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  • Viewer Miscomprehension of Televised Communication: Selected Findings
  • Jacob Jacoby and Wayne D. Hoyer (bio)

Jacoby, Jacob and Wayne Hoyer. 1982. Viewer miscomprehension of televised communication: Selected findings. Journal of Marketing. 46 (Fall), 12–26. Reprinted with the permission of the American Marketing Association.

The major findings of a large scale AAAA study into the miscomprehension of televised communication are summarized. Implications for advertising research and public policy are discussed.

The past decade has witnessed an increasing amount of attention paid to the issues of deceptive advertising, misleading advertising, corrective advertising and affirmative disclosure statements. This emphasis, however, has not yet addressed a logically prior set of questions concerning the existence, degree, correlates and causes of message miscomprehension. The evidence that is available in these regards tends to be fragmentary, anecdotal and impressionistic. At least since Lasswell (1948) comprehension has generally been considered a major result of the process of communication. Further, according to many formulations (Engel, Blackwell and Kollat 1978; Fishbein and Ajzen 1975; Lavidge and Steiner 1961; McGuire 1976), comprehension is assumed to be a logical antecedent to other effects─ retention in memory, belief formation and change, attitude formation and change, and behavioral intentions─ which are theorized to result from communication.

Miscomprehension─ which results when the receiver extracts either an incorrect, or a confused meaning from a communication (see Jacoby, Nelson, and Hoyer 1982)─ is essentially the converse of accurate comprehension. Although comprehension/miscomprehension has been studied extensively in various disciplines such as psychology and education, it is surprising to find little systematic attention to the subject of miscomprehension in regard to the mass media (Pool et al. 1973). Restricting analysis to television a comprehensive review of 2500 published items in the scientific literature reveals only a handful of studies dealing with comprehension of television content, all of those employing samples of children (Comstock et al. 1978, pp. 270–276). Not a single investigation seems to have been conducted that employed adults as respondents.

Implicit in the arguments advanced by some consumer advocates seems to be the assumption that, if they worked at it, advertisers could make sure that their advertisements weren’t miscomprehended (Gardner 1975, p. 46). A problem with this view, however, is that it ignores our contemporary understanding of the communication process. An alternative assumption is that virtually all forms of communication are subject to being miscomprehended. Stated somewhat differently, there is not necessarily any correspondence between a given communication as interpreted and remembered by the receiver. This is because the meaning a receiver extracts from a given communication consists of both meaning asserted directly (as expressed in the message) and meaning inferred by the individual receiver. These inferred meanings are a unique function of each receiver’s total sum of prior experiences and the set of expectations he/she brings to the situation (cf Harris and Monaco 1978).

If the alternative assumption is correct, then the fundamental question to be resolved is not “Does advertising cause miscomprehension?” but rather, “Is there actually a higher level of miscomprehension associated with advertising than with other comparable forms of mass media communication.” In other words, do advertisements exhibit relatively greater degrees of miscomprehension?

Given the lack of hard benchmark evidence, the Educational Foundation of the American Association of Advertising Agencies decided to fund three investigations on the questions surrounding miscomprehension. This report is a highly condensed summary of the basic findings generated by the first of these investigations. The primary objectives of this investigation were:

  • • To determine whether viewers do, in fact, miscomprehend televised communications. 1

  • • Assuming that some degree of miscomprehension is detected, to determine whether there is a “normative range” of miscomprehension associated with televised communications.

  • • To determine whether commercial advertising tends to have a rate of miscomprehension that differs from rates for other forms of televised communications.

  • • To determine whether viewer groups possessing certain demographic characteristics are more prone to miscomprehending televised communications than are others.


Given these objectives, three core concepts needed to be operationalized. These were communications, viewers and miscomprehension. We concentrate here on describing what was actually done. A detailed discussion of the underlying conceptual rationale is provided in Jacoby, Hoyer and Sheluga (1980, Ch. 2).


Sixty different communications that...

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