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Companies often use different accents in their marketing communications and accents typically represent a strategic choice. For example, current Orbit chewing gum television ads feature a woman who stops shoppers and, in a British accent, asks, "Do you have a dirty mouth?" Does her British accent matter to consumers watching the ad? Do they like, prefer, understand, and retain information delivered by one accent over another? Would they feel differently toward Orbit if the spokesperson had a Southern, Midwestern, or Russian accent? Through a series of studies, we find evidence that when advertisers choose a spokesperson's accent, they face a trade-off between liking and memory. Our results indicate that a spokesperson's accent can significantly affect how consumers perceive products and services, how they process and respond to persuasion appeals, and what they remember about an ad. Through the construct of accent standardness, we provide new insights into why consumers have more favorable attitudes toward products advertised with a standard (e.g., British) accent versus a nonstandard accent (e.g., American Deep South), and why the mechanism that influences consumers' favorability of such accents may hinder their memory for the messages delivered by a spokesperson with an accent.
A manager's strategic decision to leverage an accent when communicating to consumers is a complex one (Erdogan and Drollinger 2008). In addition to speech characteristics such as speech rate and voice pitch (Chattopadhyay et al. 2003; Moore, Hausknecht, and Thamodaran 1986), advertising managers must consider factors including consumers' liking of and preference for the accent, comprehension of the accent, and retention of the key messages. Research on accents and personal selling has emphasized that accents tend to hinder the effectiveness of salespeople and spokespersons. Speech divergence is perceived as unfavorable; accented communications evoke "hidden agendas" and negative social stereotypes, and decrease trust and perceived similarity, which results in erosion of spokesperson credibility and decreased purchase intentions (DeShields et al. 1997; DeShields and de los Santos 2000; Stafford, Stafford, and Day 2002). Our research, however, explores how the standardness of an accent can change consumer responses, resulting in both positive and negative reactions depending on the accent.
We posit that consumers' attitudes toward a message depends on the degree of accent standardness, the systemization and acceptance of a formal set of norms defining correct usage among language users (Giles and Powesland 1975; Stewart 1972). Standardness comprises two related components: (1) a context component, that is, the extent to which an accent is perceived as correct and is associated with education and formal attributes of a society, and (2) a social-class component, that is, the extent to which the accent is associated with the highest socioeconomic levels of a society (e.g., British Royal Court accent versus an immigrant accent). Hence, standard accents, compared with nonstandard accents, tend to be perceived as more correct and prestigious. Although standard accents may be attributable to class and even concentrated in certain geographical areas, standardness is a linguistic distinction within a language and is regarded as geographically independent of the listener's location. An accent's standardness is not relative to a specific area and is not related to whether the accent can be classified as locally or commonly heard.
Variations of the English language are characterized on a standard-to-nonstandard continuum. For example, British Received Pronunciation (BRP), or "BBC English," is standard spoken English for the United Kingdom (Skinner 1990), and is a widely accepted pedagogical model for English learners (Kachru 1981). Based on historical, social, political, and commercial influences, in non-British contexts such as the United States or Australia, BRP is an overarching English-language standard (Callan and Gallois 1987; Giles and Powesland 1975; Milroy and Milroy 1999). On the nonstandard end of the continuum, the most widely recognized nonstandard American English dialect is Southern American English (SAE) (Preston 1996). The perceived substandard nature of nonstandard-English dialects, such as SAE, "connote[s] various degrees of inferiority, with that connotation of inferiority carried over to those who speak a dialect" (Wardhaugh 2002, p. 28). In sum, nonstandard dialects are perceived as inferior relative to standard English, by both standard- and nonstandard-speaking individuals (Niedzielski and Preston 2000). BRP is widely perceived as standard (correct and prestigious) across English variations, and is a foundation for standard American accents, whereas accents such as SAE are widely understood to be less standard.
As outlined in our conceptual framework (see Figure 1), we propose that the extent to which a spokesperson's accent is more or less standard influences both attitudes and memory. We hypothesize that as standardness increases, overall evaluations of the brand also increase. Standard accents are less familiar, more exclusive, and not widely used in everyday language. Receivers must direct their attentional and processing resources toward perceiving the standard accent, and devote fewer resources to the content itself. As a result, we also hypothesize that as standardness increases, memory for the advertised brand decreases.
This research makes several important contributions to advertising theory and practice. First, we demonstrate that evaluatory judgments can transfer directly from a spokesperson accent to an advertised product. Second, we examine the trade-off between preference and message recall that arises when selecting a spokesperson accent. In our accent standardness framework, persuasion itself is only half the picture; recall also plays an important role that must be considered. No prior work has examined the role of accent standardness in persuasion and the trade-off between preference and recall that occurs due to its underlying favorability and familiarity dimensions. Third, we demonstrate that spokesperson accent standardness impacts product preference beyond country-of-origin/congruency effects, regardless of the message content or whether there is a congruent "fit" between the spokesperson and the product. Fourth, we examine the process by which accent standardness works and demonstrate that this may be nonconscious. Fifth, we test our theory using contemporary variables, such as star ratings, which are conceptually consistent with well-established measures but are also of importance to advertising researchers and practitioners.
Favorability and Perceived Quality
The standard accent, by definition, is connected historically to the highest levels of socioeconomic status. The imposed norm hypothesis argues that standard accents are perceived as more favorable relative to nonstandard accents due to social and cultural norms (Giles et al. 1974; Preston and Long 2002; Wells 1982). People find standard accents more aesthetically pleasing and their positive properties are emphasized across cultures. For example, American consumers tend to prefer British accents over nonstandard American dialects based on centuries of historical norms.
Sociolinguistic research shows that speakers with standard English accents are seen as having high social status and as being competent, smart, educated, and formal (Giles 1995; Lambert 1967; Preston 2004; Seggie, Fulmizi, and Stewart 1982). Standard accents and their speakers are perceived as more competent and sophisticated (Giles et al. 1995). We propose that the overarching prestige afforded standard-accented spokespersons leads consumers to evaluate products more favorably and to perceive them as being of higher quality when a standard-accented spokesperson presents the message. We formally hypothesize:
Hypothesis 1: Products advertised by standard-accented spokespersons are perceived more favorably than products advertised by nonstandard-accented spokespersons.
Congruity and Country-of-Origin Effects
Some cross-cultural accent preferences may relate to country-of-origin effects (LeClerc, Schmitt, and Dube 1994), such that when a country evokes stereotypes consistent with product attributes, the country-of-origin effect increases evaluations of a product. This suggests that the content of the message and how the message content relates to the focal accent may also influence perceptions of the product. In social identity theory (Tajfel 1981), individuals precategorize others along the dimensions of speech, style, and accent based on their own socialization and cultural values. Lalwani, Lwin, and Li (2005) posit that this may operate in a manner similar to a country-of-origin effect. They provide an example used (but not tested) in Dryer (1982) in which a spokesperson advertising a foreign product like French cheese such as Camembert or Roquefort may be more persuasive if speaking with a French accent. The audience is not expected to understand the literal meaning of the words, but merely to recognize that they are French--a sign that highlights "Frenchness." Congruency at this gestalt level appears to affect preferences. Americans prefer to hear BBC broadcasts with a British accent (versus an American accent) when the BBC is broadcasting in America (Jones 2003).
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Although literature on country-of-origin effects and social categorization suggests that accents should lead to favorable results when there is congruency between product attributes and specific stereotypes triggered by the accents, we propose that congruency is not always necessary for a favorable impression. Consumers' responses to and evaluations of the product represented by the spokesperson's accent can be independent of their responses to the message content. In fact, the favorability of the sound itself, such as a standard accent (e.g., BRP) being preferred to a nonstandard accent (e.g., SAE), may be more important for the perceiver than the content of the message or the congruency of the spokesperson and focal offering. This is due to the way accents are processed. Individuals distinguish the gross phonetic, phonological, …