Caveat Emptor


Innocent-seeming questions from retailers and advertisers can influence consumer behavior in both positive and negative ways, according to a study conducted by researchers at Duke's Fuqua School of Business.

A related Duke study found that customers who consider only one brand from a category of products tend to rate that brand much higher than they would if they compared it with others, a phenomenon known as the "brand positivity" effect. Gavan Fitzsimons, associate professor of marketing at Fuqua and a co-author of both studies, says these findings can help shoppers avoid potential purchasing pitfalls. Both studies appeared in the December 2004 Journal of Consumer Research.

In their study of the brand positivity effect, Fitzsimons and colleagues asked consumers to rank hotel chains alone or in comparison with three other comparable chains. Consumers consistently gave high rankings to the hotel they were asked about when no alternative hotel names were presented. However, when a selection of hotel names was provided, the focal hotel was not ranked as highly.

The brand positivity effect carries through to actual behavior, the researchers found. In a separate experiment, they asked participants to rank laundry detergents, and then offered each participant a small box of the laundry detergent of their choice to take home. Consumers who were provided only one brand of detergent to evaluate chose that brand to take home much more often than customers who evaluated one brand but were also asked explicitly to consider alternatives.

"These experiments demonstrate that if consumers focus on only one brand, they are more likely to think it is the best choice for them than if they also consider alternative brands," Fitzsimons says. "You may think one brand is the best, but without comparing features and pricing, you can't know for sure.

"It seems somewhat obvious, but in order to get the best price and ensure that you are satisfied in the end with the product you get, it's smart to consider several products in a category. It's remarkable how often consumers evaluate brands in isolation."

In the second study, Fitzsimons and colleagues ran several experiments involving seemingly "benign" intention questions, or questions with no overt persuasive message, such as, "How likely are you to floss your teeth today?" Fitzsimons' previous research has shown that people are more likely to engage in behavior they perceive as positive, and to decrease behavior they view as negative, simply as a function of responding to an intention question.

The 255 students who participated in the study were divided into several groups and asked a question about either a positive behavior, such as flossing, or about a negative behavior, such as, "How likely are you to eat fatty foods in the next week?" Of the participants who answered the flossing question, some were told it was sponsored by the American Dental Association (an objective source), some were told it was sponsored by the Association of Dental Products Manufacturers (a self-interested source), and others were not informed of any sponsor for the question.

Likewise, for the negative-behavior question about fatty foods, one-third were told the question was sponsored by the American Medical Association (objective source), one-third were told it was sponsored by the American Fruit Growers Association (self-interested source), and others were not informed of any sponsorship.

The experiment revealed that participants who did not sense any persuasive intent in the question indeed flossed more and ate less fatty food during the following week, compared with control groups that were not asked a question. "This is pretty much what we expected to find," Fitzsimons says. "We've known for some time that if you place a suggestion of a behavior in a consumer's mind, but don't associate it with an overt attempt to sell, then that consumer will be more likely to carry out that behavior."

"Be aware that when you walk in a retail store and the salesperson asks, 'So, are you in the market for a new TV today?' if you do not perceive the question as a persuasive message, you could be more likely to walk away with a TV than if the person had asked, 'Can I sell you a TV today?' "

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