News at Smith

Vigilant against manipulation

Jan 01, 2008


Research by Amna Kirmani

At some level, anyone watching a commercial on TV or reading an ad in a magazine knows that the advertiser is trying to convince him to purchase a product or service.  Consumers have to process this attempt at persuasion and decide how to respond to it in a way that helps them achieve their own personal goals. How a person thinks about those goals plays an important part in their receptiveness to or resistance to persuasion. People who have a promotion focussee their goals as hopes and aspirations and are looking for products that match those goals. But other people, those with a prevention focus, see their goals as duties and obligations; these people are looking for ways to avoid making a wrong choice.  

Amna Kirmani, professor of marketing, shows how people with a prevention focus are determined not to be persuaded by advertising. In a recent paper with co-author Rui (Juliet) Zhu, University of British Columbia, Kirmani shows that consumers with a prevention focus are more aware of manipulative intent on the part of advertisers, and that this perception can result in negative feelings about the brand.

Kirmani and her co-authors looked at the conditions that activate persuasion knowledge, the internal radar that alerts people to manipulative intent on the part of advertisers, in light of the way people think about their goals. In a series of three studies, participants were primed to think about their goals with either a promotion focus or a prevention focus. They were then shown a print ad for a certain brand of digital cameras. The ad contained a headline, a picture of the camera, and three sets of claims in the copy. The second claim stated that consumers rated the camera as producing better quality pictures than the leading brand. Kirmani varied the source of the study and the type of comparison in this claim to study consumers’ perception of manipulative intent. Certain participants were also primed with suspicion by being asked to rate their level of suspicion about the ad and the company.

Kirmani found that people had a high perception of manipulative intent on the part of the advertiser when the study was done by a biased source, like the company itself, and the comparison was ambiguous, as when an advertiser makes a comparison to “the leading brand” with no further information. There was a moderate perception of manipulative intent when the study was done by an independent source like Consumer Reports and the comparison was ambiguous. There was little perception of manipulative intent when the study was done by an independent source and the comparison was specific—for example, “leading brands, such as Canon and Kodak.” 
When presented with these types of ambiguous ad claims, prevention-focused individuals perceived the claims to be more manipulative than did promotion-focused individuals, and people primed with suspicion perceived the claims to be more manipulative than those not primed with suspicion.

But it is not just material within an ad that can activate persuasion knowledge. General suspicion of the corporate community seems to affect how consumers view advertisements. Simply learning that a company’s CEO lied about profitability can make consumers suspicious about ambiguous ad claims from a completely different company. Managers may want to avoid placing ads or even product placements in movies or TV shows that expose or highlight corporate fraud, says Kirmani, because this activates consumer suspicion of companies across the board.

However, it may be possible to design ads to reduce suspicion on the part of consumers by including reassuring information. There may even be ways to leverage consumer suspicion in a positive way by first presenting an ambiguous ad claim and then qualifying that claim in a reassuring manner.

“You can design the order in which you present information so that this vigilance works to your advantage,” says Kirmani. “For example, you could initially say ‘a study revealed such-and-such’ and subsequently in the ad reveal that the study was conducted by a reputable organization such as Consumer Reports. I think you would get a big bang for your buck that way, as opposed to the reverse order. You want to scare people a little and then reassure them. This could be a very successful strategy to reach people with a prevention focus.”

“Vigilant Against Manipulation: The Effect of Regulatory Focus on the Use of Persuasion Knowledge,” was published in the Journal of Marketing Research. For more information, please contact

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