OBSERVATIONS: Intended vs unintended messages: viewer perceptions of United States Army television commercials

Major Gary Lee Keck , United States Military Academy at West Point

and Barbara Mueller, Department of Journalism, San Diego State University

Communications accidents can range from the misunderstanding of subtle nuances to the distortion of complete messages. This study combines both qualitative and quantitative methodologies in order to (1) identify intended and unintended messages perceived by a sample of the target audience for two television spots; (2) identify whether unintended messages are perceived as positive, negative or neutral in nature; and (3) determine whether there are differences in the intended or unintended messages perceived by different demographic groups.


A number of studies dealing with message comprehension and miscomprehension have suggested that message senders otten assume that intended messages are being received and understood, when in fact these messages - or portions thereof - are being misinterpreted. Jacoby, Hover and Sheluga (1980) exposed subjects to commercial film clips and then quizzed them on the contents. Almost one-third of those who viewed an advertisement were unable to identify the brand being promoted or recall other information presented. Of the 60 commercials examined, all were misunderstood in some way by every viewer. In a study by McMahan (1980), a mere 16% of those exposed to television commercials could later identify the sponsor, and for every two persons who correctly named a brand, at least one named a competitor.