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In Marketing, a Few Bad Words Can Be a Good Thing

How positive impressions get bolstered by bits of negativity.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Title: When Blemishing Leads to Blossoming: The Positive Effect of Negative Information (Subscription or fee required.)

Author: Danit Ein-Gar (Tel Aviv University), Baba Shiv (Stanford University), and Zakary L. Tormala (Stanford University)

Publisher: Journal of Consumer Research

Date Published: May 2011 (online)

Suppose you’re quickly searching reviews online to pick a restaurant for a friend’s birthday. According to this paper, when most of the reviews are positive about important things like the food, atmosphere, and price, one slightly negative mention of a less-central aspect — a lack of parking, for instance — will actually enhance your initial positive impressions. In the right circumstances, especially when consumers are in a hurry or slightly distracted, as they often are when evaluating online advertising, people think more favorably about a product or business if they’re served a little dose of negative information after a large helping of positive.

Previous research on marketing has largely concluded that negative reviews can put off would-be customers. But this paper finds that businesses should consider sharing relatively minor negative details or reviews in a bid to intensify initial favorable impressions.

The researchers call this phenomenon the “blemishing effect,” writing that “a minor negative detail in an otherwise positive description of a target can give that description a more positive impact...than it would have on its own.”

It works this way, the researchers posit: Encountering minor conflicting information causes consumers to reevaluate their initial impressions, but because that negative information is relatively weak, it doesn’t sway them from their first judgments. In fact, in line with previous psychological research, the act of thinking again about the good aspects of the product or business actually increases the perceived favorability and salience of those initial impressions.

The authors based their conclusions on several experiments, which took into account how focused or distracted people were when evaluating product information. In the first study, 141 consumers were split into two groups and asked to evaluate an Internet description of hiking boots. In one group, participants were told it was important to not shift their eyes from the computer screen, and that they had to report the number of times they did so at the end of the experiment. In line with previous research and the authors’ separate pretest, when the participants focused heavily on their eye movements, they paid less attention to the information they were evaluating; this was the “low-processing” group. People in the “high-processing” group were instructed not to keep their eyes glued to the screen but to evaluate the information as they normally would; this group formed a more thorough and careful opinion of the product.

Before they read the information, each group was split into two sections. One section was given only positive information about the boots: that they featured a designer orthopedic sole, included a five-year warranty, and came with two spare shoelaces. The other section in each group read the same information in the same order with one change: A phrase at the end — “comes in many colors” — was replaced with “comes in only two colors.” All the participants were then asked how interested they were in buying the boots.

The analysis showed that participants in the low-processing group evaluated the boots more favorably when they received information that was an amalgam of good news followed by slightly bad news. The opposite was true for the participants who were more focused on the product description: Their view was more favorable when they received only good information.

The second study involved 235 college students who were offered a popular chocolate bar on a hot summer day, chilled to please and at half its regular price. To replicate the distracted and focused conditions, the researchers approached students either immediately before they took an exam (when, pretests confirmed, they were less focused on the chocolate bar) or while they were strolling on campus. The slightly negative piece of information presented to some students was that the bar was cracked in the middle. Once again, the somewhat distracted participants who were fed one piece of bad news had a more positive reaction — and bought more candy bars —than distracted participants who heard only good news.

Another study involved 136 consumers and repeated the hiking boots scenario, but this time the negative information — a photo showing that the shipping box had broken during transit — was presented before the good attributes. This study revealed that the blemishing effect holds only when the piece of negative information follows good news.

The researchers note that the “first instinct of marketers is to hide, downplay, or mask negative reviews.” But this study suggests that when a product’s defect is minor or peripheral to the core values of the brand, marketers should consider highlighting that disadvantage in some situations. Given the flood of information that surrounds us, consumers will inevitably receive some negative tidbits, the authors point out, so the question becomes how to turn those negatives into a positive.

Marketers can present information in an order that takes advantage of the blemishing effect and seizes on customers’ divided attention, the researchers say, by placing ads on bus posters, online pop-up banners, and social media sites like Facebook, or in busy and noisy locations. In particular, marketers should exert their influence in online advertising or reviews because consumers typically scan these quickly or become distracted as they read. Sorting reviews on a company’s website strategically, rather than just by date, would allow marketers to highlight certain negative remarks after a few positive comments to elicit the blemishing effect.

Bottom Line:
Slightly distracted consumers will think more highly of a business or product when they receive a small piece of negative information after hearing about several positive attributes. Marketers should embrace, rather than fight, negative remarks by incorporating them into online advertising and other settings that target unfocused consumers.

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