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Out for the Count: Is it possible to be a 'rational' consumer?

What do psychologists do when they leave college? Some work in advertising. What do they do - exactly? Does what they do help sell products? This essay discusses the 'rationality' of consumers when confronted with the many various advertising and promotional techniques - often developed by psychologists. The conclusion? Consumers often have little choice - unless they choose to.

This essay has been reformatted for on-line presentation.


Essay Outline




Is it possible to be a 'rational' consumer, when confronted with the available range of advertising and promotional techniques? This question is impossible to answer without qualification due to its sheer breadth. In this essay we will attempt some clarification of the issues but in a restricted context. To do this we must first decide what is meant by 'rational', 'consumer', 'confronted', and 'range of advertising and promotional techniques'. For the purposes of this essay, the following meanings will be adopted:

It is clear that the principal issues here are likely to include ethical issues, so we had best define 'ethics'. The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology says:

Ethics is a branch of philosophy concerned with '...ideal...' human behaviour; in practical applications, the word 'morals' is usually used (Reber 1995).

Therefore, the focus to be adopted here is on techniques used in television advertising aimed at adult viewers. Can viewers - given the use of available techniques - make reasoned, rather than forced, choices? Even this problem is too broad; we will select only a few of the techniques for closer analysis. It must also be clear that this essay can only briefly touch on the issues concerned. We will first look at some of the techniques that are available, their intended purposes and their common ground. Next, we will examine some of their effects. Finally, we will look at the question of choice, and the freedom to choose.


Purposes, methods, techniques

The purpose of advertising is to increase sales of a product or service. This can be done in various ways. Most fundamentally, an advert can simply inform of the existence of a product previously unknown to the consumer, and thus enable sales that otherwise would not have happened. This can be seen as an extension of the ancient practice of labelling shops with a sign portraying the produce they sell, and as such is morally and ethically unproblematic. The consumer's freedom to choose to purchase is not impacted, they are just informed of the existence of the product.

However, ever since J. B. Watson joined J. Walter Thompson in 1922, one alternate strategy for advertisers has been to increase sales by manipulating stimuli in such a way as to invoke psychological processes to achieve the purposes of advertising. This manipulation of stimuli is what we will call the 'techniques' of advertising, and is where the ethical question enters. Can consumers be manipulated without their conscious agreement, or against their conscious intent? In essence, advertisers using psychological techniques are attempting to alter the behaviour of people either directly or by changing their attitudes to a product or service. Analysis of the effectiveness of attitude change shows that this can be broken down into four loose categories (Hayes 1995):


Factors in the effectiveness of attitude change

  1. The source of the message. The important aspect here is the credibility of the communicator. Hovland & Weiss (1951) and Kelman & Hovland (1953) showed that there was a strong authority effect, with authority figures being perceived as more credible. This is much exploited in advertising; for example, 'men in white coats'. However Kelman & Hovland (1953) also found that this was a short-term effect. There is also a popularity effect (Friedman & Friedman 1979). Celebrities were generally much more effective as endorsers of a product than ordinary people.

  2. The message itself. Messages stated with great confidence have stronger effects (Maslow et al 1971). The language used is important; Eiser & Ross (1979) found that individuals shifted their attitudes to conform with words they were asked to use. Advertisers can exploit this effect via jingles, which impose a word-form. Greater emotional arousal in an advert enhances the effects (Kahneman 1973) but too much is damaging (Janis & Feshbach 1963). Humour can divert the attention of the viewer from the message (Schwartz et al 1991) thus permitting peripheral effects to operate.

  3. The person who receives the message. Different people respond in different ways to the same message. For example, Hovland et al (1949) found that different types of persuasion worked with different groups as a function of their educational level; those with basic education responded most to messages that simply argued for a belief, whereas those with more education responded best to messages that presented a balanced both-sides argument. Thus, an advert targeted at one socio-economic grouping will not necessarily work when seen by another. Himmelfarb & Eagly (1974) found that individuals who were highly ego-involved in a particular choice were very resistant to attitude change (an example might be a communist watching an advert for a Conservative/Republican Party). With these individuals, only adverts that fit into their pre-existing structures would be likely to have any effect.

  4. The context of the communication. Murphy et al (1979) showed that a humorous advert was much more effective if shown in the middle of an 'action' film than in a situation comedy. Reeeves & Thorson (1986) found that adverts following cognitively arousing programs have an enhanced effect.

Such a listing could continue indefinitely as enormous quantities of work have been undertaken on attitude change; however, having seen what sorts of factors are at work, let's examine some of the psychological processes that are (intended to be) induced.


To what extent are consumers free to respond?

We'll select some aspects that most clearly bring out the problem areas. Attitude and behavioural change generally (if we exclude the problematic 'subliminal' claims) requires attention to be given to the stimulus. A common feature of many of the techniques here is that they are attempting to attract attention by eliciting one or all of the following responses:

The orienting response is controlled and implemented by the inferior and superior colliculum, and is present in all vertebrate species (Kolb & Whishaw 1996). It orientates the head and thus the eyes and ears and nose towards any sudden stimulus, and it is hardwired in the limbic and basal ganglia (Zigmund et al 1998). In advertising, the orienting response is invoked by continually varying the visual and auditory environment to generate new stimuli. The startle response is very similar but responds to unusual or unexpected stimuli. Arousal is connected with the limbic system and again is automatic, given an appropriate stimulus (Kolb & Whishaw 1996).

Once attending to the stimulus has been elicited, then attempts to create a conditioned response can be made. The conditioned response (described originally by Pavlov, 1927) is developed by repeated pairing of a stimulus with a response, such that eventually the originally unrelated stimulus evokes the response. The conditioned response is (or can be) programmed at a subconscious level; the spinal arc reflex can be conditioned in individuals rendered quadriplegic by accidents (Kolb & Whishaw 1996). The conditioned response can be achieved in advertising by continuous repetition of the stimulus with a paired response (Baron & Byrne 1997).


What choice does the consumer have, then?

To the extent that an advert elicits the orienting response, a conditioned response, the startle response or emotional arousal, then the simple answer is that the consumer is completely without choice in whether or not to attend to the stimulus; the response is 'hardwired' and automatic. It would seem then that there is a clear ethical problem here; the advertiser can directly manipulate the response of the consumer. But actually things are not that simple; while these automaticities undoubtedly exist, 'manipulating the response of the consumer' is not directly equivalent to 'making a sale'. If it was, the roars of moral outrage would be heard everywhere.

Do all consumers respond to the same cues in the same way? Earlier we mentioned Hovland's (1949) study and Himmelfarb & Eagly's (1974) study, both of which found that certain individuals will not respond as strongly to an advert as others. Thus, adverts have to be targeted; clearly, consumers do not all respond in the same way.

There are two approaches to evaluating effectiveness of advertising; one is to measure sales as compared to campaigns, and infer relationships. The other is via laboratory or field psychological studies. Neither of these approaches has produced anything like a simple cause-and-effect model. There are three competing theories of advertising effectiveness; the minimal effects theory, the cutting edge theory, and the ATR model (Baron & Byrne 1997). The mere existence of the three models shows that the relation between adverts and effects is not simple, obvious or resolved. Altman found in his 1989 study a very low correlation between buying patterns and the adverts that had been seen, and Schmalansee (1989) found a reverse correlation!

On the one hand, the changing of attitudes is undoubtedly a complex area, with no simple set of causal rules. On the other hand, billions of currency units are spent daily all over the world in television advertising campaigns that aim to increase sales of the products advertised. Advertisers frequently want to have it both ways. When there is a threat on tobacco advertising, say, then they bring out the set of evidence showing that it is impossible to prove a causal link between a cigarette advert and people taking up smoking. When they seek new accounts, however, the author knows from experience that they do not produce this particular set of evidence. Rather, they produce studies showing the dramatic effects on sales of a campaign, though this effect cannot be proved either.


To what extent should consumers be free to choose?

This essay is being written in the context of, and from within the viewpoint of, a society that operates a capitalistic economic system where the production and sale of commodities is a root basis of economic endeavour (to the extent that this statement needs general support, see for example Chomsky 1994). In this context advertising, as a way of motivating economic movement and the flow of funds, is (or has become) fundamental to the processes of the economy, and has consequences in terms of employment and income for much of society. This is not an essay in economics, but it is clear that these factors make it difficult to take an objective view of the ethical and moral implications of advertising. Reber (1996), in a discussion of 'morality' (as the 'practical' side of 'ethics') says:

...it is probably not the case that a universal code of morality either exists or can be established (pace Kant); as with ethics, a relativistic stance is recommended. (Reber 1995)

For 'relativistic', he gives:

...events have no intrinsic meaning independently of other events or of a general framework within which they may be viewed. This principle, in some form or other, is found in nearly every branch of science (Reber 1995)

This effectively sidesteps any statement of ethical judgement within a psychological framework. This relativistic view also means that absolutely contradictory viewpoints of freedom of choice and advertising, such as those of Arrington (1982) (pro) and Crisp (1987) (con), can be put forward in the Journal of Business Ethics. If ethics and morals are not the domain of psychology, then it cannot pronounce on them. On the other hand, it can point out clearly the implications of certain techniques and educate the populace at large as widely as possible in the basics of human response to stimuli: something that is taking place to some small extent through the teaching of psychology at schools.


Summing up

So, in the final analysis, what can we say? Are consumers actually 'rational' when confronted with the range of advertising and promotional techniques? As is so often the case in human questions that have a psychological referent, here we must say, 'it all depends'. The answer is 'No' - and 'Yes'. The unprepared, na´ve and passive consumer is not likely to get much opportunity to be 'rational' in the sense that has been chosen for this word in this discussion. The techniques outlined throughout this essay have been honed by advertisers to what they hope is a fine and refined accuracy, with the main purpose being that of side-stepping any 'rational' style of 'Yes- but' response.

On the other hand, a prepared, experienced (cynical?) and active consumer is capable of recognising the techniques that have been applied, knowing their likely effects, and monitoring their own responses to them. This will not necessarily mean that the techniques suddenly lose their power, only that their effects are likely to be down-rated to the level of informational input. However, some base-level familiarisation (with a sales-enhancing spin-off) is still probably inevitable as long as the advertising material is actually perceived. In the final analysis, with television advertising, the consumer has the answer near to hand if they choose not to risk being affected (or infected) by the material - the 'off' switch is the ultimate rational retort. Even better, dump the TV in the nearest skip or tip. The ethical issue of whether this use of veto should be the only strategy of last resort available cannot be resolved here - after all, psychologists are recommended to take a relativistic moral and ethical stance...



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