Using Self-referencing to Explain the Effectiveness of Ethnic Minority Models in Advertising

Christina Kwai-Choi Lee,

Nalini Fernandez and Brett A.S. Martin

University of Auckland Business School, New Zealand

Advertising research has generally not gone beyond offering support for a positive effect where ethnic models in advertising are viewed by consumers of the same ethnicity. This study offers an explanation behind this phenomenon that can be useful to marketers using self-reference theory. Our experiment reveals a strong self-referencing effect for ethnic minority individuals. Specifically, Asian subjects (the ethnic minority group) self-referenced ads with Asian models more than white subjects (the ethnic majority group). However, this result was not evident for white subjects. Implications for academics and advertisers are discussed.


Society is faced with two dramatic and opposing forces. First, there is the advancement in world communication and transportation which has given rise to a global economy, potentially moving people towards a homogenised identity. However, there is an opposing force to this one-world identity, as groups become more aware of their self or group identity on the basis of their ethnic background (Costa & Bamossy 1995). In terms of marketing, there is currently a pressing need in many industries to determine how best to advertise to ethnic minorities (e.g. Bernstel 2000; Liebeskind 2001; Schnuer 2001). Yet media advertising has traditionally assumed that a market with a white ethnic majority and other ethnic minorities can be reached simultaneously. Thus ads for mass audiences have tended to use white models exclusively (Kinra 1997) which is consistent with the melting-pot theory.

This theory suggests that a process of acculturation, resulting from racial and cultural contacts between ethnic minority groups and the host society, eventually results in ethnic minorities becoming more white-like, thereby melting into the larger host society (Kinra 1997). However, researchers such as Rossman (1994) have argued that the trend is towards greater ethnic and cultural diversity.

Culturally distinct segments cannot all be successfully targeted using the same marketing and advertising strategies which succeeded when society was a uniform, Anglo-dominated market (Rossman 1994; Berman 1997; Kim & Kang 2001). Given these opposing views, and the current relevance of ethnicity, the objective of this study is to examine the impact of using ethnic minority models in advertising on the evaluations of ethnic minority and ethnic majority groups.

While past studies have linked ethnicity to consumer behaviour (e.g. Deshpandé & Stayman 1994; Koslow et al. 1994; Lee & Tse 1994; Nwankwo & Lindridge 1998), they have generally confirmed that differences exist between ethnic groups, and that ethnic minority groups may have more positive reactions to ethnic endorsers. The aim of this study is to provide a theoretical basis to understanding this phenomenon that can be useful to marketers who are advertising to an ethnic minority market. We investigate the role of self-referencing as a mechanism for explaining effects which the ethnicity of the model in an advertisement has upon consumers.


Self-referencing occurs when a consumer processes information by relating it to some aspect of their self, such as their past experiences. For example, a consumer may see an ad which reminds them of a past holiday they took. Or, as in the case of this study, the ethnicity of the model may result in consumers of the same ethnicity self-referencing the ad information. This perspective assumes that the self is a highly organised, complex memory structure that contains both the semantic and episodic knowledge gained over a lifetime (Burnkrant & Unnava 1995). Thus, when an ethnic minority consumer is exposed to a message that involves a dimension that is central to the self – like a model of the same ethnicity – self-referencing is activated and influences how the message is processed (Rogers et al. 1977;

Krishnamurthy & Sujan 1999). The advantage for marketers is that research suggests that relating information to oneself heightens ad recall and can generate more favourable ad evaluations (Meyers-Levy & Peracchio 1996; Krishnamurthy & Sujan 1999). Consequently, ads are better remembered and better liked by consumers. The rationale for viewing ethnicity as a dimension of the self, that is central to ethnic minority consumers, is based on distinctiveness theory (McGuire & Padawer-Singer 1976; McGuire 1984).

Distinctiveness theory proposes that when a person perceives a complex stimulus, such as their self, they notice distinctive differences and characteristics which have greater informational value in discriminating themselves from others. Thus ethnicity is more salient to the self in an ethnically mixed society than in a uniform one. Further, in an integrated society, ethnicity is more salient to the self-concept of members of the minority group than of the majority group. When an individual’s self is salient, being exposed to information that is consistent with this dimension should result in spontaneous selfreferencing.

Likewise, one of the determinants of an effective advertisement is the source of the message, such as a model endorsing the product, and that source’s familiarity and similarity to the consumer (McGuire 1984; McCracken 1989). In particular, the similarity judgements an individual makes when exposed to an ad, and the ability to picture oneself relative to the model in the ad, results in cognitive activity in the form of spontaneous self-referencing (Debevec & Iyer 1988). Thus H1 suggests that ethnic minority individuals will perceive an ethnic similarity between themselves and the model portrayed in an ad (i.e. the message source), and that this perceived similarity will result in these individuals self-referencing the ad.

H1: Ethnic minority individuals will self-reference advertising portrayals of models of a similar ethnicity. Strength of ethnic identification Ethnicity reflects more than a demographic classification of consumers. Instead, ethnic minorities may differ in the strength of their affiliation with the minority group of their birth. This factor appears to have a significant impact on consumer behaviour (Deshpandé et al. 1986; Stayman & Deshpandé 1989; Deshpandé & Stayman 1994).

For example, ethnic minority individuals who strongly identified with their own ethnic groups had a stronger preference for an advertising spokesperson of their own ethnicity (Williams & Qualls, 1989; Whittler, 1991). It is hypothesised here that the strength of an individual’s identification with his or her own ethnic group moderates the extent to which he or she self-references an ad that portrays a model of his or her own ethnic group. Hence spontaneous selfreferencing of an ethnic role model in an ad should be greater for those individuals who strongly identify with their own ethnic groups, in contrast to those who have a weak sense of ethnic identification. H2: Ethnic minority individuals with a high degree of ethnic identification will express greater self-referencing of an ad containing an ethnic minority model than individuals with a low degree of ethnic identification.

Self-referencing and favourable thoughts

Previous studies suggest that one of the effects of self-referencing is the generation of favourable cognitive responses, or positive thoughts while the ad is being viewed (e.g. Debevec & Iyer 1988; Sujan et al. 1993; Burnkrant & Unnava 1995; Krishnamurthy & Sujan 1999). Cognitive responses reflect an association between the information in a message and information from memory (Cacioppo et al. 1982). Since self-structures are believed to represent a network of cognitive generalisations about the self (Markus 1977; Schouten 1991), activating the self-structures through self-referencing should affect cognitive responses. Thus self-referencing by a consumer of ad information should result in the positive feelings which the consumer associates with his or her self-structure being transferred to the ad. This, in turn, should result in more favourable thoughts about the ad (Sujan et al. 1993; Burnkrant & Unnava 1995). This leads to the following hypothesis:

H3: High self-referencing individuals will exhibit more favourable cognitive responses than low self-referencing individuals. When characters and/or situations portrayed in an ad serve as an explicit cue to stimulate self-referencing, the feelings associated with this self-referencing have been shown to enhance ad evaluations (Sujan et al. 1993). This suggests that individuals who strongly selfreference an ad will have more positive attitudes and purchase.

intentions than those who self-reference in a weaker fashion: H4: Individuals’ attitudes and intentions will be positively influenced by the extent to which they self-reference an ad. High self-referencing individuals should have more positive attitudes and intentions than low self-referencing individuals.


Subjects, design and procedure One-hundred and seventy-eight business undergraduates were randomly assigned to a 2 (ad model ethnicity: Asian, white) × 2 (involvement: high, low) between-subjects factorial design with selfreferencing, and strength of ethnic identification used as measured independent variables after median-splitting (Batra & Stayman 1990). Subject ethnicity was also used as an independent variable. The experiment included an involvement manipulation as previous research suggests that self-referencing is more evident under high involvement (Burnkrant & Unnava 1995). Thus high and low involvement product categories were used. Based on the results of a pre-test, watches were chosen for the high involvement conditions and facial tissues for low involvement. However, since there were no differences in the self-referencing scores between the two products in the main study (F < 1), the data for these two products were collapsed and examined as one group. Further, while an overall ‘Asian’ category may comprise a variety of cultures, it is consistent with the Asian/ Anglo dichotomies of previous research and past definitions of Asian (e.g. Taylor & Stern 1997; Aaker 2000; Briley et al. 2000). Regarding procedure, subjects were given a folder consisting of the experimental stimuli with filler ads and the questionnaire. Subjects were instructed to take as long as they wished to examine the print ads. They were then asked to close the booklet of ads, and proceeded to fill in the questionnaire that contained the manipulation checks and dependent measures.


Previous research indicates that audiences self-reference more when models are attractive rather than average-looking (Debevec & Kernan 1987). Hence, to ensure that model attractiveness did not confound the results, six facial photographs of models (three Asian, three white) were selected from overseas magazines. Sixty students from the target population, but excluded from the main study, then rated model attractiveness. Consequently, a white model and an Asian model with similar high attractiveness scores were chosen. AD STIMULUS All ads used in the experiment were printed in black and white, on magazine-size glossy paper. The facial snapshots of the models were superimposed on to a common body to ensure that body shape and alignment were identical. The two filler ads used contained no models. One showed bottles of mineral water against a background of mountains; the other was an ad for a stereo system. Measures SELF-REFERENCING The extent to which a subject self-referenced an ad was measured using an average of six 5-point scales anchored by: strongly disagree– strongly agree, derived from previous studies (Debevev & Iyer 1988; Burnkrant & Unnava 1995; Meyers-Levy & Peracchio 1996; Krishnamurthy & Sujan 1999). These items included statements such as: ‘I can easily picture myself using the advertised product’, ‘I can easily form similarity judgements between myself and the advertising model’, ‘The ad seemed to be written for me’, and ‘The ad made me think about my own experiences with the product’ (Cronbach’s alpha = 0.84). STRENGTH OF ETHNIC IDENTIFICATION For how strongly a subject identified with their ethnic group, a 5-point scale anchored by very strongly–very weakly from past research (Stayman & Deshpandé 1989; Deshpandé & Stayman 1994; Nwankwo & Lindridge 1998) asked subjects to rate the strength of their ethnic identity.

ATTITUDINAL MEASURES Attitude towards the ad was measured on four 5-point scales anchored by good–bad, likeable–not likeable, unpleasant–pleasant and enjoyable–not enjoyable (α = 0.88). Brand attitudes used four 5-point scales with the anchors good–bad, like–dislike, unpleasant–pleasant and poor quality–good quality (α = 0.68). Attitude towards the model used four 5-point scales anchored by likeable–not likeable, not trustworthy–trustworthy, credible–not credible, high overall effectiveness–low overall effectiveness (α = 0.76). Purchase intentions were measured using two 5-point scales assessing likelihood of purchase, with the anchors very low, very high. COGNITIVE RESPONSES Subjects were instructed to list their thoughts immediately after they had read the ads. Two independent judges coded these thoughts as either positive, negative or neutral. Interjudge agreement was 96% with disagreements resolved through discussion. Following past research, an individual score was determined by subtracting the number of negative thoughts from positive thoughts (Breckler & Wiggins 1991).


Self-referencing and ethnicity (H1) H1 predicts that minority group members self-reference more strongly when exposed to models in an ad that are of a similar ethnic minority than they do when exposed to models from the ethnic majority. In accordance with H1, Asian subjects exposed to the Asian model reported higher self-reference scores than white subjects (MAsian = 2.66, Mwhite = 1.87, F(1,89) = 9.18, p < 0.01). Further, there was no difference in self-referencing between Asian and white subjects when exposed to the white model (F(1,89) = 7.17, p > 0.10). Strength of ethnic identification (H2) H2 predicts that ethnic minority individuals who strongly identify with their ethnic group will self-reference more when exposed to an ad containing a model of similar ethnicity than subjects who are weak in ethnic identification. Contrary to expectations, there was no difference.

in the extent of self-referencing between Asians who identified with their ethnicity strongly and those Asians who did not identify with their ethnicity strongly (F(2,79) = 0.85, p > 0.10). Self-referencing effects (H3 and H4) H3 and H4 tested the effects of self-referencing. H3 predicts that high self-referencers have more favourable thoughts than low selfreferencers, while H4 predicts that high self-referencers have more positive attitudes and intentions than low self-referencers. A MANOVA revealed that consistent with H3, high selfreferencers had more favourable thoughts than low self-referencers (Mhigh SR = 1.13, Mlow SR = –0.02, F(1,168) = 8.56, p < 0.01). Further, consistent with H4, self-referencing does appear to influence attitude towards the ad (Mhigh SR = 4.67, Mlow SR = 3.91, F(1,176) = 26.77, p < 0.01), attitude towards the model (Mhigh SR = 4.53, Mlow SR = 4.08, F(1,168) = 10.95, p = 0.01), and purchase intentions (Mhigh SR = 4.54, Mlow SR = 3.80, F(1,168) = 43.77, p < 0.01). However, there was no difference in attitude towards the brand (F(1,168) = 1.28, p > 0.10). These results partially support H4. A similar pattern of results was found when examining the ethnic groups. The Asian subjects who displayed stronger self-referencing than the white sample also had more positive attitudes towards the ad, model in the ad and purchase intentions. Yet there was no difference between the ethnic groups for brand attitudes as displayed in Figure 1.

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION This study suggests that when consumers are exposed to advertising that is consistent with a salient dimension of their self, they spontaneously self-reference the ad. This leads to more favourable thoughts, attitudes and purchase intentions. We proposed that ethnicity is one such salient dimension for ethnic minority consumers. Our research shows that when ethnic minority individuals are exposed to an advertising model of the same ethnicity, they spontaneously self-reference the ad information. They also produce more favourable thoughts, more positive attitudes towards the ad, the advertising model and higher purchase intentions. However, while some researchers assert that where individuals strongly identify with their ethnic groups this may affect consumer.

behaviour (Deshpandé & Stayman 1994; Nwankwo & Lindridge 1998), we found a lack of support for the influence of ethnic identification. This lack of support may be due to the student sample which results in a young age demographic. An intriguing area of future research would be to consider the influence of ethnic identification and advertising across a variety of ages and ethnic groups. Interestingly, while it was found that an increase in self-referencing leads to enhanced attitudes and purchase intentions, this increase did not influence brand attitudes. In other words, Asians (who selfreferenced strongly) did not have higher brand attitudes than whites.

Theoretical reasons for these results may be found by studying past self-referencing research. For instance, Sujan et al. (1993) suggest that strong feelings are associated with self-related knowledge structures. Consequently, when an ad is associated with the self structure, these feelings should transfer to the ad, resulting in more favourable cognitive responses and attitudes. However, their study revealed that the carry-over of these feelings to brand judgements was dampened, similar to what was found in this study. They attributed this result to a state of discounting (Schwarz 1990). Discounting occurs when individuals discount or dismiss feeling states as a relevant cue for making unrelated judgements.

It is possible that while Asians did experience more positive states due to self-referencing, as evidenced by the ETHNIC MINORITY MODELS IN ADVERTISING 375 FIGURE 1 ATTITUDES AND PURCHASE INTENTIONS BY ETHNICITY Ethnicity Mean White Asian Ad attitude Model attitude Purchase intentions Brand attitude 4.6 4.5 4.4 4.3 4.2 4.1 4.0 3.9 Lee.qxd 19/07/02 12:11 Page 375 1 Footnote. favourability of cognitive responses, ad attitudes and intentions, when it came to making judgements relating to the advertised brand, they found this positive state to be an irrelevant cue for making brand judgements. This opens up an interesting avenue for future research. Finally, the results revealed that Asian subjects did not selfreference high involvement product categories to a greater extent than low involvement product categories. This may be because selfreferencing is so attention consuming that the increased elaboration, which normally would be prompted by other types of information such as involvement with product category, becomes diluted. Information that is related to the self is of high relevance and a salient distraction from other sources of information.

This suggests that relating information to one’s self is an extremely attention-consuming task that would affect other types of encoding (Baumgartner et al. 1992; Sujan et al. 1993). In summary, while the hypotheses formulated were largely supported, the theoretical reasons why others were not supported provide stimulating possibilities for future research. Advertising implications A primary reason that has been offered for a lack of ethnically diverse faces in marketing stimuli is a fear of negative attitudes from the majority white population or a ‘white backlash’.

So despite the growth of ethnic minority groups in many societies, most advertisers have failed to reflect today’s realities and have tended towards excluding or minimising ethnic minorities from their advertising mix (Dunn 1992; Marshall 1997). This study, however, with its cross-ethnic orientation, found that using ethnic minority models raised the attitudes and purchase intentions of audiences of the same ethnicity without decreasing the attitudes and purchase intentions of the majority ethnic group. Further, the ethnicity of the advertising model had no significant influence on the ad, brand and model attitudes and purchase intentions of the white majority group. While Asians showed more positive attitudes and purchase intentions towards ads that featured Asian models, the white majority’s attitudes and purchase intentions were not significantly influenced by the ethnicity of the advertising model. Thus marketers and media planners, by simply varying the ethnicity of the models featured in promotional materials, may improve their rapport with their target minority groups without endangering their position with the ethnic majority group.


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