Can the Truth Hurt? How Honest and Persuasive Advertising Can Unintentionally Lead to Increased Consumer Skepticism

By Koslow, Scott | The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Can the Truth Hurt? How Honest and Persuasive Advertising Can Unintentionally Lead to Increased Consumer Skepticism


Koslow, Scott, The Journal of Consumer Affairs


In some situations, unsought, honest, but persuasive advertising claims may be difficult for many consumers to believe. To resist the hidden tactics and persuasive efforts of advertisers, defensively motivated consumers may challenge claims even if they have no rational reason for doing so. That is, consumer skepticism may evolve as a defensive coping and reactance response to pervasive advertising attempts.

Public policy makers, consumer interest groups, and consumer affairs researchers who are concerned with advertisers' potential to mislead consumers generally believe that consumer skepticism of advertising claims is a necessary, beneficial, and healthy skill that protects consumers from advertisers' deceit. For example, Friedman's (1998) review of how people cope with fraudulent marketing practices demonstrates that consumer skepticism is the main protection consumers have in detecting fraud. Likewise, Mohr, Eroglu, and Ellen (1998) show how skepticism is central to the way in which consumers process and make sense of potentially misleading environmental claims. Liefeld and Heslup (1985) argue that because grocery price advertising in some cities is frequently misleading, consumers correctly respond by being skeptical about the value of grocery price cuts and discount the perceived savings. Consumer affairs researchers value consumer skepticism so highly that some suggest implementing programs to teach consumers to be more skeptical of advertising (e.g., Gaeth and Heath 1987). Other researchers find that such skepticism may provide an incentive for advertisers to provide objective and verifiable advertising information (e.g., Ford, Smith, and Swasy 1990).

However, the argument to rely on consumer skepticism to improve marketplace efficiencies goes awry when consumers become skeptical of honest advertising as well (Pollay and Mittal 1993). If consumers are skeptical of honest claims, they may miss products that they seek and/or pay higher prices for them. For example, Zaichkowsky and Sadlowsky (1991) show that although local grocery retailers were surprisingly honest, consumers still were skeptical of price cut claims, discounted their value greatly, and did not make optimal choices. If it is common that consumers are frequently skeptical of honest claims, then it may be that at least some of the protective benefit of skepticism is reduced or even outweighed. As a first step toward determining this trade-off, this paper explores some mechanisms by which consumers may become skeptical of honest advertising claims.

To this end, this paper proposes that consumers may sometimes be so vigilant against potentially misleading advertisers, that even after claim verification has occurred, consumers sometimes remain skeptical. Could it be that consumers become skeptical for reasons other than to protect themselves from deceptive or fraudulent advertising claims? Could it be that one reason why consumers become skeptical of advertising is that they sometimes like being skeptical of advertising? Could it be that, under some circumstances, telling the truth persuasively leads inadvertently to skepticism because consumers simply choose to be skeptical? This paper will propose affirmative answers to these questions by applying the reactance theory framework of Brehm (1966, 1972).

To better understand the predictions of reactance theory, consider two baseline situations: one where an advertiser makes a strong, positive claim and confirms it by an individual consumer with superior product performance after the sale (situation A), and another where an advertiser makes a similar claim, but the product fails to deliver performance after the sale (situation B). Rational consumers should be less skeptical of an advertiser who makes good on his or her promises (A), in comparison to the advertiser who fails to live up to claims (B). Also consider two more situations where there are a series of advertisements. …

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