Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

I'm not lovin' it: Visual Brand Image

In April 2013, McDonald’s advertised their infamous attraction, the Big Mac under the same breath as mental illness (Image 1). The poster was featured on Boston mass transit and shows a woman, clearly in distress, accompanied by the words “You’re Not Alone. Millions of people love the Big Mac”. A phone number was also shown on the poster, with the idea that anyone “suffering” like the poor woman in the poster could call the number for help. However, the number actually connected callers to a McDonald’s corporate line.

Although, it was eventually confirmed that McDonald’s had not approved of the advert and that it was an “unintended error”, I am going to use this particular example to explain how advertisements can fail when they drastically alter the original Visual Brand Identity (VBI) of a company.  

A brand’s identity is comprised of characteristics and attributes of the brand that cohere into the unique set of associations that a company aspires to create and maintain. I am sure that most of you would agree, Image 2 is a more accurate and consistent representation of McDonald’s VBI in comparison to Image 1. According to Phillips, McQuarrie and Griffin (2014), the way that consumers of a product process VBI is dependent on two theoretical concepts: familiarity and congruence. Familiarity of a brand is dependent on the consumer’s brand knowledge – the personal meaning of a brand stored in consumer memory (as a schema), which includes both descriptive and evaluative brand-related information. Similarly, congruence is another factor that can effect consumers’ perceptions of VBI. For example, Image 1, which associates mental illness with a Big Mac is an advertisement that is incongruent with consumers’ product category expectations. This is unlike Image 2 – a picture of a double layer burger with sear-sizzled 100% pure beef mingled with special sauce on a sesame seed bun, topped with melted American cheese, crisp lettuce, minced onions and tangy pickles – which is congruent with consumers’ product category expectations of McDonald’s.

In order to test how familiarity and congruency of visual themes in an advertisement can affect the consumer’s fluency and liking of the company’s products, the researchers used real advertisements for actual brands that had been identified by consumers in a qualitative pre-test as containing strong positive VBI: Skyy vodka and Malibu Rum. 146 undergraduate students who were familiar with the visual themes and VBI of Skyy vodka (e.g. vibrant, bright colours are used, with thin typography and extreme close-ups of women’s body parts) and Malibu rum (e.g. visual rhetorical figures of personification where the product comes to life by dancing or swimming away) took part in this study. Each participant was given two experimental advertisements of both the liquor brands. Half the subjects saw brand-congruent versions of an advertisement for Skyy vodka and for Malibu rum. The other half saw the altered, brand-incongruent version of each advertisement, in which the branding information for one was inserted into the visual representation for another.  
After looking at the advertisements, the participants were asked to indicate their attitude towards the advertisement by rating it on a three 7-point semantic differential scale (e.g. appealing/ unappealing, good/ bad, and likeable/ unlikable). Following from this, the participants’ centrality of visual produce aesthetics (CVPA) – the overall level of significance that visual aesthetics holds for a particular consumer or aesthetic sensitivity – was measured on the CVPA scale.

In line with prior research, participants in the congruent advertisement condition were more likely to rate the advertisement highly than those in the for incongruent advertisements condition (Mcongruent= 4.92, Mincongruent= 4.59). Moreover, participants low in CVPA did not see much difference between congruent and incongruent advertisements, whilst participants in high CVPA liked the congruent advertisements significantly more (Mcongruent= 5.37, Mincongruent= 4.66, F (1, 142) = 7.43, p < 0.01). Thus, a person’s aesthetic sensitivity moderates the effects of incongruity perceived by a consumer. At high levels, perceived incongruity will be accentuated, and hence more negatively evaluated. This is evident in the graph below: 

Despite the obvious reasons why I have classified McDonald’s advertisement seen in Image 1 as a “failed advert”, the findings from Phillips, McQuarrie and Griffin’s study (2014) can also help explain other reasons for why this advertisement is not effective. Firstly, we are not familiar with the association between a Big Mac burger and a woman in distress; it does not match any of our schemas stored in our cognitions. For this reason, the processing of this association takes more time, effort and difficulty, which in turn leads to decreased liking of the product being advertised. Similarly, as the visual aspects and themes of the advertisement is incongruent to McDonald’s VBI, it makes it more likely for information process fluency and liking of the product to be reduced. 


Phillips, B.J., McQuarrie, E.F., & Griffin, W.G. (2014). How Visual Brand Identity Shapes Consumer Response. Psychology & Marketing, 31 (3): 225 – 236. doi: 10.1002/mar.20689

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