Friday, September 22, 2017

Exploring a Free Association Methodology to Capture and Differentiate Abstract Media Brand Associations: A Study of Three Cable News Networks

Summary and critique by: Ian Abplanalp


Walter S. McDowell conducted a study to compare three  24-hour cable new networks (Fox, CNN, MSNBC) and how their brands differentiated based on customer opinion of what they watched. This comes from the brand equality theory that customers need more than one brand of similar product to meet the needs of everyone. McDowell pursued a way to measure this among media outlets, with free association as a methodology, allowing media outlets to more accurately see how they have "branded" themselves for their viewers. Free association is whenever individuals are provided a prompt and asked to respond with the first word or a phrase that comes to mind in relation to that prompt. Free association was chosen for the methodology as it allows for a free structure of experimentation in which bias could be limited and with the on the spot type approach it takes it can force participants to bring up inhibited thoughts. 

McDowell, constructed two free association questions in order to measure the brand differentiation, to avoid biases the questions pertained to only one new network. The two free association questions were asked of each participant: 

1. When I say the word CNN (or Fox News Channel or MSNBC), what thoughts and feelings come to mind? 
2. Among the three 24-hr cable news channels. Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN, how do you see CNN (or Fox News or MSNBC) as being different than the others?  

The respondents were required to provide three responses for the first questions and the researcher would record them in order that they were mentioned. The second question was a more structured free association comparison of the given network in regards to the other two but it had to match the network in the first question. So if asked about CNN in question one, individuals would be asked about CNN in question two. 

The results (Below) that were found were encouraging to the researcher as they all provided a different responses to each new network all while using a free association technique. 


McDowell's study does use free association in a unique way in which it takes a psychology practice in nature and repurposes it for a business use. Through this unique use it shows that the methodology as whole is very versatile and can be repurposed for different uses. However, despite the usefulness of the free association in other fields there is little crossover potential to an analytic practice. As it is free association in an analytic field could be used more a mental modeling exercise grouped with nominal group technique to brain storm on how a group is thinking about a problem. Another potential aspect of crossover that exists is through a collections lens where an analyst would receive information about the thoughts that group of people have about a certain topic. 


  1. This is one of the few summary I have read where a clinical psychological practice is used for business research. I guess many such cross disciplinary studies must be encouraged.

  2. This an excellent example of how free association can be implemented on audience members' ideological views of a particular customer-based brand of cable news networks. The biggest aspect of this study, that you have mention Ian, is different responses to each news network. This gives you a clearer picture and a collection information that can be gathered and organized. When viewing the results of the study, the descriptive answers gave an out of the box expression of what different audience members may feel toward each particular cable brand.

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  4. The application of free association in this study delves much deeper than just conducting a survey. This actually gets the participants to think deeper about their opinions and thoughts. This method is not ideal for certain kinds of personalities e.g individuals who find it very difficult to relinquish control. The need to always be in control negates the process and can render the free association process useless.

  5. I agree with oddi on this one, I don't think the method was used efficiently. The moment you tell someone to say what is on their mind, they start to think and therefore their responses are not completely free. The question should have been When I say the word CNN (or Fox News Channel or MSNBC), what thoughts and feelings come to mind 'NOW'?

  6. I agree, any time you say to someone what is the first the thing on your mind it does not produce a desirable answer, especially when using Free Association Methodology. The questioning for the study could have been different.