Serious Salesman

Though murky claims can sway less-informed consumers, they can alienate the knowledgeable buyers who provide the greatest sales potential. “Puffery can actually hurt in your target market,” says researcher Alison Jing Xu. “For instance, puffery in beer ads could influence women, but men are the primary buyers and may like a product less if ads include meaningless information they think is just there to persuade them.” (Courtesy: iStockphoto)

U. ILLINOIS (US)—Advertising that touts head-scratching scientific ingredients or other exotically technical details can turn consumers away instead of enticing them to buy.

That’s bad news for marketers who think glossy, obscure product claims will go far in wooing buyers.

“When consumers suspect that advertisers are just trying to manipulate them with useless information, they may react negatively and lose trust,” says Alison Jing Xu, a doctoral student in marketing at the University of Illinois, and coauthor of a new study. “And trust is very important in advertising.”

The study which will be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, gauged consumer reaction to ‘puffery’—technical, tough-to-decipher advertising claims that seek to give products a competitive edge.

Too technical to be true
A fictional cleansing gel ad used in the survey trumpeted ingredients such as “Sebopur Complex,” while another ad promoted a beer brewed through the “European Pilsen Method.”

How consumers responded to the technical-sounding claims varied based on their own personal knowledge of the product and where the ad appeared, according to findings by Xu and Robert Wyer Jr., professor of business administration.

Consumers who considered themselves less knowledgeable than the target audience rated products higher, assuming the puzzling references were useful but merely over their heads.

However, consumers who considered themselves well-informed about a product reacted negatively, viewing puffery as an effort to trick them with meaningless information.

Product placement
Consumers have differing reactions based on their personal product knowledge when ads appear in popular, mainstream media. But all consumers generally have a positive impression of ads in media geared toward industry professionals, concluding that the claims are meaningful to the experts they serve.

Xu says the findings show that puffery could be counterproductive for companies that rely on ads in the popular media. Though murky claims can sway less-informed consumers, they can alienate the knowledgeable buyers who provide the greatest sales potential.

“Puffery can actually hurt in your target market,” she explains. “For instance, puffery in beer ads could influence women, but men are the primary buyers and may like a product less if ads include meaningless information they think is just there to persuade them.”

The backlash could have long-term implications if consumers have a strong negative reaction to the claims, Xu says. “Positive impressions of products can change easily, but not negatives.”

Long history of puffery

Puffery in advertising has been around for at least a half-century as companies seek to carve a niche in an increasingly competitive marketplace, says Xu.

“Advertisers need to catch consumers’ attention and make products impressive,” she explains. “But attention only helps when it’s positive and this study says advertisers need to be careful as they try to set themselves apart. They can alienate the buyers they most seek.”

Xu says consumers filter ad claims, rather than accepting them blindly. As a result effective advertising should relate to consumers on a personal level, rather than talking down to them.

“When advertisers create campaigns, they should try to imagine that they’re engaging in a conversation with their target audience,” she says.

“So if using technical terms is important, they should explain them. It’s important that your audience knows what you’re talking about.”

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