Want Your Product to Look Good? Follow Something Bad

Persuasion research shows that context can matter as much as content.

June 01, 2008

| by Stanford GSB Staff

A person holding a shopping bag that says "I'm an educated consumer"

Marketers should consider both the context and content of their message. | Reuters/Lucas

Entertainers, politicians, and public speakers instinctively know that a good act is tough to follow. New research from Stanford Graduate School of Business reveals that the same is true for anything designed to persuade—be it a TV ad, public service announcement, speech, or information campaign. It’s not just the content that’s important, say marketing experts and psychologists, it’s also the context that’s critical in bringing people over to your side.

Specifically, investigators have found that messages are perceived as more powerful when they are preceded by other messages that appear to have relatively less substance, or come from spokespersons with relatively less credibility. In other words, if you want your message to look particularly good, place it after something not so good. It’s like having an opening act that sets the bar low, making the main event seem much better by comparison.

In two papers published in 2007, Zakary Tormala, associate professor of marketing at Stanford GSB, and coauthors Richard Petty of Ohio State University and Joshua Clarkson of Indiana University detail the results of six studies they conducted on how the context in which a message appears affects its influence and perceived credibility.

“Whereas past persuasion research has studied the effects of messages delivered in isolation, our research takes an initial step toward understanding persuasion as it unfolds in the real world,” Tormala said.

“In the real world, people tend to receive persuasive messages in the context of other messages about different objects or issues. For instance, people might be exposed to back-to-back ads for different products or brands while watching television, reading a magazine, or surfing the internet. It’s important to understand the effects of these other messages on the persuasion process.”

The studies were conducted with undergraduate students at Ohio State and Indiana universities. In the first series, all students read a uniform marketing-oriented pitch for a hypothetical Brown’s department store, which talked in some detail about three of the store’s departments. Prior to that, students had read either a description of Smith’s department store, the new Mini Cooper car, or a biographical sketch of a hypothetical college student.

In each case, students’ perception of the Brown’s department store description was significantly affected by the nature of the previous message. When the first message was flimsier—offering fewer supportive facts than the Brown’s message—students rated Brown’s department store in more positive terms. “In other words,” Tormala said, “the second message was seen as more persuasive when the first one contained relatively less information.”

What is particularly significant is that it did not matter whether the first message was related to the second or completely unrelated, as in the case of the car or the biographical sketch. Simply being preceded by a less informative message made Brown’s department store look better. Conversely, when the preceding descriptions contained more information than the Brown’s message, the store’s rating suffered.

Being given less information about the first item led participants to feel they knew more about Brown’s, and, Tormala explained, “When people thought they had more favorable information about Brown’s, they liked the store better, even though the actual amount of information they had was unchanged.”

A second series of studies looked at how another variable—the credibility of sources—affected the persuasiveness of a message. In these studies, students were led to believe that their university was considering implementing comprehensive exams as a condition for graduating. All participants received a pitch about the change that they were told had been written by someone who normally would be perceived as moderately credible—a local community college instructor.

Earlier, students had read a different message supporting another new policy requiring campus community service. Researchers told some students that this message had been written by someone with low credibility—a 14-year-old high school student—while they told others it was written by someone of high credibility—a Princeton professor.

Participants responded much more favorably to the second, comprehensive exam pitch—supposedly written by the community college instructor—when they were told that the source of the first message they had read was the less credible 14-year-old rather than the more credible Princeton professor. “This result parallels those of the first studies,” Tormala said. “When a moderately credible message is preceded by a less credible one, it appears to be more persuasive.”

This research suggests that it is as important for ad campaigns to think about tailoring the context of their message as it is to think about the content. Marketers, for example, may want to place their TV commercials after something relatively more vapid.

“They might even go a step more radical and consider buying the previous ad spot and filling it with a less compelling message for a different brand or product,” Tormala said. “Following a less compelling ad for something else will help make your ad seem more persuasive when it arrives.”

Such “greasing the wheels for persuasion,” as Tormala put it, doesn’t have to be seen as being manipulative. “The information from our research can be used to sell product, promote a political candidate, or make important health messages or other pro-social communications more effective,” he said.

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