Blogs & Comment

Negativity isn't all bad

A new study suggests that negative information—correctly delivered—can actually entice consumers to buy.

(Photo: Henrik Sorensen)

As a general rule in marketing, it is not a terribly good idea to concentrate on the drawbacks of the product or service to be sold. A resort would never advertise that its beachfront is polluted with seaweed, for example, nor would the makers of Cap’n Crunch play up the unfortunate side effect the cereal has of shredding the insides of one’s mouth. But a forthcoming study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that in certain circumstances, a minor piece of negative information can actually strengthen consumers’ positive feelings toward products and services, and motivate them to buy.

The paper, When blemishing leads to blossoming: The positive effect of negative information, was authored by two Stanford University marketing professors, and another marketing professor from Tel-Aviv University. Their theory is that when we encounter something mildly off-putting after already hearing a string of positives, the negative information increases the salience of the stated benefits, rather than detract from them. But this can only happen when we’re not thinking too deeply about our choices.

The authors organized a number of experiments to test their hypothesis. In one, a group of volunteers were divided into groups and shown an ad for hiking boots on a computer screen. They were told about the boots’ orthopedic soles, waterproof exterior, and the variety of colour options. Others were told the same information, but were informed only two colours were available, which was presented in a negative light. The researchers introduced a twist in that some participants were required to note how many times they looked away from the computer screen during the process. The researchers found that among the counting volunteers, those presented with the negative piece information were more interested in buying the boots than those who only heard about the positive attributes. 

In another experiment, the researchers employed volunteers to push chocolate bars on students while on campus one hot afternoon. The chocolate bars were chilled and sold at a 50% discount. Some students were told the bars were broken, however. Turns out that when students were approached on their way to exams (meaning their minds were someplace else), they were far more likely to buy the snack when they heard the bars were broken. The results show that the students didn’t fail to notice the negative information, but that it actually motivated them to buy.

Do these findings mean advertisers will start disclosing drawbacks in their pitches? That seems unlikely, but the researchers contend there are lessons to be learned. “Instead of concealing minor product shortcomings, marketers should consider highlighting them as a new means of persuasion when consumers are unable or unmotivated to invest a great deal of processing effort,” they write. Furthermore, in today’s media saturated environment, consumers are bound to absorb negative information about specific products and services whether marketers like it or not. “The current research suggests that perhaps marketers should embrace rather than fight this reality,” they write.