Smith Brain Trust / March 20, 2019

How Does A Sad Face Make Consumers Feel?

Women Leading Research 2019: Rosellina Ferraro

How Does A Sad Face Make Consumers Feel?

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – If you see an ad picturing the sad face of a child in need, it’s likely to stir some emotions. They just might not be the feelings the organization hopes to evoke, says Rosellina Ferraro, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Charities and for-profit companies have increasingly been trying to appeal to consumers with cause-related marketing campaigns, often including images of a person in need. Previous research has found that sad faces in these ads make consumers feel sympathetic, eliciting more donations and purchases of products to benefit the cause. But Ferraro and her fellow researchers say using a sad face is risky and can backfire.

Working with Maryland Smith PhD candidate In-Hye Kang and Marijke Leliveld of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, Ferraro ran a series of experiments where consumers looked at ads featuring children with happy, neutral or sad expressions. They found that consumers are more cynical when they see ads that make appeals using sad faces: They see a sad face and think the organization is intentionally manipulating their sympathies. 

Consumers are more savvy than organizations sometimes give them credit for, Ferraro says. They know marketers choose images for their ads carefully to make them feel a certain way, “particularly the sad ones,” she says. 

“Seeing sad-faced appeals triggers this feeling that we’re being manipulated; that they are trying to make us feel this negative emotion for the purpose of the ad. In general, people like to feel happy, so we don’t have this same response when it’s a positive image because the image isn’t trying to take us from a positive mindset to a negative emotion.” 

Many organizations and companies use cause-marketing campaigns and have to make decisions about featuring people in the ads. “Using sad faces can invoke sympathy and lead to donations or purchases, but organizations have to get the level right to strike the right chord with consumers," Ferraro says. "There are conflicting forces that can potentially wipe out the effect.”  

The researchers also tested the focus of the ad and where the images appear. Ferraro says organizations can minimize the negative effect of using sad faces if it’s not the primary focus and it’s less central to the overall ad. A better bet may be sticking with a neutral or positive images, Ferraro says. She conceded that using positive images can feel wrong sometimes, depending on the cause. “Like a famine – a happy-faced kid wouldn’t be appropriate. But maybe a neutral image could balance that out.”

Ferraro says consumers are definitely becoming more skeptical of advertising in general. They are also more skeptical of charitable organizations, she says. As consumers, are we just more cynical in general? “I think so,” says Ferraro. “People feel inundated with appeals and requests. And charitable organizations use similar tactics as do for-profit companies. It’s all  those things combined. Maybe consumers have had enough.” 

Read more: “When the Face of Need Backfires: The Impact of Facial Emotional Expression on the Effectiveness of Cause-Related Advertisements,” by In-Hye Kang, Marijke C. Leliveld, and Rosellina Ferraro (2019), is a working paper.

Rosellina Ferraro is associate professor of marketing at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She received her PhD in marketing from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University in 2005.

Research interests: Consumer behavior, specifically the effects of social influence and the effects of firms’ reputation-building promotions on choice and preference.

Selected accomplishments: Work published in the top marketing journals, including Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research and Journal of Marketing; she has presented research papers at the leading consumer research conferences; selected as a 2018 Marketing Science Institute (MSI) Scholar; associate editor at the International Journal of Research in Marketing and serves on the editorial review boards of five journals.

About this series: Maryland Smith celebrates Women Leading Research during Women’s History Month. The initiative is organized in partnership with ADVANCE, an initiative to transform the University of Maryland by investing in a culture of inclusive excellence. Other Women's History Month activities include the eighth annual Women Leading Women forum on March 5, 2019.

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