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Emotional, not factual, ads win skeptical consumers


Consumers who are very skeptical about the truth of advertising claims are more responsive to emotionally appealing ads than ones peppered with information, according to a new study.

The finding comes from work by researchers at the University of Washington, Seattle University, and Washington State University who examined consumers’ responses to advertising, including brand beliefs, responses to informational and emotional appeals, efforts to avoid advertising, attention to ads and reliance on ads versus other information sources.

As part of the study, researchers showed consumers eight television commercials, half of which were defined as emotional, half as informational. For example, an emotional ad for Ernest and Julio Gallo wine emphasized a familial atmosphere at the winery and surrounding vineyards, while an informational ad for Joy dishwashing liquid showed how effectively the product removed baked-on foods

Emotional ads are characterized as providing an emotional experience that is relevant to the use of the brand; informational ads predominantly provide clear brand data. All four of the emotional ads rated lower in providing viewers product information than the four informational ads. Surprisingly, said the researchers, consumers who considered themselves highly skeptical of all ads were persuaded less by informational ads than they were by emotional ads like the wine commercial. Also, they found that non-skeptics were more responsive to informational advertising.

"Skepticism leads to less attention to and reliance on advertising, and generally a decreased chance that the consumer will purchase the advertised product," said co-author Doug MacLachlan, professor of marketing and international business at the UW Business School. "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 and his colleagues, Carl Obermiller of Seattle University and Eric Spangenberg of Washington State University, found that skeptical consumers like advertising less, rely on it less, and respond more positively to emotional appeals.

"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," said Obermiller, professor of marketing at Seattle University. "Skeptical consumers also are inclined to need to validate the truth of ads by consulting with friends and family members."

Skeptics are not, however, immune from the influence of advertising. The researchers said that this finding may appear counter-intuitive, as many consumers are inclined to express skepticism about overtly emotional ads, which they view as manipulative. And, such ads are successfully manipulative, researchers said.

"The advertising skeptic regards advertising as not credible, and therefore, not worth processing," said MacLachlan. "The skeptic’s perspective differs from the consumer cynic. A cynical consumer is critical of advertising because of its manipulative intent and indirect appeals. Such consumers may prefer simple, direct, informative advertising. Skeptics, however, do not. This research shows that advertisers are not apt to ’win over’ skeptics by presenting them with simple informational appeals."

The authors say it is likely that emotional appeals were developed by advertisers, in part, in response to the skepticism of some consumers, as a way to bypass their skepticism filters.

The researchers suggest that advertisers should avoid direct informational approaches with skeptics and use emotionally-charged appeals, which were shown to work equally well for high and low skeptics, and no worse than informational appeals for low skeptics.

The study, "Ad skepticism: the consequences of disbelief," will appear in the fall issue of the Journal of Advertising.

For more information, contact MacLachlan at (206) 543-4562 or; Obermiller at (206) 296-5746 or; or Spangenberg at (509) 335-3596 or

Nancy Gardner | EurekAlert!
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