Communication Strategies to Counter Deceptive Advertising

Article excerpt

Introduction

An ethical problem in the contemporary business environment is deceptive advertising, which can mislead consumers and injure competitors. Though illegal in its most blatant forms, deceptive advertising can occur in subtle ways that are difficult to establish as outright deception, such as puffery, incomplete comparisons and implied superiority claims. While the problem is widely recognized, research about what makes consumers susceptible to deceptive advertising and how to prevent their being deceived by misleading messages is rare. Researchers have called for more conceptual and empirical research to help consumers recognize and discount deceptive messages [1].

This article reports the results of two studies that explore the factors that moderate consumer susceptibility to deceptive advertising and strategies that help prevent their being deceived by false or misleading claims. Variables examined include the copy style of an ad, the consumer's frame of reference at the time of message exposure, the consumer's store of product-relevant information in memory and the ability of products to influence the consumer's frame of reference.

Processing Influences

Consumers' feelings, beliefs, preferences and behavior are shaped by the amount and style of processing used when they are exposed to an advertising message [6]. Processing style determines the extent to which consumers recognize and reject misleading ad claims by affecting their levels of attention and skepticism.

Three variables shape the style of processing that consumers engage in when processing advertisements. Informational priming provides consumers with objective factual information to counter misleading ads in a format comparable to the tables used in Consumer Reports. Framing creates a cognitive or an affective frame of reference for processing the message. The copy style of an ad (attribute or emotion oriented) also affects processing style.

First Experiment

The effects of these variables were tested in an experiment involving a deceptive ad for an ice-cream bar. Details of the experimental design and statistical results are reported in Lord and Kim [6].

Informational Priming. Providing consumers with relevant objective facts before message exposure was expected to reduce deception. Informational priming creates accurate knowledge. By recalling this knowledge from memory and comparing it with deceptive information at the time of exposure to a misleading ad, consumers should be better able to recognize the falsity of a misleading claim.

Informational priming can also affect deception susceptibility by altering consumers' processing style. Primed by specific information about the relevance of a set of attributes to a product's quality or ability to deliver satisfaction, a consumer may be more likely to notice and evaluate attribute-relevant claims. Such an attribute-oriented processing style may render consumers less susceptible to deception.

Results of the first experiment confirmed the ability of information priming to lessen consumer deception. Subjects provided with substantiated information on relevant attributes of the test product generated more counter arguments and weaker beliefs, and attached less credibility to misleading ad claims than those who did not receive the priming manipulation.

Cognitive and Affective Framing. We expected processing style to vary as a function of the cognitive and affective motivations that prevailed at the time of exposure to an advertising message. A consumer whose processing style is cognitive would use the brain's left hemisphere to think about product attributes and features, while symbolic quality and image dimensions of the product would be processed at a lower level in the right brain. The opposite pattern would prevail for a consumer with an affective frame of reference.

We expected processing style to vary as a function of the cognitive and affective motivations that prevailed at the time of exposure to an advertising message. …