The Embodied Meaning of Media Forms

R Lance Holbert. The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice. Editor: James Price Dillard & Michael Pfau. Sage Publications. 2002.

From its inception, most social scientific Persuasion research has dealt with the influence of content on attitude formation and change (e.g., Janis & Feshbach, 1953; Johnson & Eagly, 1989; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986; Sherif & Hovland, 1961). Indeed, a tendency to privilege content over form is endemic to all areas of the communication sciences (McLuhan, 1964). This chapter seeks to establish a theoretical foundation that allows for a systematic empirical analysis of a particular type of media form effect, one that stems from the inherent physical constraints of media technologies. Once this theoretical groundwork is presented, focus is given to future areas of research in the context of Persuasion.

The definition of form effect used in this chapter stems directly from Meyrowitz (1997). He defined the central question of medium theory, a line of theorizing devoted to form effects, as the following: “How do the particular characteristics of a medium make it physically, psychologically, and socially different from other media and from face-to-face interaction, regardless of the particular messages that are communicated through it?” (p. 61). Thus, a form effect is the result of inherent physical, psychological, and social constraints established by a particular media technology, not the messages that are disseminated via that technology.

The theoretical approach outlined in this chapter is born from a marriage of a physiological Perspective for the study of media form influence outlined by McLuhan (1964) and some of the recent theoretical work on embodied cognition (e.g., Barsalou, 1999; Glenberg, 1997). The focus of this approach is on the unique environments created by various media technologies, with particular attention being paid to how we physically engage with these environments at the sensory level (e.g., use of the ear to engage radio, use of the eye to engage television). This chapter posits that before individuals begin to engage and process the content being provided through media, they must first interact with the environment created by these technologies. It is the unique physical environment created by each form that constrains the possible meanings that can be extracted from media content, and this manner of a media form effect may have an important set of implications for several areas of Persuasion research (e.g., involvement, attitude accessibility, affect).

Prior Studies of Form

There are several lines of research that have focused on various aspects of form influence. Some of these areas are more closely aligned than others with an embodied approach. However, the approach outlined in this chapter builds on portions of each of the areas summarized in what follows. It is important that each approach be outlined in brief to better establish where an embodied approach to form fits in relative to these more well-established lines of research.

The most widely recognized form-based theoretical construct is medium theory (e.g., Meyrowitz, 1994). However, Meyrowitz (1985) pointed out that most work in medium theory tends to provide more of a Perspective than actual social scientific theory. Indeed, medium theory can best be defined as a metaconcept. This term describes conceptual conglomerates, each of which refers to a domain of phenomena rather than to “a specific set of concepts and their connections” (Pan & McLeod, 1991, p. 141). If communication scientists are going to be able to better understand the role of form, then they are going to have to construct a more well-structured theoretical approach that will allow for an analysis of the underlying processes of the effects described by Meyrowitz and other medium theorists. To achieve an empirically testable theory of the type of form influence described by medium theorists, the first step that needs to be taken is to turn away from the macro-level theorizing that has dominated this study of form (e.g., Eisenstein, 1979; Havelock, 1963, 1982; Ong, 1977, 1982) and return to a micro-level Perspective. An embodied approach to form seeks to return to a focus on the individual.

In terms of more empirically minded lines of research, there has been a series of studies that have focused on a micro-level analysis of form influence. A line of research defined as a limited capacity approach centers on a study of human physical reactions to media forms, with the bulk of this work centering on the study of one medium: television (e.g., Lang, Dhillon, & Dong, 1995; Lang, Newhagen, & Reeves, 1996; Thorson & Lang, 1992). This theoretical framework suggests that viewers of television have a limited capacity to process information and that television messages can “overload this processing system fairly easily and as a result the information contained in the television message is lost” (Lang, 1995, p. 88). All of the previously mentioned research points to the fact that channel factors are at play in how a message is processed and, as a result, have an influence on how effective a message can be in terms of attitude change.

However, it is important to note that the type of form effect outlined by Lang and colleagues is not the same type of form influence outlined by medium theorists. Medium theory deals with a comparative analysis of influence in order to detect the unique impact of each medium. By contrast, each study conducted by Lang and colleagues focuses on a single medium and deals with a set of structural features (e.g., edits, cuts, zooms) that are alterable by the creator of a message. The form effects given attention in medium theory fall beyond the scope of human manipulation and are the lone result of the constraints created by our media technologies. This chapter defines the form effects of medium theory as primary and those studied by Lang as secondary. This differentiation parallels that which is pointed to by Meyrowitz (1998).

Another important area of research is the work of Salomon (1979), who argued that each medium of communication creates its own unique symbol system. The inherent characteristics of a medium allow for the creation of unique symbols, and this has an impact on the cognitive skills that are employed by individuals to extract meaning from the messages. However, Salomon revealed his frustration with the information processing school of psychology, an approach that, broadly defined, was employed by Lang and others. Salomon concluded that Fodor’s (1975) mentalese is not a theoretical grounding that serves well to explain the type of form influence he found in his research. Finally, in reference to his own approach to how individuals gain meaning from medium-based symbols, Salomon (1979) stated the following: “Although the conception of internalized language [an information processing/cognitivist approach] may still be vague, we have no plausible alternatives to replace it with” (p. 125). An embodied approach to the study of form may be just such an alternative.

Finally, several empirical analyses have been conducted to study the relative strength of various media forms in inducing a broad range of effects (Burns & Beier, 1973; Cantril & Allport, 1935; Cohen, 1976; McGinnies, 1965; Neuman, Just, & Crigler, 1992; Pfau, 1990; Wiegman, 1989; Wilke, 1934; Wilson, 1973; Worchel, Andreoli, & Eason, 1975). At best, the findings concerning the influence of form in these studies are inconclusive.

Some studies show that one medium of communication is more influential under certain conditions (e.g., print is suPerior to radio [McGinnies, 1965]), but others find that under other conditions the opposite is true (e.g., radio is suPerior to print [Cantril & Allport, 1935; Wilke, 1934]). Still other studies have shown little in the way of main effects in terms of media form influence on behavior or attitude change (Neuman, 1992; Worchel et al., 1975), yet some have found that there is significant influence of form (Burns & Beier, 1973). Much of the difficulty in trying to amass any coherent understanding of the impact of form based on these studies is that there is no clear or consistent theoretical construct employed by these researchers. Many of the questions posed by these studies are haphazard at best, and as a result, the findings remain muddied and unstable across time. This chapter is a first step in trying to remedy this unfortunate situation.

In terms of Persuasion, there are two studies that are of particular interest. A study by Chaiken and Eagly (1976) revealed that media forms interact with important components of the Persuasion process such as comprehension. Print messages were found to be more Persuasive for material deemed difficult, and television and radio messages were found to be more Persuasive for material defined as easy. In addition, a study by Pfau (1990), building on the theoretical work of Meyrowitz (1985), found that relational (source) cues were dominant for the medium of television as compared to print’s primary source of influence being its content. What is most important to recognize from these studies is that media form effects have been found in the context of Persuasion.

Synthesis of Past Research

In summation, in the context of the study of form, we have a theoretical base that addresses the issue of primary form effects, but it is a framework that does not deal effectively with the individual (physiological and psychological) levels of analysis. In addition, this approach currently does not lend itself well to empirical analysis (cf. Pfau, 1990). Conversely, we have a series of empirical studies encompassing several different research agendas that show that media form effects do exist at the lower levels of analysis. Although many of these studies focus on the levels of analysis that are of interest to this chapter, the overwhelming majority of these studies deal with secondary form effects. In the end, what is needed is a theoretical base that will allow for the study of primary media form influence at the micro levels of analysis. This chapter seeks to outline the makings of this sort of a theory. By combining the theoretical work of McLuhan (1964) with the work on embodied cognition, more specifically Glenberg (1997), a framework can be created that will allow for a systematic analysis of primary form effects at the individual level. In the end, this new theoretical approach is seen as an extension of much of the work of Salomon (1979) and Olson (1988), but with an interest on the study of both the inherent constraints of a medium and several individual difference variables that can affect the role of form influence.

Mcluhan’s Physiological Perspective

McLuhan’s physiological Perspective has met with much criticism (e.g., O’Neill, 1981), and even medium theorists such as Meyrowitz (1985) have stated that McLuhan was not at all specific as to how the media have an impact in this manner. However, it is important to note that the early work of McLuhan (1962, 1964) was focused at the physiological level of analysis, and with the notable exception of Carey (1967), few have recognized this nuance within McLuhan’s work. When McLuhan (1964) first claimed that the medium is the message, he was stating that “the effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinion or concepts but alter the sense ratios or patterns of Perception steadily and without resistance” (p. 33). He went on to state, “As an extension and expediter of the sense life, any medium at once affects the entire field of the senses” (p. 54). It is important to note that when McLuhan talked about involvement with a medium, he was focusing on how we are physiologically connected to our forms of communication.

For McLuhan, form embodied meaning (Carey, 1981). As McLeod and Chaffee (1972) correctly pointed out, McLuhan’s approach to media is centered around the role of constraints. Each media form inherits a set of constraints within which it is able to present a view of the world. It is within these constraints that meaning of the world is constructed by a particular technology (akin to the formation of a media epistemology [Chesebro, 1984]). McLuhan (1989) was naturally drawn to the work of Gibson (1979) and his ecological approach to Perception. Gibson introduced the concept of affordances, and this concept is an important component of the theoretical framework outlined in this chapter. The underlying premise in all of McLuhan’s work is that each medium creates its own unique sensorial environment and that our interactions with these environments have a profound impact on our behavior at all subsequent levels of analysis. This Perspective fits well with Gibson, who stated that we must first assess the environment before we can extract any meaning from a given situation. The environment created by each media form stems directly from the inherent constraints of a given technology, whether it is the printed word or an image on a television screen.

Theory of Embodied Cognition

The primary theoretical void that led Glenberg (1997) to ask what memory is for is defined as the symbol grounding problem of past theories of memory, most notably the information processing/cognitivist approach. Glenberg’s theory of embodiment centers around the fact that “the meaning of an object, event, or sentence is what that Person can do with the object, event, or sentence” (p. 3). Glenberg stressed that context is extremely important and that memory ultimately serves Perception. The implications of Glenberg’s theory of memory for the study of media form influence are important and could be the key that unlocks the door to how changes in sensorial environments created by media can have an effect on individuals.

To better understand the connections between Glenberg and McLuhan, there are three concepts from Glenberg’s work that must be presented in some detail. The first two concepts (meshing and affordances) are explicit in Glenberg’s work, and a third (sensori-motor schemata) has been referred to by several commentators of Glenberg’s theory as having a great deal of relevance (e.g., Jacobs & Ziegler, 1997).


The concept of meshing establishes a basis for how we take an object from the outside world (the world that exists outside of our heads) and assign utility to it. In particular, what is being meshed are the “embodied conceptualization of projectable properties of the environment” and “the embodied experiences that provide nonprojectable properties” (Glenberg, 1997, p. 4). Therefore, the properties an object presents to us are twofold: (a) a set of physical characteristics and (b) a set of characteristics based on our past experiences with that object. The combination of these characteristics represents the embodied meaning of the object. In terms of the study of media, we can associate a distinct set of projectable properties that stem from the inherent physical constraints of a media form. It is these projectable properties that are constructed by media forms, and this important part in the meshing equation can possibly lead to a subsequent media form effect on comprehension, memory, and attitude formation and change. Two mechanisms, clamping and suppression, play important roles in the process of meshing. The process of clamping allows all forms of experience to remain reality oriented, and suppression is the mechanism whereby an individual is able to make predictions about how the world functions. In terms of the study of media effects, each media form represents a different type of clamping of projectable properties, and each variation in clamping results in a different mode of suppression. Glenberg (1997) argued that language (print or oral) represents a very loose form of suppression relative to the suppression employed for extracting meaning from real-world experiences, and this is largely due to the variance in constraints created by each type of interaction. Language offers few constraints, but a real-world environment offers many. Applying an extension of Glenberg’s argument to the study of media form, it can be posited that each media technology, having a unique set of constraints, requires an individual to employ a distinct mode of suppression. In short, it is from a medium’s constraints that a unique form of processing takes place allowing for meaning to be created within the mind of an individual.


Much like McLuhan, Glenberg (1997) employed the concept of Gibson’s affordances and assigned to them an important role in the meshing process. According to Gibson (1979), what is most important are the physical characteristics of the environment with which we have to engage in order to survive. Gibson dealt solely with the sense of sight, but the characteristics of the physical world in which we interact create constraints for our other senses as well.

In terms of media, the claim being made here is that the distinct sensorial environment of each media form creates a unique set of affordances. As an example, the affordances I am granted by the words “hammer pounding nail” are distinct from the affordances I extract from seeing the moving image of a hammer pounding a nail. Furthermore, these affordances are distinct from those I would gain from actually seeing a hammer being used in this fashion right in front of me or the affordances of physically using a hammer to pound a nail. In short, the unique sensorial environments that stem from the inherent constraints of each medium create a unique set of affordances.

Sensori-Motor Schemata

In reaction to several commentators having connected his theory of embodiment to the work of Piaget (e.g., Carlson, 1997; Jacobs & Ziegler, 1997; Velichkovsky, 1997), Glenberg (1997) stated that the connection may be even closer than one would initially think. In particular, Glenberg highlighted that Piaget was one of the first to stress the importance of linking thought with the projectable properties of our physical world.

Piaget (1959) described sensori-motor schemata as consisting “of a stable pattern of movements together with a Perceptual component geared to the recognition of appropriate signals” (p. 372). A particular sensori-motor schema is formed out of a set base of Perceptual formulations and is engaged when specific intensive and extensive proPerties of the environment are joined. Intensive proPerties are the “relations governing the proPerties of the various objects, and extensive proPerties are the series of objects and situations to which it can be applied” (p. 372). It is the combination of these two elements that engages a particular sensori-motor schema.

It is most important to recognize the strength of the sensori-motor schemata in determining the formation of all subsequent content-based schemata. Piaget (1959) stated, “The origin of all classification and seriation is to be found in sensori-motor schema” given that sensori-motor schemata are the first true schemata formed by humans (p. 372). Piaget stated that all information must pass through these schemata before linking itself to some content-based schematic structure. It is also important to note that Piaget (1952) stressed that these sensori-motor schemata are constantly modified via a process he defined as accommodation. This is a process by which sensori-motor schemata are strengthened to better extract from the environment the information that is of the greatest utility to the receiver; the sensori-motor schemata form from a solid foundation, but they are constantly being improved through use. Piaget’s process of accommodation can be thought of as a physiological quality of a unique learning process. The sensori-motor schema outlined by Piaget can be thought of as integral to functioning as efficiently and effectively as possible in our physical environment. So, how do sensori-motor schemata relate to media form effects? The answer to this question might be found in the study of medium-specific sensori-motor schemata.

Medium-Specific Sensori-Motor Schemata

Piaget (1952) stated that a specific sensori-motor schema is used when (a) properties of various objects are similar to those encountered in the past and (b) the situation in which they are applied is similar to that of the past. The foundation of McLuhan’s the medium is the message is that each form of communication retains a unique set of physical properties and a unique situation within which a user of that medium is engaged. As an example, a television screen (which McLuhan [1964] defined as a mosaic) creates a picture based on the properties of the pixel. The unique physical characteristic of the television pixel creates for the user of that form of communication a physiological connection to his or her stimulus environment that is unlike any other connection being made with another form of communication. A specific set of stimulus modules are employed by the user to access the information being presented through a particular form of communication, and the balance regarding the relative strength and weakness of how much each sense module is used also varies across media forms. This is the primary form effect envisioned by McLuhan.

The culmination of this marriage of Glenberg’s theory of embodiment and McLuhan’s physiological Perspective to the study of media form influence is the creation of what can be defined as medium-specific sensori-motor schemata. This chapter presents an argument that individuals develop a set of form-based schemata in accordance with those forms of communication that have been employed at some point in the past. The medium-specific sensori-motor schemata we maintain vary across individuals in terms of strength, but each medium-specific schema retains some degree of similarity across individuals given that the structure of these medium-specific schemata are constrained by the unique physiological characteristics of a particular medium that exists outside of our heads. As an example, my television sensori-motor schema might not be of the same strength as my neighbor’s television sensori-motor schema, based on our relative levels of use of that medium, but my schema will maintain many of the same proPerties as my neighbor’s schema because the physiological engagement we maintain with our television sets is the same due to the unique characteristics of the medium.

Advancing the Work of Salomon

As stated earlier, an embodied approach to form is seen as an extension of the work of Salomon and Olson. If we attempt to deal with the symbol grounding problem implied in Salomon’s (1979) indifference toward the work of Fodor by offering embodiment as a remedy, then there is a heightened role for form compared to what was offered by Salomon. Salomon (1990) stated that the effects he was looking at “is a case of effects not of a technology but with it” (p. 29). This is an important distinction that differentiates the assumptions that exist with an embodied approach to form relative to the work of Salomon in this area. By dealing with only the cognitive skills and not the symbol grounding problem, Salomon turned his attention to the work of the individual at the expense of understanding the true role of form. If we begin to study media form influence from an embodiment Perspective, then there is a return to an increased role for form in shaping human cognition (very much in line with McLuhan’s Perspective of sensorial change). It is not that form has a universal impact on all individuals in terms of making them think in one way, but that a media form constricts the ways in which individuals construct meaning from a mediated experience. Thus, this chapter is not making a clear case for the medium is the message as outlined by McLuhan. In short, if we deal with the symbol grounding problem by introducing embodiment, then there is a heightened role for form in the process of a human’s ability to obtain meaning. However, it is important to be clear that the embodied approach to media, although being close to McLuhan’s, is not technological determinism in the strict sense given that there is still an important role for the individual in this process.

The Embodied Approach to Media Forms in the Context of Persuasion

Reassessment of Previous Lines of Persuasion Research

Not only is an embodied approach to media form influence an extension of much of the work conducted by Salomon and Olson, but it can also be connected to the work of other communication scholars interested in the impact of media technologies. More specifically, the work of Chesebro and Bertelsen (1996) parallels many of the ideas being presented in this chapter. There are three points raised by Chesebro and Bertelsen in the first half of their approach to the study of media influence that are important for an embodied approach to the study of form. Each of these points highlights the fact that form may have an important set of effects on several fronts that are of interest to the study of Persuasion, many of which have been focused on from a strictly content-based approach: attention, information processing, knowledge, values, and (ultimately) attitude formation and change. Chesebro and Bertelsen highlighted the following points.

Form generates a different kind of knowledge than does content. There should be some connection between our respective media forms and different ways of processing information. Ultimately, these unique modes of processing may have an impact onhow knowledge is obtained and constructed within an individual. There are physical limitations inherent to each medium and to human sensorial Perception; it is at the crossroads of these limitations that the conditions are formed from which knowledge about the world becomes embodied (via meshing).

As a result, Chesebro and Bertelsen (1996) concluded that “the medium employed to present information determines how experiences are utilized and incorporated into the human being as mental skills or abilities” (pp. 21-22). This approach conforms well with Glenberg (1997) and Gibson (1979), both of whom stated that an important component to any process of obtaining meaning is an understanding of the environment (i.e., projectable properties) from which information is obtained. However, it is also important to recognize that the creation of meaning is not a one-way street from media to individual. Instead, the theory of embodied cognition also states that it is the psychological baggage an individual brings to a mediated experience that also has an impact on how knowledge is constructed. Thus, it is with the interaction of these two influences that embodied meaning is constructed from a mediated experience.

In the study of Persuasion, the role of knowledge has long been seen as playing an important role in attitude-based cognitions (e.g., Tesser, 1976; Tesser & Conlee, 1975). However, research in this area assumes that all knowledge (schematic) structures are based on content (e.g., Cacioppo, Petty, & Sidera, 1982; Wood, 1982) and not that other form-based schematic structures may have an impact on attitude formation and change. As outlined earlier, Piaget (1954) stressed that sensori-motor schemata are employed prior to content-based schemata, and if this is the case, then these form-based schemata should play an important role in the context of persuasion.

Each form of communication equates with a unique view of reality. Chesebro and Bertelsen (1996) stressed that the distinct view of reality created by a media form may stem, in large part, from the different cognitive processes that individuals have to employ when engaging different media forms. Krugman (1971) analyzed actual physiological involvement with various media forms via measurement of brain wave activity. In line with Krugman, McLuhan (1978) discussed the shifting in use of different hemispheres of the brain caused by different media forms, with print being a left hemisphere medium and television being a right hemisphere medium. The study of brain hemispheres has been the focus of much past research, especially in the area of affect (e.g., Lang & Friestad, 1993; Reeves, Lang, Thorson, & Rothschild, 1989). Krugman was not focusing on which hemisphere was being used for which medium, but he did conclude that the cognitive responses to media forms are unique.

There have been several advancements in the study of brain activity regarding the use of variations in sensorial input systems (e.g., Cohen, Semple, Gross, King, & Nordahl, 1992), and an important next step in this process may be to study which parts of the brain actually fire when interacting with various media forms. However, it will be important to make sure that the study of brain activity at this level of analysis is still driven by theory to allow for a more comprehensive understanding of what these different firings mean (e.g., Sarter, Bernstein, & Cacioppo, 1996). If different areas of the brain fire, then there is an unequivocal form effect. However, the important empirical question is not whether there is a physiological effect but rather what impact this variation in processing has on subsequent variables deemed important to Persuasion (e.g., knowledge, memory, involvement with media content).

Once again, in terms of the study of Persuasion, one of the most basic areas of study is how information is being processed by the individual (e.g., Chaiken & Maheswaran, 1994; Petty & Priester, 1994). This chapter proposes that the inherent physical constraints of a media form will affect what type of information processing is enacted during a mediated experience. It is not just the message being provided that spurs processing but, on a more base level, the media form as well. This also may have an important impact on attitude formation and change.

Habitual use of specific media systems privileges certain values. If it is taken as given that different media forms bring with them different ways of knowing (Chesebro, 1984), then shifts in media dominance will have profound effects on how we look at the world. The bulk of work in medium theory focuses on societal-wide shifts in media dominance, from oral to print (Ong, 1977, 1982), from print to electronic (Meyrowitz, 1985), and from analog to digital (Stephens, 1998). The point raised here is that the way we look at the world may be influenced by the media forms we use most often.

The study of values and worldviews is a well-established line of research—and one that has been the focus of attention in the study of attitude formation and change (e.g., Ball-Rokeach, Rokeach, & Grube, 1984; Feather, 1984, 1985). Inglehart (1977) pointed to media as being important components in his materialist/postmaterialist value shift, but he was unable to elaborate on exactly how they may have an impact. However, Inglehart, as with most scholars, stressed the role of media content without taking into account the role of form. Holbert (1998) introduced the notion that this value shift may be more the result of a shift in media form dominance than the result of any changes in content. It might not be just media content that affects these value structures; form might affect them as well. This would imply that media forms will have an indirect influence on attitude formation and change through their impact on value formation.

New Avenues of Research

In addition to these three areas of Persuasion research (knowledge, information processing, and values) that need to be re-addressed in order to better understand the relative impact of content and form, there are several new lines of research that stem from an embodied approach. These areas are form-based involvement, form-induced affect, and form-based attitude accessibility.

Form-Based Involvement. Involvement with media content has been shown to have a tremendous impact on attitude formation and change (e.g., Petty & Cacioppo, 1979). This type of issue involvement occurs at a psychological level of analysis where an individual Perceives whether the topic being discussed in the message is of any importance to his or her life. By contrast, the study of involvement being focused on in this chapter resides in a physiological level of analysis. In particular, focus is being given to how an individual becomes sensorially involved with a particular media form. As McLuhan (1964) summarized, what is of importance to this type of involvement is (a) which sensorial input systems are being employed and (b) what is the balance of senses being used relative to one another during a mediated experience. In terms of embodiment, the physical environment created by a medium form constrains what meaning can be extracted from the content provided through the medium. Just as involvement with content is important to attitude formation and change, so too may involvement with our media technologies.

Form-Induced Affect. Dillard and Wilson (1993) outlined two specific types of affect that can affect the processing of Persuasive messages: message-induced affect and message-irrelevant affect. The former is an emotional response to a particular piece of media content, and the latter is the emotional baggage an individual brings to a mediated experience. The approach to media form effects outlined in this chapter offers an advancement in the study of induced affect by putting forth the possibility that it is not just content that can spark a particular emotional reaction but form as well.

Several studies have pointed to the connection between use of specific brain hemispheres and emotional responses to media messages (e.g., Lang & Friestad, 1993; Reeves et al., 1989). It has been theorized by McLuhan (1978) and found by Krugman (1971) that different media forms lead to different modes of brain activity. If, as Reeves et al. (1989) found, positive messages can be associated with the right hemisphere and negative messages can be associated with the left hemisphere, then any condition that influences use of a particular hemisphere will affect the relative strength of an emotional response to a particular piece of media content. The theoretical base forged in this chapter would point to media form having exactly this type of an impact.

Form-Based Attitude Accessibility. A final avenue for future research based on an embodied approach to form concerns attitude accessibility. A number of previous studies have shown attitude accessibility to have an impact on a number of different areas of concern to the process of Persuasion (e.g., Fazio, Chen, McDonel, & Sherman, 1982; Fazio, Powell, & Herr, 1983). In particular, past work in this area has shown that previous experiences with an attitude object have an impact on an individual’s attitudes toward that object (Fazio, Sanbonmatsu, Powell, & Kardes, 1986). The theory of form influence presented in this chapter provides an argument that an important component of past experience with an attitude object may be the medium through which the object has been engaged. If media forms have an influence on how subsequent content-based cognitive structures are constructed, then an individual’s attitude toward a given object may be influenced by the manner in which the individual has previously come into contact with that object. In short, attitudes may be linked to specific mediated experiences. If this is the case, then particular media forms may be better able to access a given attitude based on what form affected the construction of that attitude.

Of particular interest to this area of study are (a) those media forms that have been used in the past relative to gaining information about an attitude object and (b) the media form being used in an experimental condition to measure attitude accessibility. If attitudes are linked to mediated experiences, then media form is one condition that can influence how and/or when a particular attitude is activated. If an attitude can be defined as an association between an object and an evaluation of that object, then the strength of this association may be based on a particular mediated experience. If an individual can associate an object with a particularly strong media experience, then the best medium through which to access an attitude concerning that object will be through the same medium. Just as with form-based involvement and form-induced affect, this is an important area for future study in the area of Persuasion research.


The theoretical approach to the study of media effects outlined in this chapter, defined as the embodied meaning of media forms, provides a base from which to systematically analyze the type of form effects outlined by McLuhan and other medium theorists. This approach is seen as most closely associated with previous work on media form influence Performed by Salomon (1979) and Olson (1988), but with an increased emphasis given to the role of form relative to the individual. Meyrowitz (1985) correctly pointed out that McLuhan offered few specifics regarding how changes in sensory balances induced by the use of various media forms can alter an individual’s behavior. This chapter is a first step in attempting to provide some of the details that may result in some answers as to how media forms may have an influence in this manner. As a result, this theoretical approach initiates a shift in levels of analysis in medium theory away from broader macro-level change and toward a more micro-level orientation. However, this does not mean that there should not be every attempt made to create cross-level linkages within these studies of primary form influence (e.g., Pan & McLeod, 1991). The theoretical advances made by past studies of medium theory are important, and the theoretical work advanced in this chapter will not achieve its full potency if it does not seek to generate theoretical links with the macro-level work of Meyrowitz and others.

As noted previously, this theoretical approach has broad implications for the study of Persuasion. Six areas are highlighted: three calling for a reassessment of a predominantly content-based approach to attitude formation and change and three representing new avenues for future research in this area. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is representative of a number of possible media effects. It is my hope that not only will this theoretical foundation prove fruitful for future research, but it will also spark a discussion that will lead to new theoretical advances in the area of media form effects research.