Psy Applied: Self-Control Strategies for Life (Part 3)

As the holiday season winds down, and marketers make their last cash grab of 2015, it’s time to talk about a self-control dilemma that is near and dear to my heart: impulse shopping. Black Friday is over, Cyber Monday has come and gone, but for some reason, there is no term for the deep discounts on holiday overstock that are currently flooding my email inbox. Perhaps that’s part of the point. By keeping marketing messages subtle, retailers can actually activate thoughts without your conscious awareness. You probably just got a bunch of crap you don’t need yesterday, so why are you thinking of buying more stuff today just because it’s 25% off? Knowing is half the battle, so in this installment of Psy Applied, I will be shedding some light onto the ways that marketers influence your purchasing goals.

  1. Priming- When someone is primed, it means that they have encountered a message that has affected their thoughts and behavior outside of conscious awareness.1 This is literally the entire point behind a lot of brand messaging. Much of the efficacy of these messages depends on you staying the dark. If you suddenly have a craving for Coca-Cola, you may not act on it if you realize that you’ve just been exposed to a Coca-Cola product placement on a television show. However, if you don’t notice the product placement, you are significantly more likely to choose the brand that you have just been exposed to. Research on priming has revealed some potent effects. In research about incidental brand exposure, researchers altered several pictures by placing a Dasani water bottle in the scene.2 The participants who didn’t notice the Dasani water in the pictures were significantly more likely to choose Dasani bottled water over another brand, but only after they had been exposed to the brand 12 times.2 While this may seem excessive, it actually mimics real life in many ways. We are bombarded with thousands of incidental brand messages each day, many of which involve repeat exposure to popular brands.3 Marketers use the fact that you can’t attend to all of these messages to their advantage, and they hope to bug you enough to be on your brain, but not enough so that you really know why. Notice the prime, fight the power.
  1. Persuasive appeals- Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has spent much of his career trying to uncover the strategies that people use to persuade others to behave in certain desired ways. Specifically, Cialdini uncovered 6 persuasion tactics that marketers use to make you buy in.4 The first strategy, reciprocation, depends on you feeling indebted for getting something for free, whether it’s a sample at the grocery store, or a five-dollar bill included with a marketing survey you got in the mail. Essentially, they make you feel like you owe them. The second strategy, and my personal favorite, is social proof. This is when marketers convince you that everyone else is doing it. In one study about hotel water conservation, guests were significantly more likely to reuse their towels when the appeal to do so included information that most of the other guests participated in the reuse program.5 This is basically marketing peer pressure. The third strategy, commitment, activates our desire to be consistent in our thoughts and behavior, and is often used for things like weight loss programs. If you tell everyone you are doing it, you have a desire to follow through so you don’t look bad. No one wants to be a flip-flopper. Strategy four, liking, is a common approach used by salespeople. We buy things from people we like, so marketers try harness this in several ways. They may hire a popular celebrity, a person that’s incredibly attractive, or they may try to target marketing towards specific people, increasing liking through the similarity between you and the spokesperson. The fifth strategy, authority, involves convincing people that you have expert knowledge. Marketers may use doctors to sell weight loss drugs or chefs to sell cookware. Their goal is to convince you that people in the know prefer their products. Finally, the sixth strategy, scarcity, tries to convince people that their opportunity to buy is limited. This may be through special edition or seasonal products, or through limited release collector’s editions, for example. The name of the game is to make you feel like you will miss out if you don’t act now. These 6 strategies are incredibly effective, and they’ve been selling you stuff since you were born.

It’s not surprising that advertising appeals affect the things that we purchase. Why else would companies dump billions of dollars into marketing? We often like to think that we are above being influenced, but Cialdini has demonstrated just how easy it is to persuade someone, while others have shed light onto how this may affect your behavior completely outside of conscious awareness. As we enter 2016 with our holiday bills burning a hole in our mailboxes, remember this: A savvy consumer is a suspicious consumer.

 

  1. Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1996). Automatic activation of impression formation and memorization goals: Nonconscious goal priming reproduces effects of explicit task instructions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(3), 464.
  1. Ferraro, R., Bettman, J. R., & Chartrand, T. L. (2009). The power of strangers: The effect of incidental consumer brand encounters on brand choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(5), 729-741.
  1. Fitzsimons, G. M., Chartrand, T. L., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2008). Automatic effects of brand exposure on motivated behavior: how apple makes you “think different”. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(1), 21-35.
  1. Cialdini, R. B. (1987). Influence. A. Michel.
  1. Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of consumer Research, 35(3), 472-482.

 

 

 

 

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10 Days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 8

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Image from BostInno

Now that we know that brands have human characteristics, like personality, let’s talk about how we form relationships with brands. When I was little, my mother always used Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix. Now that I buy my own groceries (bummer), I always buy the same, because I’ve had a long relationship with the Aunt Jemima brand. It also makes delicious pancakes, but I digress. Relationships with brands can be significant for many reasons. The reason I just mentioned is related to nostalgia, or family ties, but you can also imagine relationships with brands being significant because they remind you of certain friends, or they make you feel good. Any way you slice it, maintaining relationships with customers is big business.

Customer relationship management, or CRM, has become key to managing a business. CRM is a way that a company can track an individual customer’s information, preferences and habits in such a way that the company can more effectively market to the individual, as well as retain him or her for future business. But before we form a relationship with a brand, we need to have a good idea of its identity. A company’s identity is composed of consumer perceptions and beliefs about company characteristics, consumer affective responses to the company and impressions of the company’s values.1

While there is a great deal of research on brand relationships, we are going to focus on a case study of compromised brand relationships: American Apparel. This year, Dov Charney, founder and former CEO of American Apparel was fired not once, but twice. For the fashion-obsessed among us, Charney’s bad behavior has long been discussed in relation with American Apparel and their sexualized advertising. In fact, Dov Charney’s sexual misconduct was first reported in 2004, when Charney engaged in some self-satisfaction during an interview with a female reporter. Since then, Charney has been sued by former employees for sexual harassment or misconduct no less than 7 times.

So why fire him now, 10 years after the first reports? Well, a lot of industry insiders think it’s because Charney finally ruined American Apparel’s relationship with its customers. Charney’s behavior was so well-publicized, and led to so much public disdain, that many people transferred these feelings about Charney to feelings about American Apparel. He compromised the brand’s identity by infusing it too much with his own, making it so that shoppers could not help but think about unwanted advances when they were supposed to be shopping for crop tops. And American Apparel’s board was probably right, because American Apparel was hemorrhaging money at the end of 2013, with a total loss of $106 million, a sign of a declining customer base.

Brand relationships are incredibly important, and many of the things we’ve discussed, like brand communities or brand personalities, work to build and support relationships with consumers. Think about the brands you buy, and the way you feel about them. It may surprise you that they’re more than just products, they’re old friends.

  1. Bhattacharya, C. B., & Sen, S. (2003). Consumer-company identification: a framework for understanding consumers’ relationships with companies. Journal of Marketing, 67(2), 76-88.

10 Days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 7

Brands themselves can take on human characteristics. We often discuss brands and companies with words like, “caring,” “corrupt,” “smart,” or “innovative.” Commercials and advertising work to solidify or disabuse customers of these impressions, using imagery and language to massage customer opinions. And it works! Let’s see how easy it is to choose the correct adjective to describe a company.

Which of these brands is…1) Sophisticated, 2) Competent, 3) Active, 4) Laid-back?*Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 10.46.43 AM

 

You probably knew right away if you have any experience with these brands or their advertising (or you can find the answers at the bottom of this page). This quiz deals with something called brand personality, which is much like a person’s personality. In personality psychology, human personalities revolve around the so-called Big 5: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.1 The vast majority of human characteristics can be explained with some version of these 5 traits. But these same 5 factors do not hold for brands.2

Jennifer Aaker identified 5 different characteristics that define brand personality: Sincerity, excitement, competence, sophistication and ruggedness.3 It is fairly easy to think of examples of these types of brands. Hallmark makes money off of their sincerity, and Mountain Dew still exists because of its ruggedness. But much like human personality, there are cross-cultural differences in which traits are most prized in brands. For instance, sincerity is appreciated in the US, Japan and Spain, while ruggedness is appreciated more in the US than in other countries.4

Brand personalities affect us in many ways. They drive our brand impressions, they form our brand evaluations and they contribute to our brand relationships. Marketers can harness this information to sell us goods. So, the next time that Publix commercial makes you cry, just remember that Publix is sincere and competent, and they want you to know it.

* Answers: A-1, B-3, C-4, D-2

  1. Judge, T. A., Higgins, C. A., Thoresen, C. J., & Barrick, M. R. (1999). The big five personality traits, general mental ability, and career success across the life span. Personnel Psychology, 52(3), 621-652.
  2. Caprara, G. V., Barbaranelli, C., & Guido, G. (2001). Brand personality: how to make the metaphor fit?. Journal of Economic Psychology, 22(3), 377-395.
  3. Aaker, J. L. (1997). Dimensions of brand personality. Journal of Marketing Research, 34(3), 347-356.
  4. Aaker, J. L., Benet-Martinez, V., & Garolera, J. (2001). Consumption symbols as carriers of culture: A study of Japanese and Spanish brand personality constructs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(3), 492-508.

10 Days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 6

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Image from Lisa Larter

It’s day 6 in our crash course of consumer psychology, and we’ve gotten into a lot of great work on social influence and contagion. Until now, we’ve ignored some inherently social marketplace phenomena: word of mouth advertising and customer reviews. These days, customer reviews and review sites like Yelp help consumers make purchasing decisions, or select products and services better suited to their needs. Customer reviews are supported by the concept of word of mouth, or hearing about something from someone else.

Word of mouth is powerful for several reasons. We know from social psychology that other people are often swayed by expertise or experience, and people writing product or service reviews have generally used the product or service.1 We are also persuaded more often by those familiar to us than by unfamiliar people, something researchers have dubbed “tie strength.”2 But as we’ve reviewed in past articles, complete strangers’ product choices can influence us also, so word of mouth can come from a large range of sources. And, boy, is it influential!

Research has shown that this product feedback we receive from others has both short and long-term consequences, with word of mouth affecting future decisions, as well as those made in the moment.3 In fact, researchers have found that word of mouth advertising has longer carryover effects and higher response elasticities than traditional marketing efforts.4 Basically, this means that word of mouth is more influential over time, and yields more customers per effort, than traditional marketing. As you can see, word of mouth is very desirable for businesses, and it works better on us as consumers.

Customer reviews of products or services are one expression of this type of word of mouth feedback. While browsing merchandise, you can get educated opinions and specifics about the product, as well as warnings or issues with service. Unsurprisingly, these reviews often play a role in our product decisions. For instance, book sales on Amazon and Barnes and Noble online bookstores are directly related to both the number and type of positive reviews left by other customers.5 In another study, researchers found that participants were about 20% more likely to choose recommended products than non-recommended products.6 But, luckily for companies, brand loyalty moderates the effect of product reviews, such that consumers are less likely to be swayed by reviews when they already like a brand or product.7

It’s been a wonderful journey through social influence within the consumer realm. Tomorrow, we’re turning to conceptualizations of brands as people. So, obviously, you won’t want to miss that 😉

  1. Petty, R. E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Goldman, R. (1981). Personal involvement as a determinant of argument-based persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(5), 847.
  2. Bansal, H. S., & Voyer, P. A. (2000). Word-of-mouth processes within a services purchase decision context. Journal of Service Research, 3(2), 166-177.
  3. Bone, P. F. (1995). Word-of-mouth effects on short-term and long-term product judgments. Journal of Business Research, 32(3), 213-223.
  4. Trusov, M., Bucklin, R. E., & Pauwels, K. (2009). Effects of word-of-mouth versus traditional marketing: findings from an internet social networking site. Journal of Marketing, 73(5), 90-102.
  5. Chevalier, J. A., & Mayzlin, D. (2006). The effect of word of mouth on sales: Online book reviews. Journal of Marketing Research, 43(3), 345-354.
  6. Senecal, S., & Nantel, J. (2004). The influence of online product recommendations on consumers’ online choices. Journal of Retailing, 80(2), 159-169.
  7. Ahluwalia, R., Burnkrant, R. E., & Unnava, H. R. (2000). Consumer response to negative publicity: the moderating role of commitment. Journal of Marketing Research, 37(2), 203-214.

10 days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 1

‘Tis the holiday season, and we all know what that means: the mecca of consumerism that is America will ring out with the song of overworked cash registers throughout the land. Anyone who has been anywhere near a mall in America in the month of December knows how incredibly unpleasant it is to be swarming all over shopping mall wares while other people are all up in your business. In honor of this time of cheer, materialism and accidental stranger touching, we present the 10 days of Christmas…Consumerism (What? You wanted 12? I had finals!).*


Product contagion is a well-studied topic in consumer behavior. Essentially, much like the way humans can catch a disease, products can “catch” qualities via associations with other products or people. The proximity of the products operates as the basic idea behind product contagion, i.e. a product that is located close to another product may take on some characteristics of that other product, and affect consumer perceptions. For instance, products that have an equal chance of gain, like a free sample, tend to be seen as higher value when they are clustered together, while products with an equal chance of loss, like defected products, are seen as less desirable when located close to other defective products.1

There has also been work on product contagion when the proximity is to a disgusting product. Researchers have found evidence that a product location next to a disgusting product can cause the non-disgusting product to “catch” disgusting qualities, especially when packaging is clear and regardless of whether or not the two products are physically touching.2 This association has proven to be long-lasting, with impressions of disgust permanently attaching themselves to the non-disgusting product.2 So, basically, the next time you really want the last of something at the grocery store but you can’t buy it right now, put it next to the adult diapers and you’re probably home free.

Keep shopping and come and see us tomorrow for consumer contamination. Talk about a bad touch.

*The Christmas reference in this title is being made by a born and bred atheist and purely for Google/seasonal reasons. No offense meant to anyone, and certainly no religious preferences here at SocialPsyQ!

 

  1. Mishra, A. (2009). Influence of contagious versus noncontagious product groupings on consumer preferences. Journal of Consumer Research, 36(1), 73-82.
  1. Morales, A. C., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2007). Product contagion: Changing consumer evaluations through physical contact with “disgusting” products. Journal of Marketing Research, 44(2), 272-283.

Should kids avoid the cereal aisle for their health?

cerealboxpsychology01

Image courtesy of Cornell Food and Brand Lab

Is it just me, or is the cereal aisle much more complicated and sinister compared to when we were kids? Every time I walk down that aisle, my frustration spikes. The choices, so many choices! Chocolate Krave. Cap’n Crunch. Chocolate Cheerios. Frosted Flakes. Even Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory has a cereal now, featuring chocolate bits that you can eat for breakfast. That last part is meant to pull in the kids, and it works. Those kids will nag their parents to buy it who will eventually give in[i] because, oh, they’re frustrated, too. Maybe even more than I am.

I’m not frustrated because of the mere existence of so many options necessarily. Rather, it’s the quality of the options that is concerning. Are any of these cereals actually healthy enough that children should be consuming them regularly? Not usually. A recent study on cereal quality found that cereal brands marketed to children had 56% more sugar, 52% less fiber, and 50% more sodium than cereals marketed to adults.[ii] Most of these cereals also feature spokes-characters, like the silly rabbit from Trix, Cap’n Crunch, or Tony the Tiger, which are familiar to children and increase the appeal of the cereal brand. And let’s not forget that the combined rate of obese and overweight children in this country is still holding strong at 17%.[iii] That’s nearly 13 million kids.

See what I mean about sinister? Now, brand marketing is not inherently negative, but when marketing of unhealthy foods is targeted toward children, then cereal companies like Kellogg and General Mills take a step into the danger zone. Sugary cereals are perhaps even more insidious than other snack foods because they are junk foods disguised as a friendly breakfast.

In-store marketing strategies take it one step further. Cereal companies pay top dollar to get an ideal shelf location that will appeal to children[iv]. In a recent study published in the journal Environment and Behavior, researchers found that cereal brands marketed to children were more likely to be at a child’s eye level and to contain spokes-characters whose gazes angled downward at approximately the height of an average child[v]. In contrast, cereals marketed primarily to adults featuring spokes-characters (think Wheaties) had level gazes. And this seemingly subtle shift in height and gaze is effective. People in the study reported a strong preference for the cereal that featured a spokes-character that made eye contact. By placing their cereals on the middle or bottom shelf, then, companies are ensuring that children will make eye contact with spokes-characters and feel connected and loyal to that brand.

This type of marketing exploits and manipulates children. Cereal companies should be held more accountable. In the past few years and in recent months, especially, there has been a serious push to create stricter regulations for companies that market primarily to children. Based on the findings of Musicus and colleagues, just one of many similar studies, these regulations can’t come soon enough. The issue of obesity is still current. People may be tired of hearing about it, and obesity rates may have stabilized in several states[vi], but that doesn’t mean that it’s gone away.

But even if we take obesity out of the equation, even if we recognize that not all children have the same risk factors for becoming obese, it doesn’t mean that kids should be regularly consuming unhealthy sugary food. Parents want to protect their children in every way they can, and they’re stretched to their limits as is. Cereal companies, and all other food companies for that matter, should be held to stricter regulations. Some marketing standards have been successfulvii, but more needs to be done. Regulations should stretch beyond nutrition and include specific marketing techniques, such as shelf placement and use of spokes-characters. We shouldn’t make the cereal aisle another battleground where parents need to be on the front lines.

Posted by Jen

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If you’re interested in this topic and would like to learn more, check out the links below.

Center for Science in the Public Interest: Food Marketing Workgroup

Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Healthy Eating Research

Salud Today

Eyes in the aisles: Why is Cap’n Crunch looking down at my child? (abstract)

[i],vii A Review of Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents — Follow-Up Report. See http://www.ftc.gov/reports/review-food-marketing-children-adolescents-follow-report .

[ii] Harris, J. L., & Graff, S. K. (2012). Protecting young people from junk food advertising: Implications of psychological research for First Amendment law. American Journal of Public Health, 102, 214-222.

[iii] http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html

[iv] Wilkie, W.L., Desrochers, D.M., & Gundlach, G.T. (2002). Marketing research and public policy: The case of slotting fees. Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, 21, 275-288.

[v] Musicus, A., Tal, A., & Wansink, B. (2014). Eyes in the aisles: Why is Cap’n Crunch looking down at my child? Environment and Behavior, 0013916514528793.

[vi] http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-american-obesity-crisis-stabilizing-20140904-story.html.