Pushing love in advertising can kill sales

Pushing love in marketing campaigns can backfire and result in significant falls in sales figures, a researcher from the USC Marshall School of Business reported in the Journal of Market Research. The article is titled “Because I (Don’t) Deserve It: How Relationship Reminders and Deservingness Influence Consumer Indulgence.”

Consumer psychologist Lisa Cavanaugh found that pushing love in marketing and advertising campaigns can be especially damaging with upmarket (higher end) goods.

Consumers are forever being exposed to images of romance. Even though Valentine’s Day has come and gone, happy couples holding hands and kissing each other abound in adverts everywhere. However, these ads are more likely to turn people off buying expensive goods, especially single individuals.

The study showed how the prevalence of highlighting relationships in advertising campaigns can have a significantly negative effect on sales and people’s willingness to indulge themselves.

Believing that pushing love pushes sales is a myth

Marketers believe that frequently reminding consumers about family, close friendships and romance influences choices and their willingness to consume.

According to a press release from the USC Marshall School of Business, “Cavanaugh’s research explores an understudied influence – relationship reminders – and identifies a novel factor – perceived deservingness – that predicts consumers’ propensity to indulge.”

Reminding people of irrelevant relationships does not encourage them to treat themselves to something nice, and can even make them spend less than they had planned to.

A sensation of not deserving to be pampered triggers less spending and opting for lower-end brands of products or lower-calorie foods.

The effect can have a considerable effect on sales at certain times of the year, such as holidays when pushing love becomes more prominent in marketing campaigns.

Marketers need to re-thing their strategies

Cavanaugh said:

“Marketers may need to rethink the prevalent practice of using images of idealized relationships to sell everything from cookies to cameras, because many consumers don’t have those relationships. By reminding people of relationships they don’t have, marketers inadvertently make consumers feel undeserving — less worthy of treating and rewarding themselves.”

The perceived lack of merit causes shoppers to reduce their own indulgence across a wide range of goods. According to the study, promotional emails, adverts on all media, or a conversation in a shop can trigger the consumer to change brands and go downmarket (buy something cheaper). Its effect on indulgence is not only limited to the product or band advertised.

Cavanaugh explained:

“Perceived deservingness carries over to affect subsequent choices across multiple product categories, everything from the foods you choose to the amount of money you’re willing to spend on clothing, accessories and even personal care products across retailers.”

Blasting females with emails asking “Just got engaged?” may be the kiss of death to sales, considering that the number of marriages today is at a historical low – 8.8 marriages per 1,000 from 1009 to 2011.

Pushing love can restrict indulgence

Cavanaugh said:

“By reminding consumers of relationships they do not have, marketers may not be simply mis-targeting but also self-handicapping. Marketers may think of these relationship reminders as aspirational, that is, suggesting that their brand or product will be able to help you achieve the type of life you’ve always wanted.”

“But in fact, the reactions of consumers I’ve observed in my research tell a very different story — relationship reminders often cause consumers to feel undeserving and restrict indulgence. Singles need to get some love from marketers, too.”

Cavanaugh carried out seven different experiments to measure multiple indulgent choices made by consumers to test her hypothesis with adults and students. The results demonstrated the robustness of the effect of the feeling (or lack of) of deservingness on indulgence.

In one test, for one week leading up to Valentine’s day volunteers were exposed to electronic greeting cards that promoted two types of relationships, either a platonic or romantic one. They were then given a shopping task where they could choose from cheap, mid-range and upmarket brand fragrances, hand creams, shampoos and lip balms. After choosing their items they indicated their current relationship status.

The author was surprised to find that pushing love made single consumers choose fewer higher-end personal care products, compared to their coupled peers.

Platonic reminders push up sales

However, reminders of close platonic relationships encouraged single shoppers to consume as much as coupled individuals, “because singles have that type of valued relationship,” the researcher explained.

According to popular culture, singles console themselves by buying and consuming things. Examples such as Bridget Jones indulging on tubs of ice cream or Carrie Bradshaw (Sex and the City) drowning her sorrows in retail therapy abound.

Cavanaugh points out that singles do not necessarily indulge more. Regarding this myth, she said:

“That misconception is what makes these findings so fascinating. This evidence regarding perceived deservingness as a driver of indulgence runs counter to what existing theories and pop culture might predict about the salience of social relationships and indulgence.”

“It is commonly assumed that when people lack valued relationships, they will feel lonely or sad and indulge more, through shopping or eating. My theory and findings based on deservingness suggest a very different pattern of behavior: Individuals choose in ways consistent with their perceptions of deservingness.”

Affective reactions versus deservingness

Cavanaugh pointed out that knowing how to distinguish between affective reactions (how people feel) and deservingness (how they feel about themselves) is crucial.

Previous studies have focused entirely on affective reactions. “While perceiving oneself as less deserving may sometimes be accompanied by negative feelings, it is the perceptions of deservingness but not feelings or mood that most accurately predict whether indulgence occurs.”

When promoting indulgent products, marketers need to concentrate on the context of their ads and product placement in movies and TV shows. Better sales might be achieved if the products are placed in more general platonic settings, for example colleagues somewhere together, neighbors or close friendships – situations which consumers are more likely to be involved in.

If the marketer has data on the consumer’s relationship status, then the ads can be tailored more relevantly, with a romantic couple shown to those in a relationship and platonic friendships displayed in others.

Do not make assumptions about consumers when approaching them about promotional upgrades, Cavanaugh warns. If you are a telemarketer, do no assume people are in a romantic relationship.

Cavanaugh concluded:

“Given the prominent role that deservingness and relationships play in consumer choice, continued research on relationships and perceived deservingness would benefit both consumers and marketers alike.”