Advertisers in the mammoth Asian market would do well to read research published in the December issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (Vol. 10, No. 4). The findings suggest that words presented early in an ad may be more likely to be "top of mind" in English than in Chinese. Thus, copywriters can use word placement to shape ad impact, especially in English. What's more, the authors point out that "global advertising campaigns may not be able to generalize copy-test results across alphabetic and logographic language groups."

The difference may rest in the very different natures of the languages. Nader Tavassoli, PhD, of the London Business School, and Yih Hwai Lee, PhD, of the National University of Singapore, studied how the sequence in which adjectives appear shapes the perception of what they modify, relative to language--English or Chinese. More than 100 Singaporeans fluent in both English and Chinese appeared to be much more sensitive to word order when those words appeared in English than in Chinese.

English words are built letter by letter; letters represent sounds. As a result, say the authors, English speakers read in a linear sequence, letter by letter, left to right; it's what's up front that counts. Alternatively, Chinese words (as well as Japanese and Korean words) are pictorial characters that represent meaning--a more holistic approach in which order matters little, if at all.

In a lab experiment, either positive ("charming," "unique," "cozy," "famous") or negative ("noisy," "greasy," "eclectic," "busy") attribute words were flashed one by one on a screen. After a brief nonverbal distraction task, participants had two minutes to rate the positivity or negativity of attributes they saw, and two minutes to rate a hypothetical dining experience in a restaurant with those attributes. They also wrote one attribute per line on a blank sheet of paper, in the order they came to mind. When participants evaluated the imagined dining experience based on what they remembered, the order in which words were presented mattered a lot more in English than it did in Chinese.

In other words, a "cozy, noisy" restaurant was more likely to be thought of fondly than a "busy, charming" restaurant. This result was buttressed by a second experiment. The authors report that the order in which information was presented about a product shaped how consumers felt about it, if they preferred it to another product and whether they wanted to get more information. The effect was stronger when information was presented in English than in Chinese.

The authors also analyzed field-test data from China and the United Kingdom provided by international market researcher Millward Brown. They found that mentioning a brand name in the first five seconds of an ad had a more positive effect in English than in Chinese, where there was actually a negative effect.

Tavassoli and Lee interpret their findings to mean that language may not change perception, but can affect classification and language-based memory of events.

Beyond advertising, the findings reveal how people might remember and consider any information presented first in a list, but more so if it's in English than in Chinese. Tavassoli and Lee conclude that writing unconsciously affects everyday thought.

--R. ADELSON

RELATED ARTICLES