Consumer Skepticism and Online Reviews: An Elaboration Likelihood Model Perspective

Article excerpt

The use of the Internet as a channel for expressing opinions on products has become an important marketing tool to compete for consumer attention and visits (Chatterjee, 2001). With the declining trust in advertising, Word of Mouth (WOM) has become the most influential communication channel. As an electronic form of WOM, online consumer reviews provide a trusted source of product information for consumers--and therefore a potentially valuable sales asset. Positive consumer reviews on product or company are one of the best predictors of business growth (Keller, 2007). However, little is known about how online messages influence the purchasing intention of consumers (Chatterjee). The first purpose of the present study was to broaden understanding about effects of online reviews. By introducing the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) as a referent theory, this study contributes to the online behavior literature.

Obermiller and Spangenberg (1998) suggest a paradox whereby the nature of a free market encourages exaggerations in marketing messages which subsequently induces consumer skepticism. Through socialization and purchasing experiences, consumers come to believe or disbelieve marketing messages. In an empirical study, Calfee and Ringold (1994) found that the majority of consumers believe that advertising is often untrustworthy and accordingly discount claims made by advertisements. Although online reviews provide easy access to information about products and services, they also foster consumer skepticism. The fact that this new form of WOM is information from strangers whom the consumers have never met, and probably never will meet, casts doubt on the trustworthiness of these online messages. Therefore, considerable criticism has been directed at Internet information, especially online reviews. Chatterjee (2001) suggests that some online surfers even get paid for referrals or purchases and/or get advertising income from target firms. The second purpose of this study was to attempt to use consumer skepticism as a moderator to test the ELM hypotheses. Managerial implications are suggested.

Literature review

ELM The Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) developed by Petty and Cacioppo (1981, 1986) provides a useful framework for understanding the effectiveness of persuasive communication. Based on the ELM, attitude change may occur via two routes of influence, the central route and the peripheral route. The two alternative routes differ in the amount of thoughtful processing of information or elaboration. Individuals taking the central route think critically about issue-related arguments and scrutinize the merits and relevance of those arguments before forming an attitude about the advertisement or product. Conversely, individuals taking the peripheral route make less cognitive effort and rely on shortcuts such as the number of arguments and physical attractiveness of endorsers when forming an attitude (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). Petty and Wegener (1999) suggest that individuals in high elaboration likelihood state are more likely to engage in thoughtful processing of information and are also more likely to be persuaded by argument quality. People in low elaboration state tend to base their attitude change on peripheral cues. Elaboration likelihood moderates the effects of argument quality and peripheral cues on attitude change. According to the ELM, elaboration likelihood is determined by an individual's motivation and ability to elaborate. Motivation refers to the individual's personal relevance to the persuasive message while ability is manifest in the individual's cognitive competence or prior expertise with the attitude object. Individuals vary in their ability and motivation to elaborate. Skepticism Skepticism refers to the tendency toward disbelief (Obermiller & Spangenberg, 1998). Consumers come to believe or disbelieve marketing messages through socialization and purchasing experiences. …