Defects of failed advertising put in sharp focus by emerging consumer psychology paradigms

Piotr Nowakowski

The tired, all too familiar discussions of the sources of the Apple brand’s strength generally focus on the company’s products and consistent use of exceptional design in all aspects of its presence. Apple has certainly been remarkably resistant to its competitors’ constant attempts to capture its U.S. market share. But perhaps the most impactful, yet the most overlooked, reason for this unyielding strength is the competitors’ flawed comparative advertising campaigns. Even though intuitively the campaigns seemed reasonable, recent studies in consumer psychology make it clear that they were bound to fail. Scientists like John Dunning and Abraham Tesser constructed new models of consumer self-image and self-esteem maintenance mechanisms that reshaped our understanding of the baffling challenges of comparative advertising and perhaps of marketing as a whole.

For years, Samsung tried bold comparative advertising because convincing Apple customers to switch to their products had to include Apple as a reference point. Samsung was right – comparative advertising can be a highly effective method for addressing buyers’ reluctance to switch. However, while quite straightforward and instinctual on its face, when mishandled it can produce unforeseen outcomes upon exposure to real-life intricacies of consumer psychology and possibly tarnish the advertiser’s image in consumers’ eyes. Comparative advertising is a very special form of marketing because, unlike others, it tries to devalue a competitor’s product in an overt fashion. This feature makes it tricky to implement from the standpoint of consumer self-image issues. In order to understand these difficulties, one must compare the intuitive but faulty conventional interpretation of the decision-making process with the new interpretation, built on recent theories in consumer behavior, most importantly self-concept and belief-harmonization.

The old model of the purchasing decision proposed that, when deciding whether to buy a product, individuals would weigh their beliefs for and against the purchase, which would then become the basis for one’s decision. However, since the beginning of the 21st century, the way social cognition looked at decision-making started to increasingly favor a different interpretation. David Dunning, a researcher at Cornell University called this new model of consumer decision-making “belief harmonization.” In this process the person, according to Dunning, reaches a decision by “rearranging and revising [their] beliefs, needs, and preferences into a network of cognitions that produces little, if any, tension or disharmony among its various elements.” An important implication of thinking about decision-making in this way is that no longer do we just assume that beliefs, needs or wants shape the final decision but rather that the process works vice-versa as well. For example, a person might want a previously seen jacket on an impulse and already have an unconscious bias towards a positive purchase decision due to mere-exposure effect, well before consciously evaluating the factors pertaining to the decision. This decision bias can result in the person rearranging their belief framework to match the preferred decision and ultimately justifying the pre-existing preference.

It is important to note that the new model doesn’t contradict the interpretation that beliefs influence decisions. Rather, the decision-making process becomes a feedback loop, where the decision on the one side and the beliefs on the other are in dialog, influencing each other to gradually resolve existing tensions. As a result, the decision can be seen no longer as just an output, but rather a part of a dynamic, self-balancing mechanism.

Describing the process in terms of belief adjustments brings up a valuable concomitant point that beliefs are not equally prone to changes. And it turns out that the ones that are the most robust are usually not even relevant to a decision. These peripheral convictions are “sacrosanct” (per Dunning’s vocabulary), inviolable beliefs about the self. As the least common-sense element of the decision-making process, they can introduce a lot of unexpected noise. The beliefs form the core of one’s identity and the reason behind their strength, as Abraham Tesser suggests, is the necessity to protect one’s self-esteem and preserve the consistency of the established self-concepts: People need a yardstick for how they see and would like to see themselves and for how they believe they are seen and would like to be seen. Apart from the sacrosanct beliefs held by the general population, such as considering oneself a “moral, lovable, and capable” person, there exist more individual beliefs, such as “I’m an sociable person.” Even though the beliefs are often unrelated to practical considerations of a decision, their inflexibility and subliminal nature makes them particularly impactful. An individual will usually make a purchase decision if the decision is consonant with these underlying beliefs, unless they take the uncomfortable effort of reshaping one’s self-understanding.

The resulting framework, even though quite dynamic and complex, brings clarity to why companies like Samsung made substantial mistakes in comparative advertising and what exactly can happen as a result of these mistakes. Samsung kept repeating the same errors in its campaigns for years, but the “Samsung Slams Apple” series of commercials from 2012 is the epitome of the company’s crusade against Apple. For example, in some of its advertisements, Samsung presented iPhone users as maniacs lining up in front of Apple stores for days before the release of a new Apple product. iPhone users were shown as unreasonable buyers staunchly holding onto Apple merchandise regardless of the fact that the products continually fail their expectations. At the same time, they were also presented as unsuccessful people stubbornly and pathetically presenting themselves as creative “yuppies,” which was the implied motivation for their loyalty to the brand. Then Samsung presented comparative technical information, which indeed made Samsung phones look quite attractive. The results were devastating, but for Samsung rather than for Apple.

The key reason why Samsung would make this kind of mistakes is because it clearly viewed its audience through the lens of the old decision-making model. The company assumed that iPhone owners will readily assume the perspective presented in the campaign and deem themselves unreasonable. Samsung assumed that people do not have any pre-existing beliefs and, after adopting a disdainful stance towards Apple customers (likely themselves), the audience will proceed to impartially consider the technical information shown in the commercial.

What actually happened in the audience’s minds was probably quite different. Regardless of whether the stereotypical representation of iPhone buyers was correct or not, Samsung didn’t align its actions with the current theories about consumer self-concept. Samsung engaged in a defensive communication style, which on the surface focuses on pragmatics but in fact primarily challenges or defends one’s status or self-esteem. As a result, the commercials effectively detracted people from practical considerations like technical information and whether to switch to Samsung; instead, viewers had to protect their self-esteem. People faced a cognitive dissonance, which ultimately had to be resolved through belief harmonization. They could either abandon their underlying belief that they are smart consumers or discredit the source of the message. And because sacrosanct beliefs lie at the core of one’s self-esteem, which the audience was trying to protect at all cost, people were apt to adopt a hostile attitude towards the advertiser and discount its entire message, including the product comparison.

The groundbreaking consumer psychology models prove powerful in clarifying comparative advertising; however, it’s by no means the only marketing strategy that they help explain. This year’s attempts by Budweiser to brand its beer under the new name “America” is a telling case for reckoning with self-concept and belief harmonization in marketing more broadly. The new beer brand was created in response to Budweiser’s continued lack of success with the Millennial demographic, which, unluckily for Budweiser, shows a strong preference for wines and craft beers and despises alcohol with mass-production associations. The new name could conceal the beer’s connection with Budweiser, hadn’t it been for the public uproar when the hypocrisy of how Belgian-owned Budweiser refers to American patriotism received wide coverage in the media. As expected, the campaign achieved the opposite of its goals, particularly among the Millennials. Budweiser’s attempts to appeal to the group’s patriotism only made the consumers determined to overcompensate and subconsciously prove to themselves that they were savvy consumers who do not fall for corporations’ tricks. Moreover, the current context of extreme political divide and related concerns, particularly among young adults, creates a network of discouraging associations around the political name, which further delegitimized the beer as a desirable product.

The continuing shift of consumer psychology paradigms has vast consequences to how marketing campaigns can be evaluated and structured. The innovative, comprehensive theories provide countless insights about comparative advertising and marketing. The theories also reveal the vast extent to which seemingly illogical consumer behavior can shape the marketplace, further reinforcing the significance of being able to properly analyze consumer psychology without resorting to the unrealistic simplifications typical of earlier theories.