Personal Comfort and Personal Care Products:
A Survey of Women's Dependency on Advertising
by Sally McMillan and Debra MerskinUniversity of Oregon
Prepared for a Joint Session ofThe Advertising Division and the
Commission on the Status of Women
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass CommunicationAnnual
Convention, August 9-13, 1996Anaheim, California
Direct correspondence to
920 Marquet Way
Eugene, OR 97401
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This study extends dependency theory by examining women's
dependency on advertising for personal care products. Women who actively select
media with high levels of advertising for personal care products were found to
be more likely to use advertising as a source of information about those
products. Affective arousal, measured by level of comfort with personal product
advertising, was found to be a strong mediator of the relationship between media
selection and advertising use.
Personal Care Product Advertising
Media dependency theory examines both macro and micro factors
that explain dependencies of society, individuals, and the media (Ball-Rokeach &
DeFleur, 1976; Ball-Rokeach, 1985). Previous studies of dependency theory have
focused primarily on quasi-experimental situations in which dependence on the
media was measured under circumstances of natural disasters. For example,
studies have investigated media dependence after volcanic eruptions (Hirschburg,
Dillman, & Ball-Rokeach, 1986), for earthquake forecasting information (Turner &
Paz, 1986), and for information on military invasions (Donlon & Roush, 1986).
Other researchers have explored media dependency under
experimental conditions. For example, watching even a small amount of
television was found to alter beliefs, related attitudes, behavior, and media
use (Ball-Rokeach, Rokeach & Grube, 1984). Other examinations of dependency
theory have explored shopping behavior (Grant, Kendall & Ball-Rokeach, 1991)
world views based on media use (Becker & Whitney, 1980; Miller & Reese, 1982)
and acculturation (Champagnie-Alman, 1993). Although most research has focused
on media dependency at the macro sociological level, a few studies have focused
on the presence of media dependency in every day life (Merskin & Huberlie, 1996;
Champagnie-Alman, Merskin, & McMillan, 1996).
DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1989) indicate that media dependency
exists within the larger framework of established media systems and specific
media content. Dependency on media information then develops through a
four-step process as illustrated in Figure 1.
First, the individual takes either an active or casual role in
becoming exposed to the media message. Second, the intensity of relevant
dependencies lead to differential states of arousal. Third, different levels of
arousal result in different levels of involvement in information processing.
Finally, greater involvement in information processing results in increased
cognitive, affective, and behavioral effects of media messages.
This study seeks to extend dependency theory by examining
women's dependency on advertising about personal care products. This study
predicts that women who take an active role in selecting media that contain a
high level of advertising for personal care products will be likely to use
advertising for information about those products. Both affective arousal and
level of involvement are expected to mediate this effect.
Elements of the Dependency Model
The Role of Media Systems
Ball-Rokeach (1985) suggests that relationships between the
media and other social forces form a structural-level dependency that shapes
individual media dependency. In particular, she notes that survival of
commercial media systems is dependent on survival of economic systems. The
relationship between personal care products and specific media genre represents
a classic example of economically-based structural dependency.
Precise targeting of an advertising message to the potential
consumer of that product is a critical decision in the marketing of a product.
Target audiences include the "attitudinally affluent" (Rodkin, 1990), older
consumers (Davis & French, 1989), disabled consumers (Waldrop, 1990), children
(Stutts & Hunnicutt, 1987; Langbourne, 1993; Edmonson 1994; McNeal, 1992), and
ethnic groups (Kern-Foxworth, 1991; Dunn 1992).
A variety of methods are used to reach target audiences based on
demographic, socio-psychological and product usage variables (Barban, Cristol &
Kopec, 1993). These include VALS (values, attitudes, and lifestyles), MediaMark
Research, and Simmons Market Research Bureau. The goal of using syndicated
research sources is to match up potential target audience members with the
medium and vehicle that presents the best environment for the product and that
will most likely reach the customer. For example, research shows that women are
the primary audience for day-time television (Comstock, 1989). They also read
fashion magazines and other publications targeted toward their interest such as
Good Housekeeping, Vogue, and US. Thus, advertisers of personal care products
which are targeted to these women choose to place their advertising in these
media vehicles which are popular with the target audience.
Advertising messages themselves have also evolved as an element
of both the social system and the media system. Around 1900, American
advertisers began to use the strategy of treating personal issues as social
problems. Industrialization produced a new brand of consumer, a well-to-do
middle-class whom advertisers saw as an ideal group to warn about the social
effects of personal "problems" such as body order. Yet, even the term "body
odor" was too offensive, so B.O. was used instead. The term first appeared in a
1919 advertisement for Odo-Ro-No deodorant (Stern & Stern, 1992).
Gossage (1967) highlights the role of personal product
advertising in shaping the social system which consequently shapes the media
We see advertising actually creating and naming
taboos. The most famous, B.O. and Halitosis, are
specimens from an age which we might fix as either Late Iron
Early Soap. . . bad breath and body odor have always
course, but as individual matters. To transform them from
idiosyncrasies into tribal taboos is a magicianly trick
Women's use of advertising as a source of information for
personal care products is a reflection of the influential role that advertising
messages have assumed in our modern social system. Treneman (1989) suggests
that many personal product advertisements attempt to recapture the system of
interpersonal relationships that has been lost in the modern world. He notes
that in many television commercials for personal care products the voice-over is
a wise woman, a knowledgeable version of our mothers.
The Role of Media Exposure
DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1989) identify two types of media
exposure that may lead to media dependency. First, "active selectors"
purposively seek out media that will help them achieve goals. Second, "casual
observers" encounter media content incidentally with no preformed expectations.
For these casual observers, the media may activate a dependency and motivate
Four media types provide an example of active and casual use in
the personal care product category. Both fashion magazines and daytime
television attract advertising for personal care products, therefore it is
possible that women who use advertising as a source of information for this
product category would seek out those media outlets. Conversely both news
magazines and early evening television program are less likely to carry
advertising for these products and are thus less likely to be sought out by
active selectors. Magazines are more conducive to active selection of
information from advertising than is television. These four media may form a
continuum of involvement for women who use advertising as a source of
information about personal care products.
Fashion magazines are most likely to attract active selectors
because of their high content of personal product advertising and because the
print format enables easy search for content. Daytime television may also
attract active selectors because it is a medium known to be high in personal
care products advertising. However, the level of activity may drop because the
presence of personal care product advertising is less predictable. Early
evening television is traditionally high in news content and low in any
advertising that may be considered "offensive." However, recent trends have
resulted in more personal products advertising during this "family viewing"
time. Therefore, some casual observation could occur. Finally, news magazines
are seen as the least likely of the these four media to lead to dependency on
advertising for information about personal care products. Quite simply, news
magazines rarely attract personal product advertising and therefore will have
little or no impact on either active selection or casual observation.
The Role of Affective Arousal
DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1989) indicate that the intensity of
an individual's media dependencies may be mediated by either cognitive or
affective arousal that results from media exposure. This study focuses on
affective arousal that may be engendered by a sense of "disliking" or feeling
"uncomfortable" about personal products advertising. Dependency theory leads us
to predict that advertising which an individual finds to be distasteful or
uncomfortable may reduce the effects of media dependency.
According to Alwitt and Prabhaker (1994), different demographic
groups may have different reasons for disliking television advertising. Within
groups there are also likely to be variations. Reasons for disliking
advertising include suspicions about the potential of the advertising message to
influence decisions as well as concerns that advertisements interrupt
entertainment (Pollay & Mittal, 1993; Alwitt & Prabhaker, 1994). Some people
dislike advertisements for products that are uncomfortable to deal with. For
example, the product may be a "sensitive" personal care product such as a
hemorrhoid remedy, tampon, or laxative (Barnes & Dotson, 1990).
The Role of Involvement in Information Processing
A key concept in the third step of the DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach
(1989) media dependency model is involvement. They hypothesize that a person
who has proceeded from media exposure through arousal is likely to actively
participate in the information-gathering process. Gaziano (1990) suggests that
an individual's involvement in processing information received through the media
can be predicted by socioeconomic factors such as age and education. Several
recent studies have focused on the high level of involvement that young women
have in messages about body image (Lazier & Kendrick, 1993; Myers & Biocca,
1992; Scott, 1993). These studies consistently find that young, single,
less-educated women are most likely to be highly involved in messages about
personal appearance and be driven to achieve an idealized female body image.
Given this drive to perfect personal appearance, younger, less
educated, unmarried women are expected to have a higher level of involvement in
information processing and to more frequently use advertising as a source of
information on personal care products.
In the final step of the DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1989) model,
"individuals who have become intensely involved in information processing are
more likely to be affected by their exposure to media content" (p. 314).
DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach categorize potential effects as cognitive, affective,
and behavioral. While the end-goal of marketers may be to generate a behavioral
change (product purchase behavior), both advertisers and academics have also
come to recognize the value of less direct cognitive and affective effects of
advertising message. According to Berman (1981) advertising is powerful because
it addresses many of life's issues; when other institutions fade in relevance,
it provides simple answers:
The institutions of family, religion, and
education have grown noticeably weaker over each of the past
generations. The world itself seems to have grown more
the absence of traditional authority, advertising has become
a kind of
social guide. It depicts us in all the myriad situations
a life of free choice. It provides ideas about style,
behavior (p. 13).
Analysis of the cognitive, affective, and behavioral change in
women's lives as a result of exposure to personal products advertising is beyond
the scope of this study. However, this analysis of the relationship between
dependency on advertising as an information source, media exposure, affective
arousal, and socio-economic involvement indicators provides a base for further
detailed analysis of the effects of media dependency in the context of
advertising messages and personal care topics.
A survey instrument was used to collect data about frequency
with which women use advertising as a source of information about personal care
products, types of media vehicles women are exposed to, level of comfort with
personal products advertising, and demographic factors that may influence level
of involvement in processing advertising messages. The survey was administered
to students, faculty and staff at a Pacific Northwest university in 1995. A
total of 463 surveys were completed.
A random sample of female faculty and staff were sent the survey
via campus mail. A total of 117 faculty and 203 staff members responded to the
mail survey resulting in a 36 percent response rate. According to Cresswell
(1994) this is an acceptable rate due to the relatively sensitive nature of the
questionnaire and the fact that there were no follow-up mailings. A convenience
sample of female undergraduate students enrolled in an introductory journalism
or introductory women's studies course yielded 143 surveys.
Operationalizing the Dependent Variable
The primary focus of this study is on women's use of advertising
as a source of information about personal care products. As noted earlier, this
use of advertising is seen as a reflection of the position that such commercial
messages have taken in the larger media and social systems. The dependent
variable is a scale based on the mean of women's self-reported use of
advertising for information about nutrition, feminine health and hygiene
products, hair care, and skin care. Cronbach's alpha for this scale is .83.
Scores range from 1-7 with higher scores indicating greater frequency of using
advertising as a source of information about personal care products. The mean
score for the scale is 2.58 and the standard deviation is 1.39.
Operationalizing Media Exposure
Women were asked to report whether or not they are exposed to
specific media vehicles. This study considers four media types: fashion
magazines, daytime television (9:00 am to 4:00 p.m.), early evening television
(6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.), and news magazines. Each of these media are measured
as dichotomous variables. As detailed above, these four media represent a
continuum from active selection to casual observation of advertising messages
related to personal care products.
Operationalizing Affective Arousal
A scale measures women's responses to the question of how
comfortable they feel when they are exposed to advertisements for personal care
products. The scale calculates a mean for responses to questions about comfort
of exposure to ads for products related to nutrition, feminine health and
hygiene, hair care, and skin care. Cronbach's alpha for this scale is .92.
Scores range from 1-5 with higher scores indicating a greater level of comfort
with exposure to advertisements for personal care products. The mean score for
the scale is 2.96 and the standard deviation is 1.13.
Operationalizing Involvement in Information Processing
Younger, less educated, unmarried women were expected to have a
higher level of involvement in information processing for commercial messages
about personal care products. Because some women are reluctant to report their
exact age, the survey requested that women place themselves within an age
category. For regression analysis, a dummy variable was created that grouped
all women under the age of 35 separately from those 35 and older. Education is
a dichotomous variable indicating whether or not a woman has attained a college
degree. Marital status was converted into a dummy variable so married women can
be considered separately from those who have never married, are
separated/divorced, or are widowed.
Table 1 reports OLS estimates of factors that influence
dependency on advertising as a source of information about personal care
Media Exposure Findings
Step 1 in the regression model supports our primary hypothesis
that women who take an active role in selecting media that contain a high level
of advertising for personal care products will be likely to depend on
advertising for information about those products.
Both fashion magazines and daytime television were identified as
media through which women can take an active information-seeking role in
reference to personal care products. As expected, both show a positive
significant relationship with the frequency of advertising use scale. In
addition, both early-evening television and news magazines show a negative
relationship with the frequency of advertising use scale. However neither of
those relationships is significant.
While the findings support the overall prediction of a
relationship between active exposure to media and use of advertising message for
information about personal care products, the exact ordering of these four media
were not as predicted. Viewing daytime television is a stronger predictor of
frequency of advertising use than is reading fashion magazines. However,
relative beta weights for these two media are very similar. Relatively small Ns
for both of these media types (daytime N = 33, news magazines N = 150) may
account for this variation from the hypothesized relationships.
Affective Arousal Findings
Step 2 in the regression model reported in Table 1 provides
support for the hypothesized mediating effect of affective arousal on the
relationship between media use and frequency of use of advertising for
information about personal care products. Adding comfort with advertising to
the model increases the amount of variance explained by the model from 4% to
When respondents level of comfort with personal care product
advertisements is held constant, reading fashion magazines ceases to have a
significant relationship with use of advertising as a source of information
about that product category. Watching daytime television continues to have a
positive relationship with frequency of advertising use, and that effect is
reduced only slightly (beta drops from .135 to .113).
This finding suggests that women's comfort with personal product
advertising is a stronger predictor of advertising use than is media exposure.
In particular mere exposure to the high volume of personal product advertising
in fashion magazines will result in women using those advertisements as an
informational source only if women already feel comfortable with the idea that
messages of this type in this medium are appropriately placed in the larger
social system. It is interesting to note that exposure to daytime television
programming continues to have a positive relationship with use of personal
product advertising even when comfort level with those advertisements is held
constant. This may suggest that if women are incidentally exposed to personal
product information in a medium where advertising messages are relatively
difficult to escape, casual observation of those messages may activate
information-seeking behavior and start the individual moving through the steps
of the media dependency model.
Involvement in Information Processing Findings
Step 3 in the regression model reported in Table 1 provides
limited support for the hypothesis that involvement in information processing
mediates the relationship between media use and use of advertising for
information about personal care products. The adjusted R square is improved
slightly (from .25 to .27) with addition of these variables, however only one of
the three variables that predicts high involvement is significant.
As expected, women without a college degree are more likely than
women who have graduated from college to use advertising as a source of
information about personal care products. Inclusion of education results in a
slight reduction of the beta values for exposure to both fashion magazines and
daytime television. Education also explains some of the relationship between
comfort with personal products advertising and use of advertising as a source of
information about personal care topics. This suggests, that with all other
variables in the model held constant, women who do not have a college education
will be somewhat more likely than their more educated counterparts to turn to
advertising as a source of information for personal care products.
As illustrated in Table 2, education is significantly correlated
with all of the other variables examined in this study. Zero order correlations
reveal a negative relationship between education, use of advertising, exposure
to both fashion magazines and daytime television, and comfort with using
advertising as a source of information. Positive relationships exist between
education and exposure to early-evening television and news magazines. More
educated women are also more likely to be 35 years old or older and to be
married. These relationships suggest that education may be an important factor
in accessing an individual's potential involvement in information processing.
However, the other demographic factors do not have explanatory power.
Therefore, future studies should consider other measures of involvement.
Perhaps the most striking finding of this study is the strong
mediating effect played by a woman's level of comfort with personal products
advertising. This suggests that in this application of the media dependency
model, affective arousal is a strong determinant of dependency. Further studies
should examine this relationship in more detail.
Additionally, future studies should examine possible alternative
explanations for this finding. For example, both comfort with advertising for
personal care products and use of media that include high levels of this type of
product advertising may be indicators of an underlying orientation toward
physical appearance, body image, or some other factor. If this underlying
orientation were isolated and controlled for, we might find a different pattern
of effect between media use and dependency on advertising as a source of
information for personal care products.
Limitations are primarily related to the exploratory nature of
this study. Future studies should develop additional measures for understanding
each step of the media dependency model in the context of advertising and
personal care products. In particular, stronger measures are needed for both
affective and cognitive arousal. Additionally, careful consideration should be
given to the most appropriate ways to measure level of involvement in
information processing. Future studies should also consider ways to measure
cognitive, affective and behavioral effects resulting from women's dependency on
advertising as a source of information about personal care products.
The population from which the sample was drawn may not be
representative of the larger population. The original population lacks
diversity in terms of such factors as ethnicity, and education. Taking the
survey away from the campus environment could help with this concern. Future
projects should be conducted in more than one community.
Despite the exploratory nature of this research, this study
yields findings with important implications for advertising researchers and
practitioners. For researchers, the results point to some key linkages between
sociological phenomena and consumer information dependency. The research
findings offer some provocative notions of the uses to which women put the
media. Findings also offer an extension of media dependency theory to that of
consumer dependency, including advertising in the repertoire of media outlets
that one can depend upon for answers to questions associated with daily living.
Of significance for practitioners is the finding that women's
level of comfort with personal care product advertising is a strong mediator of
advertising use. This suggests that care should be taken in developing messages
that are both informative and high in factors that increase women's comfort
level. The study also provides an initial theoretical framework that may help
practitioners identify media vehicles which attract both casual observers and
active selectors who will turn to advertising as an information source.
Finally, the recognition that women's dependency on personal
product advertising is mediated by their level of comfort with those ads has the
potential for changing both the creation and the reception of advertising
messages. Attention to women's comfort level may result in changes that will
relegate Stern & Stern's (1992) depiction of personal product advertising to the
status of historical artifact: "Producing equal measures of anxiety and hope,
advertisements told women that if they didn't use deodorant, they wouldn't be
loved; and if they did use it, they would be happy" (p. 138).
Figure 1. The Process of Effects of Specific Media Content on
Individuals. From DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1989, p. 312).
Summary of Hierarchical Regression Analysis for Variables
Predicting Women's Dependency on Advertising for Information about Personal Care
Products (N = 382)
Step 1 - Constant = 2.46
Step 2 - Constant = .81
Comfort with Advertising
Step 3 - Constant = 1.08
Comfort with Advertising
Note. Adjusted R square for Step 1 = .04; for Step 2 = .25; for
Step 3 = .27.
* p < .05, ** p <.01, *** p <.001.
Personal Care Product Advertising
Means, Standard Deviations, and Correlations for Variables in the
Analysis (N = 382)
(1) Advertising Frequency Scale
(2) Fashion Magazines
(3) Daytime Television
(4) Early-Evening Television
(5) News Magazines
(6) Advertising Comfort Scale
(7) Under 35
(8) College Degree
* p < .05
Personal Care Product Advertising
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