Study Indicates That, When it Comes to Advertising, Emotional Ads Often Win Out Over the Facts

Research suggests that even consumers who are wary about the truth of claims made in advertising campaigns respond favorably to ads that appeal to emotion over those which are more fact-based.

A study conducted at the University of Washington, Seattle University, and Washington State University examined consumers’ responses to advertising by considering brand beliefs, responses to informational versus emotional approaches, efforts to avoid advertising, and the degree to which viewers pay attention to ads and rely on them as sources of information.

Consumers were shown eight television commercials, half of which were defined as emotional and the others as informational. Thus, an ad for Gallo Wine that emphasized a familial atmosphere at the winery and vineyards appealed to positive emotional associations, while an ad for Joy dishwashing liquid demonstrated the product’s effectiveness in removing baked-on foods.

While the emotional ads provided significantly less information about the product, consumers who considered themselves highly skeptical were found to be persuaded by them. In contrast, non-skeptics were responsive to a more straight-forward information-based approach.

Professor Douglas MacLachlan of the UW Business School commented: "Highly skeptical consumers have likely become skeptical over time, in response to numerous interactions in the marketplace that have led them to distrust ad claims. Advertisers have developed strategies for approaching these skeptical consumers, including using emotional appeals, whose success does not require acceptance of informational claims."

MacLachlan also draws a distinction between skeptical and cynical viewers. While a skeptic regards advertising as not credible, a cynical consumer is critical of advertising because of its manipulative intent and indirect appeals. Thus, cynical viewers may prefer the more direct, informational approach.

Professor Carl Obermiller of Seattle University, a co-author of the study, stated: "Those who are more skeptical respond to advertising in negative ways, they like it less; they think it is less influential and, they do more to avoid it, zipping past ads on recorded programs and switching channels during commercials. Skeptical consumers also are inclined to need to validate the truth of ads by consulting with friends and family members."

The recent research, which will be published as “Ad skepticism: the consequences of disbelief," in the fall issue of the Journal of Advertising, suggests emotional ads are a more effective approach for skeptics, propelling the advertising industry’s practice of generating sales by projecting the American consumer’s abstract desires for success and happiness onto tangible commercial goods.

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