hand, irritation and confusion may serve as grounds for the feelings
of safety and contentment after resolution. The level of irritation and confusion, if perceived
too high, may attenuate any motivation to further engage in the incongruity process.
Exploratory investigation of the specific emotions that would likely arise in
incongruity contexts could be conducted by free elicitation and/or rating scales (Edell and
Burke 1987). Testing the significance of the specific emotions in the relationship between
incongruity and overall evaluation can be done through mediation and regression analyses.
In addition, intensity of each affect can be measured through physiological responses such
as heart rate and blood pressure (Bagozzi 1991).
Integration between cognitive and affective processing of incongruity
Broadly, two research streams exist that observe interdependence between cognition and
affect, research that views (1) affect as pure emotional states that influence cognitive
processes; and (2) affect merging into the cognitive process by way of affect appraisal.
As the principle of interacting systems argues (Izard 1977), the first view sees affect and
cognition influencing each other as separate processes. The interaction occurs as a feedback
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368 H.J. Yoon
loop, where the affective system influences cognitive systems, which in turn may influence
the subsequent affect. Such studies view affect as purely emotional states influencing
cognition. Studies have found affective states to influence people’s evaluative judgments,
recall, and categorizations of stimuli (Cohen and Areni 1991). An example would be
incongruity between ad and the chosen medium creating a high state of arousal, which then
might facilitate subsequent cognitive processing of the ad (e.g., heightened awareness).
The second view sees the cognition affect relationship as an appraisal process. The
term affect appraisal is used to describe people’s tendencies to cognitively seek out an
explanation for the affect generated (Schachter 1959). When an explanation is found, the
individual holds the source responsible and makes a cognitive link with the affect. Unlike
the first view, which values affect as a pure emotional state, this perspective argues that
affect needs to be processed by the cognitive system for it to have any substantial influence
on the subsequent behavior (Cohen and Areni 1991). Applying this to incongruity, the
initial surprise and arousal generated by the unexpectedness would prompt individuals to
closely observe the source that created the emotions. In realization that the surprise was
caused by information inconsistent to existing schemata, motivation to analyze and
resolve the incongruity would arise (Schutzwohl and Borgstedt 2005).
The two theories of interdependence should not be seen as contradictory, but rather,
coexisting. The propositions can be tested by manipulating different affect types or affect
intensities to see how cognitive responses differ. Affect and cognition can be incorporated
into a regression model that predicts recall or judgment to seek out each factors’
contribution to the overall evaluation (Edell and Burke 1987). Through such tests, the
direction and the degree of influence that one might have on the other can be gauged.
The resolution stage
After the processing stage and before the final evaluation, there exists a stage of
incongruity resolution (Meyers-Levy and Tybout 1989; Suls 1972). This stage may be the
most important in the process, because it determines the degree to which the previous
processes would lead to positive outcomes. First, ease-of-resolution is discussed followed
by the types of resolution.
Ease-of-resolution
With incongruity strategies, information is provided with an unexpected twist in the plot
(Hung 2000). For incongruity to have its positive effect, consumers need to be able to
unravel the twist and resolve the incongruity. This depends on the ease-of-resolution. When
ease-of-resolution is moderate to high, people are able to resolve the incongruity with an
‘Ah ha, I get it!’ response. This satisfactory sense of closure generates positive responses
(Bandura 1977). When ease-of-resolution is low and the incongruity cannot be resolved,
negative reactions could occur such as frustration and puzzlement (Labott and Martin 1988).
Here, a few suggestions that are likely to increase ease-of-resolution are presented. First,
the presence of resolution cues would significantly increase the chances for a successful
resolution (Flaherty, Weinberger, and Gulas 2004). Resolution cues act as the missing link
to the puzzle, providing a sense of relevancy and purpose for the use of the incongruity. For
example, a print ad for Old Spice showed an image of a live animal chick attached to the side
of a bottle of an Old Spice body wash. The image was unexpected, and alone, it would
not have been easy to interpret the message. The copy acted as the resolution cue,
which reads, ‘Old Spice, chick magnet’. This significantly facilitated the understanding
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Journal of Marketing Communications 369
of the meaning of the image. Also, if the situation in which the incongruity is created is
unfamiliar to many (e.g., inside a teacher’s lounge or a military base), people might not be
able to recognize the presence of incongruity nor any resolution cues (Alden, Mukherjee,
and Hoyer 2000). If an unfamiliar situation needs to be depicted, first giving information as
to what should be expected in that setting would facilitate resolution by allowing consumers
to compare and contrast between the norm and the incongruity. Also, Fleck and Maille
(2010) acknowledged the importance of providing cues that are adequate, but keeping
it proportional to the intensity of the incongruence, so that the pleasure of resolution
is preserved.
Besides these message factors, individual differences would likely play a part as well.
The more knowledgeable a person is on a topic, the more complex the person’s knowledge
structure will be, making him/her more cognitively flexible in dealing with unexpected
information (Peracchio and Tybout 1996). The more tolerance an individual might have for
uncertainty or ambiguity, both psychological states that are likely to stem from incongruity
processing (Camerer and Weber 1992), the greater the chances are that the individual would
come to a successful resolution (Furnham and Ribchester 1995). Although individual
differences cannot be controlled, by knowing the characteristics of the target, it can be
assessed whether incongruity strategies should be used or not. Depending on the level of
ease-of-resolution determined by message and individual factors, unsuccessful or successful
resolution would result. The following section looks at both scenarios in more detail.
Types of resolution
Unsuccessful resolution
Whether it may be due to the absence of resolution cues, lack of relevancy of the
incongruity to the brand, or low motivation to process incongruity, when the discrepancy
cannot be bridged, it results in an unsuccessful resolution. There are some areas in
marketing that use extreme incongruity to create shock, such as fashion ads. Diesel’s
‘Today We Work Hard’ campaign featured models with faces distorted while they ‘work
hard’ to plug in the video game. These ads were produced more for the uniqueness of the
incongruity and less for the reinterpretation value of incongruity-resolution. Without the
proper resolution, the incongruity may step into the realm of absurdity, which is defined as
the incongruous juxtaposition of elements that are perceived as bizarre and illogical
(Arias-Bolzmann, Chakraborty, and Mowen 2000). Such strategies may be tolerated for
products with less emphasis on function and rationality. In terms of consumers, the people
who are apt to liking such strategies may be limited in characteristic. A study that tested
for this proposition found that only those who had negative prior attitudes toward a product
category had higher brand attitude for the absurd ad than the non-absurd ad (Arias-
Bolzmann, Chakraborty, and Mowen 2000). It was found that the absurdity distracted
them from their dislike of the product. But other than these special cases, typically,
unsuccessful resolution has been known to accompany feelings of puzzlement and
frustration (Labott and Martin 1988).
Successful resolution
There is successful resolution when incongruity can be comprehended. There are different
types of resolutions and each influence the outcome in different ways. Mandler (1982)
proposes three resolution types that consumers may engage in: assimilation, subtyping, and
alternative schema activation. Suppose a consumer is faced with a fragrance ad that elicits
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370 H.J. Yoon
associations atypical (e.g., down-to-earth, humorous) rather than typical (e.g., luxurious,
high-end) of the product category. During the resolution stage, if the consumer assimilates
the incongruent content into an existing category (e.g., a typical ad for a perfume),
assimilation has occurred. If the ad is categorized into an existing category but with
recognition of slightly idiosyncratic attributes (e.g., it is an ad for a perfume but with an
unusual tone), subtyping has occurred. Finally, if the consumer cannot find a fit for the
incongruity in its usual category, an alternative schema will be activated, classifying the ad
into an entirely different category (e.g., it is a humor ad). The type of resolution is important
in the fact that it controls how information is stored in memory (Mandler 1982). When
subtyped, the unique facets of the incongruent information may be stored distinctively in
memory. Alternative schema activation may result in higher recall than assimilation, but
because the connection between the product category, the brand information, and the
alternative schema activated may be weak, brand recall and purchase intention for the ad
may be low. Simple assimilation may lead to positive outcomes, but compared with other
resolution types may result in weaker recall and attitudes lower in intensity.
Currently, our understanding is limited as to which resolution type leads to which
outcome. Resolution types may be manipulated or measured in research designs; they can
be varied between conditions with information that would likely be assimilated, subtyped,
or activating alternative schema. Resolution types can also be measured with
categorization tasks (e.g., place information into the category that you feel is most
similar). Incorporating this variable into research will increase our understanding of the
relationships between the incongruent stimuli, type of resolution, and overall evaluation.
The outcome stage
As was the case with absurdity, unsuccessful resolution does not always lead to negative
outcomes. Neither does successful resolution guarantee positive outcomes. Rather, the
outcome will depend on how much the individual is satisfied with the given resolution.
Incongruity is a strategy that challenges the mind, stirs emotions, and in certain cases
provides tension-relief (if incongruity is resolved). Even after having successfully gone
through this process, if the individual does not appreciate the stimulation that arises, there
may not be much positive outcome. This may depend on how well the entire process
satisfies the OSL of the target consumer (Rothbart 1976). Thus, for a successful
incongruity strategy, a thorough testing of the fit and acceptability of the incongruity level
to the core target consumers are suggested. Depending on whether there is appreciation or
not, different outcomes may be expected.
Negative outcomes
Both unsuccessful and successful resolution would result in negative outcome if the
appreciation for the incongruity experience was not present. This may be because
resolution did not take place or even with resolution, the incongruity process may not have
provided enough stimulation. Other reasons may be that the incongruity contained
uncomfortable information, was damaging to one’s self-image, or triggered undesirable
schema (Babin and Babin 2001). In such cases, counterargument, avoidance, and negative
attitudes toward the incongruity and the brand may result (Jain and Maheswaran 2000).
Although low ratings on memory and attitude suggest unfavorable responses to
incongruent advertising, these measures do not explain why the incongruity failed to
persuade. Negative outcomes, such as counterargument and avoidance, should be directly
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Journal of Marketing Communications 371
measured. Thought-listing tasks can provide several implications as to the individual’s
response: (1) the level of support and counterargument for the message can be determined
by coding the responses (Greenwald 1968); and (2) message approach or avoidance could
be detected by the number of thoughts listed (e.g., Petty and Cacioppo 1984).
Positive outcomes
Some possible positive outcomes of incongruity strategies are discussed in the following
sections.
Memory
Lange and Dahle
´
n (2003) measured memorability for ads that depicted congruent versus
incongruent associations with the product. Results showed that for familiar brands,
incongruent ads increased brand recall. Dimofte, Forehand, and Deshpande
´
(2004) increased
ethnic self-awareness and recall of the ad by using incongruent voice-over/subtitling
techniques. In their study of salespersons’ typicality of consumer expectations in a retail
environment, Sujan, Bettman, and Sujan (1986) found that atypicality increased product-
oriented thoughts. These studies attributed the high recall to the salience of the incongruity
and the increased systematic processing.
In terms of memory alone, incongruity strategies even without successful resolution
may result in higher recall than congruity (Moore and Hutchinson 1985). The Zeigarnik
effect (Baumeister and Bushman 2008) explains that it is human nature to desire to finish
what has been started. When the task is incomplete, constant thoughts of the components
are retained in our memory longer, thus, resulting in higher recall and recognition.
Attitude
Incongruent information may have the power to be salient among the clutter, but
appreciation for its use is needed for positive attitudes to form. The stimulation and the
pleasurable sensation generated from having solved the puzzle (Phillips 2000) will transfer
to the ad/brand evaluations, creating positive attitudes and purchase intentions (Peracchio
and Meyers-Levy 1994; Phillips and McQuarrie 2002; Reece, Vanden Bergh, and Li 1994).
Meyers-Levy and Tybout (1989) measured attitude to incongruity generated between
a product and its product category and showed that moderate incongruity produced more
favorable evaluations than congruity or extreme incongruity. Dahle
´
n (2005) measured
ad/brand attitude toward incongruent and congruent conditions between the medium and its
ad and found that the incongruent condition elicited higher attitude scores. Greater memory
and recall may benefit a brand to some degree, but achieving positive attitude is important
for creating purchase intention and brand loyalty (MacKenzie, Lutz, and Belch 1986).
Special case of incongruity with humor
Although the current article focuses on the most basics of the incongruity process, this
section gives acknowledgement to the special case of incongruity humor as it is closely
related to the incongruity strategy. In addition to the basic incongruity elements
(information that vary in expectancy and relevancy levels), if play cues (e.g., cartoon
characters, playful voiceover, models acting in childish behavior) were present, the
incongruity would most likely become incongruity humor. According to humor theories,
humor’s fundamental structure consists of a surprise/arousal (i.e., incongruity) generated
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372 H.J. Yoon
in the midst of a play manipulation, followed by a mechanism that allows one to reduce the
tension and enjoy the arousal (i.e., resolution). This play cue signals to the receivers that
the message should not be taken seriously (McGhee 1979) and has been identified as the
key element that transforms the surprise generated from the incongruity into perceived
humor (Alden, Mukherjee, and Hoyer 2000; Nilsen 1993; Speck 1990; Suls 1983). All of
the aforementioned stages of incongruity processing would be similar except during the
emotional processing stage, where playfulness, as an emotional reaction to the embedded
play cues, would emerge as a significant moderator between the incongruity and perceived
humor (Alden, Mukherjee, and Hoyer 2000). As with any other incongruity, there has to be
successful resolution for positive outcomes to emerge. The initial outcome would be
perceived humor, which would accompany smile or laughter as overt physiological
responses. Covertly, experiencing humor can be a cathartic experience, by helping to
release pent-up energy. Also, humor generates a pleasurable sensation such as joy and
happiness, providing an overall positive experience (Martin 2007). The positivity of
perceived humor is known to transfer to advertising evaluations, increasing positive
ad/brand attitudes (e.g., Phillips and McQuarrie 2002; Sternthal and Gulas 1992;
Weinberger and Gulas 1992). All suggestions for a successful incongruity strategy given
throughout this paper will also apply to incongruity humor. In addition, message planners
should make sure that the play cues clearly evoke playfulness and that the humor elements
used do not offend or create any negative associations among target consumers.
Discussion and implications
The current paper integrated past literature on incongruity and proposed a four-stage
process model with OSL as the underlying theory. The unique facets that make up
incongruity processing were discussed in each stage as well as the factors that need to be
considered in producing a positive incongruity effect. This model will help advertisers and
researchers alike in understanding how incongruity works in advertising as well as
identifying elements that would determine the valence of the outcome.
Throughout the process, one of the most important things to note is that schema
incongruity most successfully works when unexpectedness is created among the familiar
(Alden, Mukherjee, and Hoyer 2000). Thus, first and foremost, the message planner needs to
have a thorough understanding of what is familiar to the target; the target’s schemata of the
brand and the product category, past advertising campaigns as well as their values, lifestyles,
and group identity. Only then can the advertiser find an optimal level of incongruity for the
target that will likely be successful in creating positive attitudes and behavior.
The OSL, as a theory, gave explanation as to why responses to different incongruity
levels may differ, but it can also be a significant moderator that researchers can directly
incorporate into the research design (Fleck and Maille 2010). Zuckerman’s (1979)
Sensation Seeking scale and Mehrabian and Russell’s (1974) Arousal Seeking Tendency
scale have often been used to capture an individual’s OSL. There will also be variables that
are highly correlated to one’s optimal incongruity level, such as need for cognition, need
for change (Srivastava and Sharma 2011), and involvement (Maoz and Tybout 2002).
These factors will govern cognitive motivation and capacity to handle cognitively
challenging tasks, which in turn will set the individual’s optimal stimulation range for a
given stimuli. For example, high ‘need for cognition’ and high ‘need for change’
individuals may have greater propensity and motivation to deal with more complex
information, thus being equipped to enjoy higher incongruity level stimuli. Such direct
testing will have segmenting and targeting implications for groups that may vary in OSLs.
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Journal of Marketing Communications 373
At the product, brand, and ad level; brand familiarity, product category knowledge,
pre-existing schema of ads, and product involvement may likely have significant effects.
Such moderators should be included in future designs to test for their effects in that greater
knowledge and experience allows understanding of more complex text, which would be
the case for higher incongruity levels. In fact, recent studies have been successful in
discovering significant product, brand, and ad-level moderators in incongruity effects;
Dardis (2009) found increased perceived congruence and positive effects for brand
sponsorship initially deemed low in fit with repeated exposure to sponsorship messages;
Halkias and Kokkinaki (2011) found that high involvement consumer-decisions (such as
high-involvement product decisions; different from the concept of high involvement and
motivation toward solving the incongruity puzzle) attenuated positive effect for
moderately incongruent communication. Fleck and Maille (2010) also gave acknowl-
edgement to situational ad involvement variables such as time available, distraction, and
repetition influencing the overall incongruity processing (for a more extensive look at the
possible individual and contextual moderators of incongruity, see Fleck and Maille 2010;
Lee and Schumann 2004). Future studies should identify and test further moderators to
increase our knowledge of different boundary conditions in incongruity effects.
For advertisers, incongruity strategies have the power to engage consumers relatively
notwithstanding situational, product, and brand involvement levels (novel and unexpected
situations are due to draw attention when correctly implemented; Guido 2001). With giving
attention to the important factors recited in the current paper, incongruity can be created in
various ways, with highly successful outcomes as to brand recall, attitude, and purchase
intention. For researchers, incongruity in advertising still has many unexplored areas. To
fully understand consumer processing of incongruity, such areas should be given more focus
in integration to past findings. Only then can the incongruity literature provide substantial
information as to how, when, and for whom incongruity in advertising may be most effective.
Notes on contributor
Hye Jin Yoon is an assistant professor in the Temerlin Advertising Institute at Southern Methodist
University, with a Ph.D. from University of Georgia. Her research interests include humor effects,
schema incongruity processing, and health and environmental issues in advertising.
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... Irrelevant information can be disruptive to the flow of information processing, therefore requires more cognitive effort. As we are known to be cognitive misers in general (Stangor and Duan, 1991), this need for greater cognitive effort is typically not welcomed and could be disregarded or perceived negatively when it exceeds the comfort threshold (Yoon, 2013). When consumers process media, the content activates relevant schemas and puts the consumers in a certain mindset (Janssens et al., 2012). ...
... With greater fluency, with some possible exceptions (e.g. humor ads) (Yoon, 2013), relevant ads will be better appreciated than an irrelevant ad (Mandler, 1982). Although not easily controllable, relevance for native ads placed on social media should be considered important for its success. ...
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... Furthermore, most of the cases, the issue of sexism is used in the ad when it has no logical relationship with the advertised product, and this is considered as incongruity. As a result, there is no logical argument for using nude or sexually exposed women in car advertisement (Yoon, 2013;Orth & Holancova, 2003;. ...
Preprint
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