Chap. 18 in Integrated Communication: Synergy of Persuasive Voices, Esther Thorson and Jeri Moore (Eds), Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996: p. 333-354.



The idea behind integrated marketing communication (IMC) is coordination of messages for maximum impact. This impact is created through synergy--the linkages that are created in a receiver's mind as a result of messages that connect to create impact beyond the power of any one message on its own. Synergy suggests that an entire structure of messages--with its links and repetition--creates meaning and impact even in situations where there might be little attention paid to conventional advertising. Integration occurs at several levels--in strategy and planning, in conceptually linked executions, as well as in coordinated uses of traditional and nontraditional communication channels. Communication synergy can be best maximized by extending message encounters beyond the traditional advertising media into every possible situation where a receiver might notice a message from a company. While research into how synergy works in marketing communication is slim, there are some theoretical approaches that lend support to the notion of synergy.

To investigate this concept of message synergy as created by multidimensional integrated marketing communication (IMC) programs, a selective review of theory and research from marketing, consumer behavior, communication, education, and psychology will be analyzed looking for threads of theory that might help explicate the various concepts embedded in the idea of message integration. This discussion should provide some guidance for designers of integrated message programs as well as for researchers looking for areas of investigation.

Synergy exists through the function of memory--messages that are conceptually integrated and that repeat essential units of meaning over time through different channels and from different sources come together to create coherent knowledge and attitude structures in the receiver. As expressed through a circle of synergy--concept, channel, and audience response--are contained within a field of repetition and coordination to establish message impact. The circle provides the structure for the following analysis of theoretical foundations and the IMC research opportunities that derive from them. (See Fig. 1)


The word concept appears often in marketing communication literature and practice. Manufacturers conduct concept tests as part of product development and advertisers do concept tests to evaluate big ideas on which they hang advertising campaigns. In the latter sense, a concept is the central idea of a message. In integrated marketing communication, however, a concept is not only an aspect of a specific message, it also is the centralizing factor around which a company, product, or brand image is built.

The idea of a company or a brand as a concept that needs to be formed--established over time and reinforced in the consumers mind--is not well developed in marketing communication literature. Concept development is a phrase that appears in professional writing but is rarely seen in scholarly work. Concept formation, however, is an area with a large body of literature in educational psychology. Borrowing from that and other streams of related literature, we need to learn more about how these types of concepts are develped through message design relative to the image of products, companies, and brands. Implicit in this discussion is the idea that in contemporary marketing communications consumers over time confront a variety of messages about a company, product or brand. The question is do these messages work together synergistically to create a unified impression?


Concepts are presented in messages and developed in peoples' minds as discrete bits of information that are bundled together and linked in patterns of similarities and differences, as well as routinized experiences. Message elements--primarily words and pictures--are the creative tools used to mold and shape the concept which evolves through a variety of exposures and impressions built up over time. Like an artist working on a canvas, an image begins to appear from a variety of brush strokes and colors that are applied at different times in different places. Like art, message design resists analysis and prediction, however, aesthetic and functional aspects of the design can be appreciated on one level and articulated on another, albeit somewhat crudely given the limitations of our current communication theories.

Concept formation happens when the same stimuli elicit a similar pattern of meaning construction when repeated over time. We need to know much more about marketing communication ideas as concepts--about how they are shaped, developed, maintained, and changed? In particular, we need to know how these patterns can be better formed and managed through strategically designed and integrated communication.

Analysis of the concept is difficult to do independent of analysis of the receiver's response. Many of the conceptual threads supporting message integration are to be found in theories based on knowledge and cognitive processing, as well as in noncognitive structures such as those identified with associations and emotions. These processes will be addressed in more detail in the discusion of audience response theories.

Unity: Seeing Similarities And Differences

Although marketing communication has not focused much on the psychology behind how this process occurs in a complex arena like brand or product image development, one related aspect of message design that has received attention is product differentiation. As mentioned earlier, concepts are based on patterns of similarities and differences and, certainly, product differentiation relies upon establishing those lines of difference, as well as the connecting unifying features that make the linkages work. In other words, in order for a brand to stand on its own as a concept, it must be conceptualized in the receivers' minds as having attributes that link up to form a unified perceptual structure and this structure must be different from the structure of other concepts (brands) that might compete or be confused with it.

Clearly seeing differences and similarities is important to an understanding of how concept development works and how marketing communication creates coherent images of companies, products, and brands. However, recognizing that concepts are developed from myriad pieces of messages and complex patterns of relationships suggests intuitively that coordination and strategic planning are essential in marketing communicaton if the varied message impressions are to have any cohesion.


Concepts are developed in the minds of people, thus to analyze the structure of concepts inevitably means moving to some form of audience analysis focusing on the way people acquire and make sense of knowledge. Cognitive structure, for example, is an important dimension of message integration that derives its theoretical base from gestalt psychology. Cognitive processing theorists posit a model of knowledge based on mental structures that organize perceived information into maps, networks, or schemas of connected and interrelated categories. Consumer responses, then, are governed by the interaction of new information with the complex structure of previously acquired information.

A concept and its structure as presented in a communication program will have a parallel structure that evolves in the receiver's mind. Sometimes the perception is similar to the intention, sometimes the intention and the perception are far apart. The distance is a measure of communication effectiveness. The problem, however, is how to analyze the structure of the concept as it has evolved in the receiver's mind.

Cognitive Structures

One of the earliest theorists in this area is Edward Tolman (Burgoon, et . al. 1981) who proposed that people develop cognitive maps of the various worlds they inhabit and that these maps are used in goal-seeking. In other words, people develop expectations about their world based on the way they have organized information about it and past experiences with it in their minds. Advertising uses the related concept of perceptual maps to identify the location of product, brand, and corporate images and attributes in relation to competitors. This technique could also be used in IMC planning to analyze the attributes and image contributions of various messages in various media to map out the dimensions of a product, brand or corporate concept.

Scripts and Schemas Script and schema theory is one particular approach that is being adapted to communication research. A schema is a mental map of a generalized routine or pattern of thinking; while a script is an outline of a routinized sequence of behaviors. Abelson (1981) described a schema as a hypothesized cognitive structure that, when activated, organizes behaviors encountered in event based situations. In other words, it maps an individuals expectations and routines that operate in particular situations such as getting up in the morning, getting to work, going to a restaurant, or attending a cocktail party. Schemas are stereotypical knowledge structures based on the priniciple of parsimony that let us deal with a complex but familiar situation or event sequence by routinizing our behavior so we don't have to think about it. Rittenburg and Laczniak (1990) proposed using script theory to analyze viewer's decision process that operate when they encounter an advertising message on television, an idea that was followed up by Moriarty (1991). Along the same line, script or schema theory could be used to analyze how people deal with various types of message encounters involving various types of channels and message strategies. This would be useful in mapping out creative strategies for integrated communication situations.

An example of how schema theory can be used in building advertising strategies was reported by Camden, Verba and Sapin (1990) in a study of the perceptions of General Dynamics. The market assessment study, which involved eight focus groups with a variety of opinion leaders, investment officers, government bureaucrats, and the military, examined critical values and current symbology for the various audiences. It discovered four dominant schema that affected perceptions of defense contractors. The schema were then tested with 275 telephone surveys to establish quantitative benchmarks, perceptual maps of the company's current and desired position, and the critical decision rules driving the image campaign. The schemas were then translated into instructions for the creative department for its work on a multi-targeted corporate image campaign for General Dynamics that would overcome the existing negative image.

Conditioning and Association Other theories about knowledge propose a system of linkages that are learned through conditioned responses. As the Burgoons et. al (1981) explain in a review of learning theory and persuasion, once a stimulus evokes a particular response, the more likely is a similar pattern of stimulus and response in the future. In particular, this is how associational thinking is learned. Attitudes, with their potential for negative/positive polarity, are also thought to be subject to development through conditioned response. Recognizing the importance of this concept, Preston and Thorson's (1982, 1984) associative model of advertising posits this process as a general theory for understanding how advertising works.

There are other important approaches that help explain how concept formation works. Contiguity theory, as proposed by Guthrie, (1959) focuses on the complexity of the processing situation. He postulates that a combination of stimuli leading to a response will, when repeated, lead to that same response again. In other words, contiguity theory proposes the need for multiple stimuli, repetition, and simultaneity of stimulus and response. As the Burgoon's explain it in analyzing persuasive communication, "the communication pattern that preceded a particular desired behavior should, upon its repetition, elicit the behavior again: the same arguments should touch the same responsive chord."

Guthrie's second contiguity "postulate" is that a stimulus has its most striking impact when it is first paired with the response. However, when applying this idea to persuasion, the Burgoons note that not all stimuli are attended to by everyone on any one occasion, therefore to ensure that the behavior is repeated by a range of people, the message should be repeated under varying circumstances--an important concept, of course, in IMC planning. Furthermore, the greater the similarity of language and arguments, the more likely it is that the same response will be elicited again, which provides support for the notion of conceptually integrated messages. These are all pieces of the puzzle manipulated by message designers in an integrated marketing communication situation. How this theory applies, however, has not been investigated in terms of IMC.

Conditioned learning , however, is not a magic wand and IMC planners need to be aware of the many problems faced in concept development as well as associative learning when messages are competing. Underwood's interference theory , for example, suggests how competing messages may interfere with one another and inhibit learning. (Burgoon, et. al. 1981) In proactive inhibition, that which is learned first inhibits learning of what comes later; in retroactive inhibition, that which is learned last inhibits the recall of previously learned information. Given the clutter in the marketing communication environment, IMC message researchers might want to investigate how interference can hinder the presentation of messages and the formation of concepts, particularly those that are not effectively integrated.

Cognitive Response Theory More recently, researchers have been developing theories of cognitive response which suggest that communication, particularly persuasive messages, are mediated by the thoughts generated by the receiver as the communication is processed. This reflects the interest in more individualistic cognitive theories based on a receiver-oriented model, rather than the mechanistic sender-oriented perspectives associated with traditional communication models and the effects research tradition. Mendelsohn (1990) describes this paradigm change from behaviorist to constructivist approaches as requiring "message reipients to treat 'stimuli' as problems to be understood and solved rather than as overpowering shots from a cannon against which no defense but surrender was possible."

These construction theories propose that receivers are not passive processors; in fact, they bring thoughts based on previous experiences to the communication encounter which are used to elaborate on or, in some cases, counterargue with the new information. In other words, people are not cognitively passive because they have a reservoir of prior knowledge and experiences which are activated by cues in a new message and this prior information serves as a sounding board for the evaluation of the new information.

Thoughts and feelings, labeled cognitive responses, are thought to affect attitude formation and change. (Ostrom, Petty, and Brock, 1981; Meta and Davis, 1990) The mediating thoughts may or may not be reflected in the material itself because everything that has registered in the past about a company or brand, however idiosyncratic, comes to the surface in a communication encounter. New messages are integrated with the old in order to build a coherent and consistent image, attitude, or impression. Actually, recent research in schema theory has found that these cognitive structures may not be as coherent and consistent as was once thought. (Graber, 1988)

That is another reason why integration of message concepts is not only important but essential in order to avoid unnecessary and counter productive cognitive responses. Olson et. al. (1982) argue that a commercial message can stimulate people to remember or infer brand relevant information--even that which is not contained in the ad itself--as well as by providing such information directly or explicitly. Monitoring cognitive responses generated by people exposed to one or a variety of messages with varying degrees of integration by a methodology referred to as thought listing should allow some understanding of how people do or do not process integrated messages.

Cognitive response, of course, is influenced by cognitive style--i.e. different people approach information processing in different ways, so this methodology can also be used to focus on individual, and even idiosyncratic interpretation, as well as streams of common responses. Methodologically cognitive response involves coding open ended responses into total number (which gives a measure of level of attention), and three other general categories: polarity (favorable, neutral, unfavorable); target (response to message topic vs. response to message format elements), and origin (restatement of message, reactions to or elaborations of the message, or the issue unrelated to message content). (Cacioppo, Harkins, & Petty 1981).

IMC planners can gain insight from such a model. For example, as Slater, et. al. (1991) explain knowing which audiences are primarily concerned with message content and which are concerned with message characteristics could influence the selection of message channels and the investment of resources in message production. Furthermore, combining this information with polarity data would make it possible to know who is likely to like or dislike the topic or the presentation of a message, and who is likely to respond favorably or unfavorably to the issue after being exposed to different types of messages.

Attitude Formation

Knowledge structures are not the only form of audience response to communication messages; equally important are attitude structures. In contrast to concept formation, attitude formation is an area of research that has long intrigued marketing communication scholars. Much of the research and theory in this area parallels the work in cognitive processing because it hypothesizes a network of linked attitudes forming a an attitudinal structure. According to Fishbein's (1975) multiattribute model of attitude formation, people perceive brands (or companies) as bundles of attributes and, given what we know about how people perceive and process information, these bundles are built up over time from bits and pieces of accumulated information and experiences. Information from advertisements, as well as from other sources, is integrated into an attitude structure and this structure determines both intention to purchase--the attitude--as well as the actual purchase behavior.

Fishbein's model is also based on the idea of concept integration. A set of salient beliefs about a concept becomes organized in the mind as a cognitive structure--a complex network of integrated beliefs that makes up an attitude. Fishbein's theory, of course, hypothesizes that beliefs lead to attitudes although he doesn't locate the belief/attitude structure in terms of a more complex information processing model. His familiar algebraic model that specifies the relationship between this set of salient beliefs and a concept provides, however, as Mitchell and Olson (1981) have observed, a "theoretically integrated set of measures of the cognitive effects of marketing variables." As they explain, "this formula can be used to measure the multiple effects of a particular communication message on cognitive structure variables." It should be noted here that cognitive procesing is clearly a mediating factor in attitude formation.

Mitchell and Olson, in fact, found that product attribute beliefs had a major mediating effect on brand attitudes and these attitudes substantially mediated behavioral intentions. The researchers also found that product attitudes were not the only mediators of attitude formation. Indeed, attitude toward the advertising also mediated brand attitude, confirming, at least, the impact of this form of marketing communication on brand attitudes. Mitchell and Olson's work could be extended into other areas of marketing communication and, in particular, could be used to investigate the salience and valence of integrated message strategies.

While Fishbein's theory has been used to explain the development of attitudes regarding advertising, the model is a complex structure built on a variety of communication encounters, which is clearly in line with the way IMC works. Logic suggests that the more encounters and the more consistent they are, the stronger the attitude. Thus, conceptually integrated message programs are likely to be the most effective approach to attitude as well as concept development. The concept of integrated messages in a multi-channel environment clearly offers an area for the logical of extension of Fishbein's work.

Dimensions of Attributes There are a number of dimensions to attributes including strength (salience), direction (positive or negative), and breadth (degree of involvement). According to Fishbein's attitude theory, salient beliefs are those activated from memory to become a consideration in a particular situation. If such beliefs are anchored in a person's memory, then that means the person must have heard something relating to it previously. In other words, saliency is built up over time through repetition as stored knowledge. This relationship of saliency to repetition is also fundamental to understanding the process of communication upon which the concept of IMC is built.

In addition to a variety of dimensions, theorists working with mathematical models of attitude development and change, suggest that there is an important element of variation that enters into cognitive structures. In other words, a person may have a variety of beliefs associated with an object and the best measure of that person's attitude comes from averaging across this set of beliefs. (Burgoon, 1981) Anderson describes this process as information integration theory, and predicts that a person's attitudes develop and change as a result of the weight of their initial position as in relationship to the weight of the new position communicated by the incoming information. More recent work by Woelfel with this mathematical approach to attitude analysis has lead researchers to conclude that the more messages the person receives, the more stable the attitude. Attitude "massiveness" then, is a major factor in cognitive processing.

Consistency Attitudes are built on the integration of cognitive and affective responses to information. They represent complex thoughts made up of likes and dislikes, as well as knowledge, considerations, and ideas organized as an attitudinal structure. Because these complex thoughts contain pieces of attitudes that are interdependent, change in one aspect of an attitude can affect other parts of the attitudinal structure. Modern analyses of cognitive integration, the consistency theories, (Rosenberg's Consistency theory, Heider's Equilibrium theory, and Festinger's Theory of Cognitive Dissonance)--which were based largely on Lewin's work on cognitive structures--were developed to explain these connections and interactions.

More importantly, the need for cognitive consistency drives the selective perception process and therefore impacts on message exposure. As a result, concept integration in a message may therefore be a factor in determining its exposure. . All of these theories are relevant to IMC message design because of its inherent need for repetition and, likewise, consistency in message presentation. The consistency theory, in particular, is relevant because it addresses the need for integration without conflict when a variety of messages are presented.

Involvement and Motivation More recently the elaboration likelihood model (ELM) (Petty and Cacioppo, 1986) and the heuristic-systematic model (HSM) (Chaiken 1980) have been developed to explain situations where people's primary motivational concern is to attain attitudes that square with relevant facts. (Ratneshwar and Chaiken, 1991) Systematic processing reflects an analytical orientation in which people take account of relevant information and judge accordingly. Rational arguments, similar to the ELM model's "central route," elicit cognitive elaboration of incoming information. In contrast, heuristic processing uses less cognitive effort and fewer cognitive resources and, like the ELM's "peripheral route," people rely on simple decision rules and obvious cues to form judgments. Source expertise and emotional appeals, for example, are typically relied upon in heuristic processing.

In contrast to the traditional assumption that people make rational and intentional responses to advertising, Thorson identifies heuristic, or noncognitive, processing as the type of processing that occurs in natural situations and under that natural motivation to process. (Thorson, 1990) She observes that, "occasionally the consumer desires and is motivated to find and thoroughly process the information in advertising, but that situation is probably more the exception than the rule."

Both systematic and heuristic processing rely on previous knowledge and experience, although for different reasons. With systematic processing a learning curve may be operating that demands considered judgment based on information that usually is acquired over time; with heuristic processing repetition of impressionistic appeals builds images over time. The synergistic phenomenon associated with effectively integrated messages can be created using either strategy, however the executional tactics are entirely different. These differences and their impact on IMC strategy need to be investigated and defined using either the ELM or HSM models.

Fishbein's model could clearly be used in IMC programs to measure the impact of a set of integrated messages delivering a similar concept but disseminated through multiple sources. Such a study would, of course, be investigating an even more complex set of multiple effects. The set is limited, however, in that these theoretical perspectives merely address beliefs and attitudes. While attitudes are thought to act as an organizational frame for certain behaviors--they are sometimes defined as a predisposition to respond--there is little research to support a direct cause-and-effect relationship between attitudes and behavior --likewise between liking and learning. As these relationships continue to be investigated, it may be possible to move beyond Fishbein and develop a formula for evaluating IMC message effectiveness in terms of a full range of effects, including behavior.


The word channel is used in communication to refer to any physical means of transmitting a message--speech organs, ear drum, retina, as well as telephone wires and fiber optics. It derives from the original information processing model developed by Shannon (1949). The term medium is used to refer to a channel that has certain distinguishable characteristics in terms of content presentation, such as the television medium or the newspaper medium. Advertising, of course, has adopted the concept of medium--as in media planning and media mix--but rarely discusses communication channels. In integrated marketing communication, given the variety and complexity of message sources, the word channel may be more appropriate for describing the means by which the message is carried.

Multi-Channel Processing

The body of channel research that might be of interest to IMC theorists considers such issues as channel capacity and multi-channel processing. In a complex communication situation, as when two people are talking or one person is talking on a television screen, then either one channel must carry several messages simultaneously or several channels are involved simultaneously. How does this work and what does it say for complex multi-channel communication programs?

In terms of the most basic processing of visual information, for example, the different cues in the message are analyzed simultaneously in order to establish recognition. In perceptual psychology each cue is thought to elicit a system of analyzing information and, therefore, each one is considered to be a distinct channel operating in parallel with all the other sets of cue analyzers. (Travers, 1970) That suggests how complex is the simple perceptual task of recognizing a visual object. Consider how the level of complexity increases when auditory stimuli, as well as motion, are added to the channel, as is the case with television and how many different sets of analyzers are in operation. Recognition, of course, is an early step in the processing of information followed by much more involved processing such as conceptual recoding and organizing the new, personal version of the information for filing in short-term and/or long-term memory. All of that goes on simultaneously with the previously described cue analyzing. Clearly this sets up a model of complex multi-channel information processing.

Single-Channel Models Broadbent's (1957, 1958) model of human perception suggests that an individual's perceptual system is restricted and that it can only process sensory information selectively due to limited capacity. In other words when information is presented simultaneously via two different channels--such as verbal and visual--the perceptual system can only attend to one at a time, switching back and forth. His work clearly supports the need for integration in message design so as to minimize confusion as this switching process operates.

This is a particular problem for information delivered simultaneously that is not conceptually integrated. According to Broadbent, when people process two different and competing (or unrelated) pieces of information presented at the same time, typically one message will dominate and only that message will receive attention. In other words, in a complex or cluttered message environment, the system generally handles only one channel at a time, switching back and forth in a scanning procedure to piece together a message. Based on this concept of limited capacity, he posits a single-channel model of information processing. The other messages will either be processed by memory afterwards, ignored, or the competing messages may create so much "noise" that neither is processed. Depending upon the nature and extent of the synchronicity, this may pose a problem for commercial messages from the same source that are not conceptually integrated.

Other psychologists, however, have modified Broadbent's theories and their work has found that people have a rather impressive ability to pay attention to what they need to attend to and at the same time monitor other less well attended sources of information at some minimum level of meaning. (Deutsch and Deutsch, 1963; Triesman, 1964; Snodgrass, 1985) In other words, people have some ability for synchronous processing although our understanding of this processing ability is inexact. How does information reception differ when people are just scanning information as opposed to when they are concentrating and analyzing it? Is there a difference in channel capacity and processing mode for low-involvement as opposed to high-involvement information situations? Certainly IMC researchers should be interested in investigating the nature of multi-channel processing, both simultaneous and switching, to better understand perceptual limits and how much variation and complexity can be included before confusion sets in.

Instructional communicators and learning theorists extol the value of information reinforcement through multi-media communication. The idea is that people learn better when they hear and see the same message at the same time, a theoretical perspective that informs and confirms the notion of integrated communication. However, much of the literature on audio-visual integration is based on commonly accepted truths, rather than research supported findings. Certainly this is an idea that needs to be tested and the arena of integrated marketing messages is particularly appropriate.

Channel Capacity An area of research that seeks to determine how much information an individual can process given the physiological or psychological limits on the person or the situation is called channel capacity. (Travers, 1970) While there are a number of uses of the term channel capacity, the most relevant approach for IMC theory is the approach that refers to the amount of information that a person can process simultaneously. In a classic work by Miller (1956) called "The Magical Number 7, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information," the idea was presented that the perceptual system has a limited capacity for processing information. Miller's idea is that we process information by assigning it to appropriate categories and we can only handle a limited number of categories in our minds. The more complex the information--as in IMC messages-- the more it draws on overlapping and competing sets of categories. The channel capacity may increase somewhat as additional dimensions are added, but people become less accurate as they have to confront more than one attribute at the same time.

Dual Encoding Another dimension of multi-channel communication that has been investigated by advertising researchers is the relationship between the visual and verbal elements in messages. While there is a tendency to focus on the words as the carrier of meaning, research in advertising has found that visuals can have an affect on brand attitudes and that visuals apparently enhance memory for ad content. (Lutz and Lutz 1977; Edell and Staelin 1983) Furthermore, this research has also found that when the visual and verbal content are interactive, i.e. the brand name is integrated into the visual, then recall is intensified. The opposite is also true: if the visual and verbal elements are not integrated, then recall is lower.

Researchers have long known that framing a visual with reinforcing verbal content significantly increases message effectiveness, however, this can be a problem in advertising where pictures seldom run with captions and the visual-verbal integration is dependent upon other forms such as headlines, which may or may not serve effectively as picture captions. Furthermore, dual coding is seldom considered in corporate message campaigns that cross media, some of which are more intensely visual than others. This suggests an area of research into cross-channel communication that would be useful for the development of IMC theory.

Paivio's (1969, 1971) dual-coding hypothesis suggests that although pictures are coded with more variation than are words, pictorial elements are easier to retrieve from memory. His dual-coding theory suggests that visual elements are coded into memory twice--once with a verbal label and a second time with a pictorial code--which explains why it is easier to recall pictures. In effect there are twice as many memory units operating for pictorial elements which is why picture-dominant advertising layouts tend to get higher recall scores.

While deconstructing visual and verbal processing in research is usually done with one message, it makes sense that the same approach might apply to combinations of media that are variously more visual or more verbal and that appear within the same time frame although at different locations--logos on t-shirts and newspaper articles for a new brand, for example. While such studies would investigate the extremes of the dual-coding theory, they might also prove useful in investigating the cognitive and noncognitive links between various message elements. Clearly, however, most marketing communication channels use messages that involve both visual and verbal processing--broadcast, print, and outdoor ads, as well as editorial material in magazines, annual reports, and sales literature. Marketing communication researchers have conducted some research into the nature of the perceptual problems, but IMC introduces new levels of complexity to the problems created by cross-channel communication.

Signal Detection The theory of signal detection is another research approach that might be useful in analyzing breakdowns in complex communication situations. Signal detection has been used to investigate cross-channel decision making where signals are in conflict. Usually this involves measuring responses to competing audio stimuli that are emitted close to the threshhold of hearing. This methodology is used by perceptual psychologists to analyze memory strength and has been proposed as a useful advertising methodology to evaluate the impact of clutter. (Singh and Churchill,1986; Tashchian, White and Pak, 1988) It could also be extended for an analysis of the effectiveness of the conceptual linkage of message units. It could also be used with messages that are not conceptually linked to determine which ones, or which elements, are more likely to be perceived. In other words, signal detection methodology might help sort out the nature of the conflict, as well as patterns of dominance, in messages about a company from different channels and sources.

Channel and Source Credibility

An important goal of integrated communication is to create a higher level of impact and one way that can be obtained is by enhancing the credibility of the message. Not every marketing communication message, of course, relies on credibility for impact. In fact, it could be said that there is a credibility continuum operating in persuasive communication with health care products, for example, maximizing the credibility of the source and channel delivering the message while, snack foods, on the other hand, are rarely concerned with credibility unless a health claim is being made. In this case the product category, as well as message content, have different credibility levels.

As the previous examples suggest, credibility is an issue for both source presenters in a message as well as for the channel or medium carrying the message. Furthermore credibility is situational. The New York Times, for example, is a highly credible source for most information of record--although not for information about rock music. The Rolling Stone, on the other hand, would not be seen as a highly credible source for information about cancer breakthroughs or the national budget.

Credibility is also a function of repetition--the "everyone is saying it" phenomenon. The strategy is to intensify believability by spreading credibility among a variety of sources. Learning theory suggests that learners seem positively affected when persuasive messages are presented in as credible a manner as possible. (Simonson,1984) In other words, they learn more easily from credible sources. Furthermore, attribution theory suggests that messages lacking in credibility will be discounted and and will not be very persuasive. (Jones, 1972, Gotliev and Sarel, 1991) Attribution theory looks at how receivers of messages perceive the communicator's objective; in other words, why a communicator takes a particular position and how that impacts on the receiver's acceptance or rejection of the message.

Source credibility has two dimensions that effect marketing communication: knowledgability and bias. Advertising has long known that including highly credible sources might help alleviate the negative attributions of these two dimensions that are associated with advertising in many consumers' minds. In an IMC program, credible sources used in non-advertising communication, such as public relations and its ability to generate information on the editorial side of media, might help spread or share credibility across other message channels that are less well thought of, such as advertising.

A side benefit of intensifying credibility is that, as Gotlieb and Sarel (1991) have explained, consumers are more motivated to process a message at a higher involvement level if the message is perceived as highly credible. In other words, credibility can also be used in multi-channel message design to intensify involvement, thereby making the message more memorable. Educational psychologists have long known that learners who are involved are more likely to react favorably--active learners, as Simonson (1984) notes, perceive messages more favorably than do passive learners.

Person perception theories look at the effect of physically attractive communicators and models and has consistently found that attractive (vs. unattractive) communicators are liked more and have a more positive impact on the products with which they are associated (Joseph, 1982). Wackman (1973) has also noted that little is known about how meanings are assigned to cues or configurations of cues that a person presents and he has called for more research to identify the "vocabulary" for identifying the meanings of communicators in terms of the palette of cues that suggest such qualities as expertise, aggressiveness, trustworthiness, and so on. Given the variety of message sources used in integrated communications, it might be particularly useful to have more information about how person perception can be managed in a complex communication program to coordinate effectively source credibility.


Another dimension of channel impact is context or the environment in which the communication is conveyed or confronted by the receiver. For IMC designers to effectively deliver their program of messages, they must understand the situational constraints that complicate their efforts. Bandura (1976) has found that certain types of message strategies rely on social learning for impact, such as authority and bandwagon appeals. His work on modeling and social learning ties repetition to continguity, although primarily in vicarious learning situations. However, vicarious learning is relevant to the situation in which much marketing communication occurs. The importance of his work is that it opens up a debate about whether message persuasiveness is more a function of repetition, with a gradual building up of attitudinal structures, or of situational conditions, where imitation and modeling are engaged--or both. (Burgoon, et. al, 1981)

Approaching the idea of context from another angle, the work of Sherif and Cantril (1945, 1946) emphasize a receiver's frame of reference as a factor in selective perception. The total perceptual field determines what people are exposed to and can select from. Likewise, an attitude that is formed as a result of this exposure/selection process, then determines future selective perception in other fields of perception. The field of perception, however, is always limited by a complex of environmental and personal factors--selection being only one. Sherif's field of perception concept suggests an interesting way to analyze the environmental context within which various IMC messages are conveyed and constrained.

Situation Theory Contextual considerations are also related to motivation and involvement. Grunig's (1984) situation theory suggests that the audience uses different types of processing for different types of message encounters. Situation theory, for example, distinguishes between two means of encountering a campaign message: the deliberate search for information and the unplanned encounter with an unsought after message; this is analogous to the situations hypothesized in both the ELM and HSM models. The importance of situation theory is that it distinguishes attention to a message from mere exposure to that message. (Slater, et. al. 1991)

The question for IMC planners is what is the nature of the connection between situation, or context, and message impact? Obviously there will be different levels of attention and what does attention contribute to impact? It makes sense to presume that a message encountered as part of a search is likely to affect attitudes, knowledge, and behavior in a different way than will a message encountered unexpectedly and at random. What exactly is the nature of the varied patterns of impact? With Grunig's Situational Theory as a model, is it possible to plan the use of various message channels for strategic reasons in terms of their presumed contributions to the overall message impact?


The key to synergistic message effects is memory. Memory is often discussed in terms of learning theory and the various types of conditioning models. As Thorson (1990) points out, while there is some question about how much people can really be conditioned to respond under the classical conditioning model, there is reason to believe that people do link things together that have previously occurred together and, in particular, use this process of connection to make associations. This is a largely unconscious, nonrational form of mental activity described by Thorson as "the most parsimonious model of memory." Through associative conditioning fragments of information are linked to one another and, as one fragment is cued, it in turn activates the other unit or units. This how the cognitive network or attitude structure is built over time in memory. Certainly this process of linkages would only be strengthened by multi-channel messages that reinforce one another over time by building on the same associational structure. This demands coordination of messages and strategic planning to determine at what point and to what extent concept formation can be assisted by repetion.


The spreading activation model of memory is another way of explaining how this process of developing connections works. (Cameron 1990; Anderson 1983) Building on neural physiology, this model posits that concepts are linked in memory by pathways among the concepts built up of neurons or sets of neurons. The pathways are activated by a stimulus that then spreads to related networks in long-term memory. Neural net research approaches are based on this concept.

As Thorson explains in her discussion of how consumers process advertising, memory is the system that allows consumers to carry the effect of ad exposure over to the purchase opportunity. Likewise, memory is the system that allows consumers to carry over one piece of a previously processed message and link it to another similar or related message. Memory provides the processing system that makes it possible to link one experience with a communication to another experience, and to do so in such a way that the original perceived meaning is reinforced and elaborated upon. Without memory, the accumulated impact of repetition is impossible. Research by Zinkhan & Muderissoglu (1985) has also found that prior knowledge results in extensive long-term memory networks and activation of these more complex networks can lead to processing at higher levels of involvement.

Memory involves more than the filing away of discrete bits of information and, as Thorson also points out, even attitudes must be remembered. She also states that emotions produced by the experience of encountering a communication will always affect subsequent processing of memory and attitudes, regardless of whether it is produced in a high or low involvement situation. Furthermore she relates evidence that the dual-state ELM model may be inadequate because emotional impact seems to operate continuously in both involvement states, not just in low-involvement processing as the ELM model suggests. This is in line with the research of Pechmann and Stewart (1989) who note that it is not possible to classify commercials as either rational or emotional since most commercials contain heterogeneous or mixed stimuli. In other words, planning for message integration must also consider the contingent nature of cognitive and emotional responses and establish objectives and strategies that are complementary since both types of responses are operating to some degree simultaneously.


The primary objective of repetition is to expose the audience to a message enough times so that they understand, learn, and file it away in memory. But there is more to repetition than just filing processes; it also contributes to positive evaluation. Frequency-of-exposure research has consistently found that mere exposure to stimuli such as words or visual elements produced increasingly positive affect toward those stimuli. (Burgoon, et. al. 1981) Guthrie's law of associative inhibition suggests that unfamiliar stimuli evoke a wide range of responses, many of them competitive or incompatible, but that through repetition some of the responses become more dominant, and thus relieve the tension generated by the competing messages. In other words, habituated responses to familiar messages are more "comfortable" and reduce the stress of dealing with inconsistency, an idea that's in line with theories of selective exposure.

Novelty, Complexity, Familiarty In his research into novelty and complexity, Berlyne (1970) has also found that increased familiarity with complex stimuli produces more positive responses, although increased familiarity with simple stimuli can produce boredom. Media planners in advertising deal with the boredom question and frame questions on repetition levels in terms of this concept of message wearout. Additional research needs to be done on the repetition and wearout question using Berlyne's ideas of complexity and novelty, particularly in the arena of integrated message systems based on mutli-channel communication programs.

Carryover Effects But more than simple repetition, it is the carryover effects of message repetition that are also important to IMC. By carryover we mean the residual or cumulative effects of prior message exposures. As media planners have long known, after advertising is discontinued, brand sales may remain at the same level for an extended period of time. That is the carryover effect. What is difficult is understanding what level of repetition is necessary for effective carryover and how carryover effects are maintained or build over time. Unfortunately relatively little is known about how advertising carryover effects work and clearly this concept is even more important to an understanding of how synergy is managed in IMC message planning.

Other important related dimensions of carryover effects are wearin and wearout. As Pechmann and Stewart report, research into advertising media frequency and repetition has found that, in general, wearout probably will not occur until after three massed exposures. (Wearout means that the ad message no longer has any significant effect on its audience; wearin determines what level of repetition is necessary for a message to have a significant positive effect on the audience.) In spite of this commonly recognized rule of three, Pechmann and Stewart also make the point that in order to maximize carryover effects, it may be advantageous to expose consumers to a purportedly "worn out" ad again and again. The exposures beyond the "significant effect" level may not increase recall or understanding, however, it may prolong recall, and that, of course, is how carryover impact is maximized.

While advertising has developed a body of literature relating to wearout and wearin and that will be useful to IMC planners who are trying to gauge the value of multi-channel repetition, it is inexact science, however. That problem, in addition to the lack of knowledge about how carryover works, will only be compounded in the IMC situation with its opportunities for complex patterns of multi-channel repetition.


The notion of integrated marketing communication makes sense only if the concept of integration has something to offer to the effectiveness of marketing communication. What are the benefits of integration and, in particular, can integration be used to create synergy--the idea that linkages created in a receiver's mind as a result of messages that interconnect will create impact beyond the power of any one message on its own? A review of the literature in related fields suggests that there are certain key dimensions to integration that can be summarized as a circle of synergy--concept, audience, and channel surrounded by repetition and coordination to lock a message concept in memory. These factors are manipulated by IMC strategic planners to create and enhance message effectiveness.

This concept of a circle of synergy drives an entirely new marketing communication research agenda. This review provides a platform of relevant theoretical approaches to use as a foundation for a new set of research questions focused on integration. If a stream of research or a thread of theory seems to bring relevant ideas to the notion of integration and synergy, then presumably it also will contribute a new set of research questions that can be tailored specifically to the concept of integrated marketing communication.


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Sandra E. Moriarty, Professor

Journalism and Mass Communication

University of Colorado

Boulder CO 80309





The notion of integrated marketing communication makes sense only if the concept of integration has something to offer to the effectiveness of marketing communication. What are the benefits of integration and, in particular, can integration be used to create synergy--the idea that linkages created in a receiver's mind as a result of messages that interconnect will create impact beyond the power of any one message on its own? IMC suggests that messages that are conceptually integrated and repeat essential units of meaning over time through different channels and from different sources will come together to create coherent knowledge and attitude structures in the receiver.

A circle of synergy depicts this concept and the relationships embedded in it--the key elements of concept, channel, and audience response contained within a field of repetition and coordination. The circle represents memory, the most important element in synergy. The concept of a circle of synergy evolved from a review of the literature in consumer behavior, psychology, perception, information processing, communication, and educational psychology. The model provides the structure for an analysis of theoretical foundations of synergy and the IMC research opportunities that derive from them. If a stream of research or a thread of theory seems to bring relevant ideas to the notion of integration and synergy, then presumably it also will contribute a new set of research questions that can be tailored specifically to the concept of integrated communication.