Two women, Julie and Sarah, sit down to watch an infomercial advertising a new kitchen appliance. The infomercial features a celebrity spokesperson, live demonstrations of the product, testimonials from audience members and a limited-time offer for free accessories for those who order the appliance during the show. Julie carefully notes each fact about the appliance, focusing on what it can do and whether she will find it useful. Sarah, however, can’t resist a deal for free stuff and is impressed by seeing the product endorsed by her favorite celebrity. Both women decide to order the appliance. Three weeks later, Julie is enjoying the benefits of her purchase, while the same appliance sits collecting dust in Sarah’s kitchen. Though two women received the same message, they were swayed by it in different ways and to different extents–with widely divergent outcomes.
The Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) was designed to explain such differences in persuasion and how those differences affect attitudes and value judgments. The term “elaboration” refers to the cognitive act of analyzing a persuasive argument. Developed by psychologists Richard E. Petty and John Cacioppo in the 1980s, ELM describes the basic processes and variables involved in persuasive communication. According to the model, any feature of a persuasive message can impact how a person comes to view various objects, issues and people. ELM outlines these features, identifies which are at play during an act of persuasion, describes how they affect a person’s judgment and lists the consequences.
ELM also measures people’s willingness to engage in elaboration, which depends upon their motivation and ability. People feel most motivated to elaborate upon a message when it holds significant relevance for them. An innate enjoyment of thinking can also drive elaboration. “Ability” refers to the knowledge, time and mental resources needed to fully analyze an argument. Like with similar theories of communication, research is often conducted through questionnaires.
Elaboration Likelihood Model contains the following assumptions:
- Attitudes affect behavior by guiding decisions. Attitudes result primarily from persuasion.
- There are two routes to persuasion: the central route and the peripheral route. The route chosen by an individual depends upon the extent to which the individual is willing to critically analyze, or elaborate upon, the content of the persuasive message.
- When people are motivated and able to elaborate upon a message, they usually choose the central route. Otherwise, they use the peripheral route.
- Changes in attitude can occur with either route, but those occurring with the central route are typically stronger, more stable and longer-lasting than those occurring with the peripheral route.
The Central Route
For central route persuasion to occur, two elements are needed: enough information within the message to facilitate a thorough analysis of its argument and the message recipient’s willingness to engage in elaboration. With the central route, the recipient uses evaluation, recall, critical judgment and inferential thinking to carefully examine ideas, determine their merit and weigh the consequences of acting upon the message. Ultimately, the extent to which the recipient is persuaded depends upon his or her unique cognitive responses to the message. Recipients who regard a message as being relevant, well-formed and convincing will usually respond positively to it, even if the message contradicts their original beliefs about an issue.
Julie, from the opening example, illustrates central route thinking. While watching the infomercial about a special kitchen appliance, she carefully evaluates the product’s performance and reliability to determine whether it would be a wise investment for her. She isn’t impressed by the free offer or the celebrity endorsement. Because her decision to respond to the persuasive message is backed by a thorough analysis of the facts, she continues to find the product beneficial even after the newness of the purchase has worn off.
The Peripheral Route
Individuals taking the peripheral route to persuasion are swayed not by sophisticated arguments, but by the message’s superficial characteristics, such as whether the speaker is likeable. No analysis of the argument’s merits is involved. Instead, when faced with a persuasive message, the recipient follows a rule of thumb to quickly decide whether to accept or reject it. Recipients may accept a message based on a catchy slogan, an expert or celebrity endorsement, the attractiveness of the message or the quality of the presentation. Six cues in communication signal an appeal to peripheral route persuasion:
- Reciprocation – The speaker implies he has done the listener a favor by informing her about his idea, so she should accept his message in return.
- Consistency – The speaker says his methods are “the way it’s done”
- Social Proof – The speaker claims everyone is buying his product
- Liking – The speaker convinces the listener that his product or idea is likeable
- Authority – The speaker is an expert or someone with influence
- Scarcity – Involves a limited-time offer or a limited supply
Due to time constraints and limited audience interest, most television and radio advertisements appeal to peripheral route persuasion. Such methods are also used to hide weak arguments or to reach audiences that are unwilling or unable to process more complex messages. Usually, peripheral route arguments produce changes in attitudes or behaviors by offering rewards for taking a desired action. However, such changes are typically weak and temporary. Sarah, from the opening example, demonstrates peripheral route persuasion by basing her purchasing decision on a celebrity endorsement and an offer for free accessories. Since neither of these factors convinces her that the product is useful, it soon sits unused in her kitchen.
ELM is an umbrella model for analyzing all persuasive methods and their cognitive effects. As a result, it has broad applications in the fields of advertising and psychology.