Bossy brand advertising raises ire of most customers

UAlberta study blows holes in one of the advertising world's most beloved ploys.

Nobody likes to be told what to do. And now a UAlberta study proves that is true for even the strongest brand relationships.

"Seventy-two per cent of ads in America's top 10 print magazines contain ads with language that tells consumers what to do," said Sarah Moore, a marketing professor in the Alberta School of Business. "Our research is the first to look at how reactance motivation, your knee-jerk response to being bossed, is affected depending on your relationship status with brands."

Moore found that while the reactions of less loyal customers were relatively neutral, surprisingly, ‚Äčthe reactions of very loyal customers to pushy messages such as Save Money. Live Better, Think Different!, Buy Now! and Visit Us! were overwhelmingly negative.

"This is true even for seemingly innocuous assertive statements, like Please Buy Now! or for messages that don't have a negative consequence of non-compliance," she said.

Even when offered a cash reward, Moore says an assertive message decreased how much that loyal customer would actually buy, and also made them mad.

"To not be compelled by cash is a strong test."

Moore said only the more youthful and exciting brands, like Virgin or American Eagle, can get away with assertive style ads, but even their bossy ads didn't register a positive effect.

Why the backlash?

According to Moore, reactance motivation reflects consumers' need to be free to make their own choices. "Pushy ads, in demanding certain behaviours, restrict consumer freedoms and often cause backlash against the ad and brand."

We know this to be true in human relationships, she explained.

"When your significant other tells you to do something, like attend a function that you don't want to go to, you are likely to comply because you feel guilty. A similar process is activated in close brand relationships.

"The difference is that in brand-relationships, guilt backfires," said Moore. "At the end of the day, consumers remember brands are just brands, which have commercial interests, and that they're not true relationship partners. Backlash occurs."

Practical tips for advertisers

The study offers a few remedies for marketers to modify language to avoid the impact of assertive ads.

"They can use directive language that is less individualistic and more general, and less pushy, like Now is a good time to buy! instead of Buy now!," said Moore, adding this was shown to dissipate negative reactions in the research.

As well, Moore says when consumers think positively about their relationship with the brand, the negative impact of a pushy ad is decreased.

"Advertisers may want to play up this aspect, affirming the relationship, and then rephrase the call-to-action."

The study, Just do it! Why committed consumers react negatively to assertive ads, was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.