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The Elaboration Likelihood Model and Web-Based Persuasion - INTRODUCTION, BACKGROUND, CONCLUSION, FUTURE TRENDS

peripheral central cue elm

Kirk W. Duthler
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, USA


Discussing Google’s reliance on the AdWord as a major source of revenue, Wired’s Josh McHugh (2004) wrote of the obstacles faced by Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page in the late 1990’s:

… the biggest challenge was convincing venture capitalists that Google could actually make money serving up minimalist, fast loading, text-only ads. It was 1998, after all, the heyday of elaborate splash pages and animated, brand-touting banners that danced at the top of every portal…Google didn’t buy in—a stubbornness that proved brilliant. Six years later, those skinny little text-based ads are a huge money maker, accounting for more than $600 million in revenue last year… . (p. 120)

As McHugh (2004) points out, not only do persuasive appeals in digital media vary from the pallid and benign Google-like appeal to the flashy and vivid banner advertisement or corporate publicity site, but the simple Google appeal is highly successful. Recent research suggests a promising and powerful explanatory conceptualization of this continuum be based on a concept labeled peripheral cue complexity.

Peripheral cue complexity describes the degree to which a multimedia message contains production elements (visual and/or auditory effects), which are not directly related to the central meaning of the message. Rigorous experiment-based research reveals messages low in peripheral cue complexity, like that of the Google AdWord, are more appropriate and effective for highly involved and motivated individuals. While, messages with higher degrees of peripheral cue complexity pique the attention of minimally involved individuals and lead to more elaborate and focused cognitive processing of the message itself (Duthler, 2001; Singh & Dalal, 1999).

Peripheral cue complexity is derived from a significant theoretical model of persuasion called the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) and extends the research into the cognitive processing of multimedia presentations. A significant body of research literature pertaining to the ELM from the social sciences of communication studies and social psychology helps the message designer and communication practitioner understand the information processing strategies of individuals faced with persuasive appeals. Recent incarnations of this literature may help to explain the wildly successful, yet plain Google AdWord. It may also explain the continued popularity of the Internet banner advertisements and the sophisticated, planned, visually complex corporate or commodity-related World Wide Web (WWW) site.


Though first proposed more than 20 years ago, the ELM (Petty & Cacioppo, 1981, 1986) helps to explain how information seekers process persuasive messages. Recent work (Duthler, 2001; Karsen & Korgaomkar, 2001; Singh & Dalal, 1999) to refine and adapt the ELM to digital media such as the Web has proven fruitful. An exploration of the fundamental tenants of the ELM, some criticisms, and recent refinements will help demonstrate its applicability to persuasion in digital media.

The ELM is an information processing theory of persuasion proposing two routes individuals take to analyze a persuasive appeal. The central route to persuasion, also labeled as central processing, involves high elaboration or careful scrutiny and thinking about an argument and its merits, to arrive at an evaluation of the advocated message. An individual taking the central route to persuasion carefully dissects the argument, weighing the data, arguments, and warrants of the message. The central processor is one who pays ultimate attention to the informational content of the persuasive appeal. On the other hand, an individual taking the peripheral route to persuasion, also labeled peripheral processing, expends very little cognitive effort or low elaboration, instead relying on simple cues in the persuasive situation to arrive at an evaluation of a message. The peripheral processor foregoes consideration of the textual/informational dimension of the persuasive message, in favor of the sensory, non-content related dimension of the persuasive appeal.

According to the ELM, these routes to persuasion are assumed to be mediated by the motivation and/or ability of the individual. Because the central route is more difficult, a person with greater motivation is more likely to engage in central processing (Gass & Seiter, 2003). Motivation is typically operationalized by creating circumstances where outcome-relevant involvement is either high or low. Outcome-relevant involvement is the degree to which the economic or social outcome advocated in the message is important to the individual (Slater, 1997). When outcome-relevance is high, individuals are likely to take the central route. When outcome-relevance is low, individuals are likely to take the peripheral route. Even if an individual is highly motivated, they may not have the ability to process the message and thus must engage in peripheral processing. Ability can be affected by lack of previous knowledge, difficulty in analyzing complex material, distraction, a lack of time, or possibly a slow Internet connection. The key to the ELM is the proposal that when both motivation and ability are high, then elaboration likelihood is high and individuals are likely to follow the central route. However, when motivation and/or ability are low, elaboration likelihood is low and individuals are likely to follow the peripheral route. As either motivation or ability to process an argument are decreased, then peripheral cues become more important determinates of persuasion (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986).

Peripheral cues are variables that allow an individual to arrive at a judgment of an argument without processing the message arguments themselves (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986, p. 18). Commonly researched peripheral cues include source attractiveness (Forret & Turban, 1996), credibility or expertise (Petty, Cacioppo, & Goldman, 1981), argument length or number or arguments (Petty & Cacioppo, 1984), and even fragrances (DeBono, 1992). Furthermore, as individuals arrive at an attitude via the central route, attitudes are thought to be more accessible, persistent, resistant to change, and a better predictor of behavior than when the peripheral route is taken (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). Research addressing the ELM is usually concerned with identifying the variables that affect elaboration likelihood (motivation and ability) and the effects of different variables (potential peripheral cues) in the persuasion context. An extensive research program supports these general relationships and conclusions.

Singh and Dalal’s (1999) work is among the first published studies directly connecting the ELM with the WWW. The value of their study is the differentiation between the Web searcher and the Web surfer as central and peripheral processors, respectively. According to these researchers, the surfer is a hedonistic, fun-seeker and explorer who desires entertainment and stimulation…“likely to land at a Web site, linger for a brief period and take off for another more attractive site in their path” (p. 95). The surfer exemplifies the peripheral processor (low motivation/ability). The searcher is a goal-oriented, information seeker, likely to spend more time at preferred sites (p.95). The searcher is typified by the central processor (high motivation and high ability).

Imagine Signh and Dalal’s (1999) searcher attempting to find the best on-line value for a digital camera. Deciding to explore Froogle.com (Google’s shopping site); the searcher types the model number of the digital camera into the search engine. Froogle.com returns eight AdWords and 21,200 total search results. The searcher not is likely to explore all 21,200 results, but will evaluate many WWW sites related to the search. The searcher will explore the primary search results and the AdWords, evaluating, price, retailer credibility, return policies, shipping prices, finally deciding on a retailer from whom to purchase the item. Contrast this to a surfer happening upon a manufacturer’s Web site. Such intense comparison and evaluation will not take place. Rather the surfer might be drawn to the site because of the emotion-laden, eye-popping graphics or enticing interactivity. The surfer will spring for another site as soon as the initial interest is gone.

However, despite the explanatory power of the ELM it is not without its critics and has been reproached for a number of reasons. The foremost criticism of the ELM is the lack of a sound, non-ambiguous, well-defined and concrete conceptualization of peripheral cues. According to Petty and Cacioppo (1986) “…peripheral cues refer to stimuli in the persuasion context that can affect attitudes without necessitating processing of the message arguments” (p. 18). Based on Petty and Cacioppo’s definition or peripheral cues, one can conclude that peripheral cues are defined as any variable affecting attitudes in the absence of argument scrutiny. Such a definition of peripheral cues has been criticized for being ill-defined and ambiguous (Duthler, 2001; Eagly & Chaiken, 1993; Stephenson & Palmgreen, 2001). The central criticism of this attack is focused on Petty and Cacioppo’s admission that a variable in the persuasion context can act in one of three roles. Petty and Cacioppo (1986) state that “variables can affect the amount and direction of attitude change by (a) serving as persuasive arguments, (b) serving as peripheral cues, and/or © affecting the extent or direction of issue and argument elaboration” (p. 16). Thus, source attractiveness, most commonly thought of as only a peripheral cue, may serve as a peripheral cue, an argument, or it may affect the extent or direction of message processing. Petty and Cacioppo have been severely criticized for this ambiguity and lack of operational precision (Duthler, 2001; Eagly & Chaiken, 1993; Stiff, 1986; Stiff & Boster, 1987; Stephenson, 1999; Stephenson & Palmgreen, 2001).


As evidenced by Google’s increasing dependence on the advertising revenue of the AdWord or the pervasiveness of highly sophisticated commodity-related Web sites such as Budweiser beer, Tide laundry detergent or any other highly produced corporate or product Web site and banner advertisements, the Web is a place infused with persuasive appeals. The ELM does well to explain these fundamentally different approaches to persuasion.

The ELM offers sophisticated explanations for Google’s efficient, text-based, targeted advertisements resulting in clickthrough rates of 15%—a figure 10 times the effectiveness rate of banner advertising (McHugh, 2004). The low degree of peripheral cue complexity does not deter the central processor/searcher. In fact, such ads are precisely what the central processor is seeking—concise information directly related to the economic or social outcome sought allowing them to process significant amounts of information efficiently and thoroughly. On the other hand, the high degree of peripheral cue complexity designed into the banner ad or commodity-related WWW site is the perfect wave enticing the surfer.


The future of research on peripheral cue complexity is bright. Research is needed to flesh out the effects of peripheral cue complexity. Such research should proceed in a number of directions. First, its relationship to the development, design, and technology of Web sites should be explored. Other independent variables may need to be included in studies related to peripheral cue complexity. Particularly within the domain of Internet-based media, download speed or bandwidth becomes an important variable to consider. As the degree of peripheral cue complexity increases so too does the time it takes to download the information to the recipients’ computer. These delays between access and reception may significantly influence the effectiveness of persuasive communications. This raises the question of how much is too much? In other words, at what point does the degree of peripheral cue complexity become detrimental, resulting in distraction, less attention to arguments, and perhaps less persuasion?


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