Brent Coker Internet consumer psychologist Dr Brent Coker

The psychology behind what makes a YouTube movie go viral

12. May 2013


For many brands, creating a 30 second YouTube movie that goes viral is the holy grail of marketing. But ensuring the success of a viral-produced movie is still largely hit-and-miss.  Some of the more well-known ingredients known to increase the chances of viral success such as babies, pranks, and stunts seem to have great success on some occasions, but turn into catastrophic failures on others. There are little tricks that can help kick start a viral produced movie, but these tricks only work if the movie has the potential to spread on its own. Even if a formula for success is chanced upon, the issue of how to attach a brand to the movie remains. As soon as many people sense the movie is actually an advertisement, the virility of the movie typically gets cut short. In this blog post I summarize our research on viral brand marketing success. Our algorithm, though adolescent in development, is the first step towards identifying a production framework that ensures the success of viral movies.

Viral transfer of information through networks is essentially word-of-mouth buzz on steroids. Since the emergence of the internet as a social communications tool, word-of-mouth communications has taken center stage as traditional advertising slowly falls behind the wayside.  In a study I reported in 2010, we found strong evidence suggesting the effects of traditional advertising are weakening. Increasingly, modern day consumers rely on the opinions of others online rather than what corporations are telling them. The key towards understanding how viral messages spread is understanding what motivates people to transfer information to others, and what makes others act on that information.

Richard Dawkins drew similarities between packets of information that spread down through generations, and Darwin’s theory of evolution. He named these packets of information ‘memes’, after the biological concept of genes. According to Dawkins, a packet of information needed to be ‘fit’ in order to transfer or replicate. In the same way genes need to be fit to survive extinction, so too do memes need to be fit in order to be transferred. The prediction of survival therefore rests on the degree of fitness. Figuring out what makes a packet of information ‘fit’ is the basis of developing an algorithm that can explain and predict messages spreading virally. There are four elements that need to be in place for a branded movie to become viral: congruency, emotive strength, network-involvement ratio, and paired meme synergy. These four are the basis of the branded viral movie predictor (BVMP) algorithm.

Congruency refers to the consistency of the BVMP theme with brand knowledge. To understand how this works, we first need to understand how consumers form judgments towards brands. Judgments towards brands are shaped to a large degree by past knowledge. Our minds are full of a series of associations that are attached to a brand. Our feelings towards a brand are shaped by these associations. For example, Harley Davidson for most people is associated with Freedom, Muscle, Tattoos, and Membership. Our attitude towards these feelings shapes our attitude towards the brand. If we place a high value on Freedom, Muscle, Tattoos, and Membership, then likely we will form high value towards the Harley Davidson brand. But as soon as we witness associations with the brand that are inconsistent with our brand knowledge, we feel tension. For example, a Harley Davidson scooter designed for inner city commuters is incongruent with the brand knowledge of many people.  This incongruency negatively affects a person’s ability to use existing brand knowledge to elaborate on the BVMP theme. The BVMP therefore remains weak and exposed to extinction.

The next element is emotive strength. Each day humans process thousands of packets of information. The weaker ones (most) earn a single thought in short term memory, and then become extinct almost instantaneously. Our minds couldn’t cope with elaborate processing of all information in a day; if we did then likely we would go insane. A BVMP needs to evoke a stronger response than these other packets of information to survive. Stronger responses are tied to emotion; information that evokes a strong emotion sinks into long term memory, and benefits from multiple episodes of processing. Emotion may come in many forms, in different combinations, and in contrasting strengths. Disgust and fear are powerful, and are relatively immune to extinction.  Sentiment can be equally as powerful, but is more dependent on the network-involvement ratio. Humor and happiness are weaker, and tend to turn reliance onto the other three elements for survival.

The network-involvement ratio is the next element. Another way of describing this element is in terms of how relevant the message is to the seeded network. Transferring packets of information is not enough if the receiver is not motivated to accept the information. In turn the receiver must then transmit. The internet has taught us that acceptance of a message is necessary, but can exist at any transmittal node without transmission. In other words, there only needs to be one point of transmission (e.g., YouTube), but every node (person) must process (view) the information. The BVMP needs to be relevant to most of the nodes in a network in order for it to spread, and the network needs to be large enough for competing network nodes to also process the information. For example, University students are a large network of nodes sharing similar sparks of involvement. Thus, a movie of a student spray painting a message on the whiteboard during class will most likely spread quite efficiently. The office-workers-who-have-a-degree network is fairly close on several dimensions to the University student network, so node transfer to this new network is also likely to be efficient. The degree of BVMP theme involvement within the networks is high in comparison to the network size.


Finally we consider paired meme element synergy. The three elements described up to this point are necessary but insufficient for BVMP success (see Paired Meme elements table below). In our analysis of successful BVMP we noted certain patterns of memes that only appeared effective when paired with certain other memes. For example, impromptu entertainment acts appeared to work when paired with ‘Eyes Surprise’. When paired with ‘bubblegum nostalgia’, the BVMP when pair doesn’t work. Anticipation works with Voyeur, but not on its own. And so forth. Of course it is entirely possible more than one pair could be combined; we have only begun to look at BVMP success when meme elements synergize in pairs. The Webreep algorithm for example comprises four elements, but is fine tuned to predict word-of-mouth only in the context of website experience. Modifying the algorithm to predict word-of-mouth more generally would become extremely complex. 


These are the four elements of the BVMP algorithm. On its own, the BVMP algorithm needs the support of classic viral movie production strategies to work. Keeping the movie short, using a hook title, initial seeding, key word tag strategy, are just some of the outside factors that comprise the capsule that holds the BVMP algorithm. Most importantly, and not mentioned so far, is how to attach the brand. We need to ensure that the movie does not look like a brand sponsored message because “selling” is very rarely a positive association tied to a brand. The best way to ensure the movie does not get interpreted like this is to include the brand as self-discovery by letting the viewer discover who the brand is themselves. The Wackness viral movie showing the Buckingham palace being graffitied illustrates this strategy. The brand isn’t obvious until the sprayed message is Goggled. Mark Echo used a similar strategy when graffiti-ing the Airforce One. These examples are textbook in terms of meeting the BVMP criteria. 


Facebooking at work is good for your productivity

10. May 2013


In this follow-up article to the recently published “Freedom to Surf” manuscript, I outline the latest evidence supporting the argument that Facebooking in the workplace leads to greater productivity. Based on some recent experimental research, I also make the argument that blocking access to digital network memberships can lead to psychological distress.

In 2009 I became interested in how productivity was affected by people using the internet for personal reasons in the workplace. At the time (and even now actually), many workplaces blocked outside access to non-work related websites. One of the more disturbing trends was that people were getting fired for accessing non-work related websites during work hours. I termed personal use of the internet in the workplace “Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing” or “WILB” for short. Contrary to employer claims, the original study found that people who used the internet for personal reasons during work hours were actually around 9% more productive than those who didn’t (or couldn’t)*

At the time I speculated that the reason for the positive effect of WILB on productivity was related to concentration restoration. Past research into short breaks suggested increases in productivity under certain conditions. This made sense: no-one can possibly concentrate for 8 hours straight. We all need regular mini breaks in order to restore concentration. WILBing seemed to be the perfect type of break. It was unobtrusive –the user did not need to leave their desk. And it was enjoyable –the more enjoyable a break, the faster concentration gets restored.

Since the original study was conducted, I have become more interested in the mechanics behind the productivity-WILB phenomenon. Specifically, although we have reasonable evidence suggesting WILB may lead to increased productivity, we had little evidence to suggest an absence of WILB might lead to a decrease in productivity. Specifically, the question on my mind was: Could blocking people’s freedom to connect to Social Media sites negatively affect their psychological state?

One experiment conducted since the original study finds interesting evidence for how WILB could positively affect productivity, while at the same time give clues to how blocking could have a negative effect on psychological state.  The design was as follows:

·         Four groups were set up

·         Participants in each group were given a mind numbing task for 40 minutes. The task was to watch a line appear and disappear on a screen.

·         Whenever the line was shorter than usual, participants were instructed to tap the spacebar as quick as they could.


Three groups were given 3 breaks during the task, spaced at 10 minute intervals.


·         Group one were given no break.

·         Group two were told to remain watching the screen during the break, and not to communicate with anyone else in the room.

·         Group three were told to browse to an insurance website, and compare the plans on offer with the view towards making a possible purchase.

·         Group four were asked to visit their Facebook account do what they would normally do on Facebook.  

You will see on the graph below that reaction times increased significantly for all groups, except for the group that were allowed to use Facebook during the breaks. Those who were given no break or a mundane task to do had a steady slowing in their reaction time performing the task.




Reaction times are closely linked to concentration levels. When we are mentally tired, our reactions slow down. Thus, it appeared that the Facebook task appeared to have a positive effect on participants’ concentration. Specifically, it appeared to allow participants to restore their concentration better, and faster, than the other groups. This result is consistent with our initial argument that not all breaks are equal in terms of restoring concentration. Like a walk in the forest restores concentration better and faster than sitting in the lunch room, so too does Facebooking restore concentration better than non-networked type breaks.

So why then would blocking internet access have a potentially negative effect on psychological well-being? If you take away a worker’s ability to connect to their social networks online, how could this have a negative effect on their state of mind? I believe the answer to these questions is related to human instinctive programming to be part of a group. We are essentially pack animals. We are all part of a group, a family, a team, an organisation, a club. We’re all programmed to be part of A Network.

The modern way of staying connected to our chosen tribe is of course through digital networks –aka social media. The younger generation in particular are in constant contact with their networks through digital devices. Tweets, Posts, Updates, and even texts are all motivated by our desire to touch base with the people we consider part of our group. If you cut someone off for 8-10 hours per day, then you are blocking their ability to stay connected. We already know about the effects isolation can have on the human spirit; at its worse it causes significant psychological distress. In light of this, it could be argued that blocking someone’s connection to their group could be considered a form of forced isolation; similar to that uneasy feeling of being in a foreign country without a phone to call home.

My aim of this article is to relight the argument against blocking WILB in the workplace. Despite rapid progress in the past couple of years, many organisations continue to block employee access to social media and other network and entertainment type sites. My evidence in support of allowing free and unrestricted access to the internet continues to grow. Please feel free to drop me a line or comment on your own experiences below. I would love to  hear from you! Happy WILBing.


*The definitive version is available at 

Coker, B L S. (2011). Freedom to Surf: the positive effects of workplace internet leisure browsing.  New Technology, Work, and Employment 26:3 (238-247)


What the most popular websites on the internet are doing, that the rest of us aren’t

1. May 2013

When I was studying for my PhD, I remember watching a research talk by a Professor who had come up with some new theory to explain what makes someone adopt a new technology. At the end of the talk during question time, someone in the audience asked the Professor whether his theory worked across cultures –do the Chinese for example adopt technologies the same way as Americans, according to his new theory. The Professor replied that humans are humans, and that aside from some cultural differences in behaviour, fundamentally all human beings think the same way. Therefore, his theory should hold, and all people no matter what country they’re from should adopt technologies the same way.  The belief that all humans fundamentally think the same way is in fact not unusual amongst psychologists. But still, I couldn’t help thinking about it…

It was around the same time when I developed the Webreep Model. My hunch was, and still is to this day, that people from different cultures do react differently when they use technologies. The differences between cultures to anthropologists are plainly obvious –we use different languages, we wear different costumes, we eat different foods, and we all have our traditions. So surely then, some of these differences must affect how we behave when it comes to technology.

The last time we pulled aggregated Webreep data was to see how online consumer behaviour had changed over the past five years. This year, we decided to compare what was happening between different countries.  I was thrilled to see some quite remarkable differences between the countries; some very interesting findings indeed.

Spain for example have abnormally low perceptions of website attractiveness, 59% lower than the French, 57% lower than the Germans, and 60% lower than the Americans. This combined with the very strong correlation with satisfaction suggests the reason for this highly critical evaluation of websites is likely related to common belief systems. The data suggests the Spanish care about Style more than the other countries.

Another intriguing finding is that the French have significantly higher word-of-mouth scores than everyone else. One of the more sinister stereotypical beliefs about the French is that they are reluctant to talk with outsiders, especially if you don’t speak French.  I’m quietly pleased with this particular finding because it suggests the French are actually very chatty. Perhaps equally intriguing was the very high correlation the French have between website attractiveness and satisfaction. Clearly, the French value attractiveness, even if it is just a website. Sensitivity to attractiveness is associated with romanticism, a symptom it seems stemming from French culture. In last year’s data we detected a strong correlation between website attractiveness and trust, which we also find quite clearly in the French data.

Of interest to Marketers of course is what are the shared characteristics of the most successful websites. We define success as those websites which have the highest amount of satisfaction. Satisfied customers are more loyal, tend to spend more, and likely to refer others. Those websites that had the highest scores for satisfaction, loyalty, and word-of-mouth were those that were the easiest to use. Ease of use trumped all other constructs in the Webreep model in terms of sprouting strongly loyal satisfied customers. I have yet to analyse the data to see how different this is compared to 5 years ago, but my recollection from last year’s analysis is that there is more emphasis on ease-of-use than before. This is interesting in light of recent websites that have trumped their competitors by following a recipe of superior usability. comes to mind (hey Jason), when they beat Wasabe in making something that on the face of it appears to be doomed to failure (You want customers to give you their bank details, and then do their budgeting!?), but turning it into a phenomenal success. A big part of their success I believe was their automated intuitive simplicity.

The report is out, and once again we’ll be at Worldcomp in Vegas next month to spread the word. Hit me up if you want to meet for a beer.


The Webreep report can downloaded here: The Webreep Online Consumer Behaviour  Country Comparison Report 2012



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Debunking the myths: What successful entrepreneurs know that the rest of us don’t

23. April 2013


I was recently asked by someone to be their business mentor for a cute little start-up that I actually think has a lot of potential. I was flattered, but also self-reflective about whether I was actually ready to guide someone through their journey to success (or failure). Mentorships I thought were reserved for those who had already “made it” –had cashed in, were bored playing golf each day and had decided it was time to give something back. I have yet to cash in, and I do not play golf.  In fact, despite starting my first dot-com in the late nineties, I still consider myself to be at the beginning.  Despite several failures, I have had some success.  But I haven’t yet received that phone call from Brin or Gates asking me how much I want for my business.  On self-reflection I questioned myself about how much I actually knew about being a successful entrepreneur. At what point is it safe to say that you know enough to guide someone else? Maybe the answer lies in comparing what you know then to what you know now. Here are some things I have learnt that are contrary to what I used to think.

Building a business based on your passion is foolish. The viability of the business model comes first. It surprises me how many times I’ve heard people advise others to start a business doing what they love. I love to ski, but that doesn’t mean I can make a scalable money machine out of it. A skiing business might suit some people who are looking for a lifestyle, but you will likely never earn enough to retire early, or buy that private jet you always dreamed about. Sure, it helps if you actually like what your business is involved in. But savvy business sense should always prevail. At the end of the day, the business model needs to have the potential to scale rapidly, and generate significant revenue in the near future.

Good entrepreneurs don’t take risks.  Sure, there’s always a degree of uncertainty with any venture, but smart entrepreneurs don’t blindly roll the dice hoping that some good numbers will show. Smart entrepreneurs seek to minimize risk as much as possible. One way to do that is by doing solid research and basing your decisions on data. You might think you’ve found a good solution to a big problem. But whose problem is it really? Yours? The data will tell you. I wish I learned this lesson earlier on.

If you’re already an entrepreneur, there’s no need to do an MBA to be successful. When you’re running a business, or trying to make a business work, studying will just slow you down. I’m a lecturer who teaches Internet Marketing to post graduates, so it’s difficult for me to say this. But the reality is, you cannot learn the practical intricacies of entrepreneurship from a classroom. Doing an MBA will tell you the rules of the game, how to step-up to the plate, and how to hold the bat. But it will never teach you how to hit a home run. That comes with experience.

Entrepreneurs don’t do what they’re doing so they can be the boss. In fact, being a boss is the last thing on an entrepreneurs mind, and something many entrepreneurs are pretty bad at doing. Venture Capital firms realize this –if you’re successful in getting funded, one of the first things they will do is install a CEO into your business. People who can generate great ideas are often very different from people who have the acumen needed to run the practical side of a business. The passion and joy of being an entrepreneur doesn’t come from directing others. It comes from refining ideas, and watching them grow.

The most valuable thing I’ve learned is to ignore the false sense of surethingness that comes with any new business idea. That passionate but illogical reasoning that you’re discovered something brilliant, and that it simply can’t fail. It takes a lot of self-control to view your idea from the outside, and objectively realize its flaws. Maybe that’s what being a mentor is really all about. Being a shot of reality when zooming out is no longer possible. I might have learnt a few more things about being an entrepreneur come to think of it. Bon Scott had it right. It ain’t no fun waiting round to be a millionaire. I can’t wait to learn golf.



If you would like ti understand what is wriong with your website, and why your customers choose your competitors over you, check out my tool Webreep. You can download a free version here:



Brent Coker, Webreep

The Future of Social Media: The Next Big Thing

21. April 2013

Recently we witnessed two major turning points in the world of Social Media. The first is the shift towards image based communications, and the second is Facebook’s IPO. The signs suggest bad things to come as corporations race to our wallets before our naivity wears off. Once again privacy issues are about to take centre stage. The internet, once a sunny park of freedom is evolving into a controlled machine of excess as governments and corporations clamour for control.

For Marketers, the opportunities lie in the recent shift towards image based communications in social media. Pinterest is the obvious example here, now driving more traffic than Google+, YouTube, and LinkedIn combined ( Facebook’s recent acquisition of Instagram for $1b, combined with the recent shift towards timeline pages suggests Facebook is also rolling the dice on this trend. Compared to Facebook though, the value proposition offered by Pinterest is very different.

The value for Facebook users is the ability to socialize online. Facebook’s original idea was to enable users to share visual content explicitly, but somewhere along the way the focus turned towards the concept of typed communication. The value for Pinterest users however is to play on something far more addictive: the pristine pleasure of positive simulation. It’s a similar feeling we get when we’ve been saving up to buy something that means a lot to us, and we finally have enough money to hop in our car and go make the purchase. Hoarders are an extreme case of this type of phenomenon: for them, collecting evokes a sense of peace and order. Pinterest is where we can view and collect memetic chunks of information, each of which holds some degree of value for us. By contrast, Facebook works on tribal desire, and our propensity to value pack membership. Recently Facebook have made efforts to move back towards that direction with the visually inspired timeline and the purchase of Instagram. But the core value offered to users remains fundamentally different, suggesting Facebook might for the first time be facing serious competition as society plaes increased concerns over the ugly combination of privacy mixed with commercialization and control.

So what is the enticement of images over other forms of communications such as text or motion? Primarily it has to do with reticence to think. Like it or not, human beings do not like to use their brains! Concentrating for an hour while completing an exam is usually associated with pain, while watching a movie is associated with pleasure. We value simplicity over complexity, and we also value stimulation over concentration. Images provide stimulation –very little cognitive power is required to process an image. Text on the other hand requires a degree of concentration to not only decipher letters and symbols, but also to infer the correct meaning in the intended context.

So what does this mean for the future of Social Media? The evidence suggests we are moving towards a far more commercial looking experience online than ever before. Images are the tool of choice for Marketers, long before the relatively new concepts of “community building” and “the conversation” (sic). The recent IPO of Facebook further suggests some tightened degree of commercialization around the corner –a much more controlled experience on Facebook as the thirst for consumer control by Marketers increases. This in turn will lead to a more P2P style shared based experience rather than the currently in vogue one way share, as social media users try to escape the increasingly creepy issue of privacy and being spied upon by corporations. Social is here to stay; humans have always been social. What will change however is who has control. Once upon a time people actually enjoyed watching advertisements on TV. But once we realize that we once again have corporations  breathing down our necks with an agenda to get us to spend more, the novelty of commercially run social networks might just wear off. Those communities that will survive will be those that are orgainised and managed by the users themselves. Stay tuned for Internet V2....



Stopping customer defection: 3 things you should NEVER put on your website

1. April 2013


Sifting through the Webreep Data over the past 12 months, I was looking for evidence of “super no-dealers”, or elements when present on a website are certain to cause morbid dissatisfaction. After quite a bit of analysis (including structural equation modelling and means testing), I discovered what I consider to be the top three elements. We define morbid dissatisfaction as meaning a state of mind whereby a person will cease loyalty (defect to a competitor or alternate), and engage in no or negative word-of-mouth. This dataset includes 26,562 responses.

 1. Human Stock Photos. Stock photos are those images that have been professionally staged. Human Stock Photos (HSP’s) are those that are staged and include models, such as a picture of a woman with a telephone headset on, or a man shaking hands with a client. Websites might use these images in various places on their website, including home page, contact us page, or even about us pages. You might have gotten away with it last decade (non-verifiable because I don’t have the data), but our data is showing that nowadays you might actually be causing damage using HSP’s. The problem is that internet users know right away that the photo is fake. The picture of the beautiful woman with a big smile talking into the phone is not your customer service representative, it is a model. You don’t hire models to work in your organisation; you hire regular people with specific skills. When internet users see HSP’s, it evokes what we call “sinister attributions”, whereby the person detects mild hoodwinkmanship. Placing a picture of a model on your website implies you want everyone who visits your website to believe that the person is one of your staff. The internet is too personal to use HSP’s, though in traditional type advertising it is probably still fair game. Trust scores for websites that used HSPs were on average 32% lower than their industry average.

 2. Forced Advertisements. These are advertisements users cannot escape from watching, such as a lead-in to video footage with no “close” button, or an interstitial advertisement with no “skip” link.  Users have developed an internet browsing protection mechanism over time called “banner blindness” that protects them from discomfort when exposed to too much advertising. But by forcing people to view an advertisement, you penetrate their banner blindness shield, causing discomfort that leads to a state of morbid dissatisfaction. Always include a skip or close button when including advertising on your website. Satisfaction scores were on average 45% lower for website that included forced advertisements than their industry average.

3. Text with Poor Contrast.  In addition to our data, I’ve also noticed this one myself. Website owners continue to mix background and fonts colours that have poor contrast. Even just medium contrast is unacceptable I would argue. Easiest on the eye is white text (or very light grey text) on a black background. But unless you’re running a security or file swapping site, I’d stick with very dark grey (or black) text on a white background. Websites with poor text contrast had website content quality scores 47% lower than their industry average.

 If you want to identify potential points of dissatisfaction on your website, or compare how your website compares to others in your industry, check out our free version of Webreep here:



Regretful purchases made online: How to increase accuracy of evaluation

23. March 2013


I just had published in the Journal of Economic Psychology research showing how we might make more accurate decisions when purchasing online. Specifically, when we read positive reviews before negative reviews, our chances of making a regretful purchase are much higher than if we read negative reviews before positive reviews. Those people who read negative reviews first, before reading positive reviews, have far less likelihood of regret, and higher levels of satisfaction with the purchase down the road.

Let’s face it –we all read customer reviews online to help us make a decision on whether or not to buy. We assume customer reviews are impartial –obviously the vendor selling the product is not going to tell us their deficiencies –we have to learn what we might be in for from those who have already bought.

Our aim is to make an accurate decision about a purchase, because online what we see is what we get. But this method of evaluation is not perfect –we’ve all suffered regret after buying something online –even if we did our best to make an accurate decision by reading other people’s reviews. Many people assume it wasn’t their fault –there was no way they could have known without physically inspecting the product beforehand. There might be some truth to that, especially for ‘experience’ type goods (second hand cars, business suits), but there is another factor at play here that is impacting the accuracy of our purchase decisions online –our sub-consciousness.

When we are evaluating a potential purchase, our attitude shifts in real time dependent on the information we’re exposed to. For example, when reading negative reviews our attitudes move towards negative, and when we read positive reviews our attitude moves towards positive. However, we also know that our sub-consciousness plays a part in influencing our judgment. Some psychologists refer to this as having ‘dual attitudes’. Our subconscious attitude can influence our conscious attitude, without us being aware of it.

What my research has found is that a subconscious positive attitude can have a stronger effect on our conscious attitude, than can a subconscious negative attitude. For this reason, positive reviews tend to continue to influence our current judgments longer than negative reviews. And so, when we read positive reviews, our sub consciousness remains positive and continues to influence our judgments when we read negative reviews. The result is that when we read negative reviews they don’t appear to be as negative as they actually are. This in turn leads to a less accurate decision, and more chance of making a regretful purchase.

The solution to making a more accurate decision to purchase when shopping online: read negative reviews before you read positive reviews.



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Brent Coker , ,

Keeping negative Facebook comments leads to more trust in your brand

9. March 2013


Many companies spend a lot of time controlling what’s said on their Facebook pages. Deleting negative comments is one way to ensure customers don’t form negative impressions about the brand. On the face of it, this makes sense. Public comments that are all positive should instil trust towards the brand, building associations with high quality. Positive comments mixed with negative suggest flaws in the brand’s ability to provide a consistent high quality product or service. Or does it?

I have long argued that natural communications about your brand should not be tampered with. It is rare that a brand does not have some unhappy customers on occasion. These customers should be given the chance to publically display their disgruntlement. In other words, brands should never tamper with their Facebook page by deleting negative comments, only allowing the positive comments to shine through. Ideally, responding to negative comments creates an opportunity to show the world that you care. The result is greater feelings of trust, honesty, and genuiness towards your brand.

Consumers form relationships with brands, much like we form relationships with other people. In the same way we form impressions of other people, we also form impressions of brands. Who wants a friend that is not genuine in the way they communicate with us? We want honesty, because honesty suggests that person cares about us. Our closest friends will tell us what they think, and will also help us when we need it. Only telling people what you think they want to hear is not a good way to build lasting strong relationships.

To demonstrate how this works, we conducted an experiment at the University of Melbourne. We exposed three separate groups to three separate Facebook Pages. Group one saw a Facebook Page where the comments were 100% positive. Group two saw a Facebook page where the comments were a mixture of positive and negative. Group three saw a Facebook page where the negative comments where responded to by the brand.


Figure 1: All Positive Comments

Figure 2: Mixed Comments with Reponse




The results were as follows. As we would expect, participants in the Positive group viewed the Positive comments as being more positive. This response mirrors what many brands expect.



However, simply viewing a brand as positive does not necessarily speak to more valuable traits such as honestly, trustworthiness, and genuineness. These traits lead to long lasting strong relationships. As we predicted, those who viewed the Facebook page with a response from the brand viewed that brand as more genuine.



When we look at the differences between honesty and trustworthiness, we see a stronger effect.






These results suggest widespread practice of deleting negative Facebook comments about your brand may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The results suggest that publically responding to negative comments can have a dramatic impact on perceptions of honesty, trustworthiness, and genuiness towards the brand. Interestingly, even simply keeping the negative comments does not result in any significant decrease in honesty, trustworthiness, and genuiness. 


Sinister Attributions and the Death of Television Advertising

25. February 2013


Common sense would suggest that a "good" TV advertisement would either have a positive effect on the brand, or at worst no effect. But is it possible that an otherwise great TV ad can have a negative effect on the brand? In this research I found evidence that an otherwise great TV advertisement can actually damage the brand, if the brand is already disliked. Or, more formally, when attitudes towards the brand are already low, a good advertisement evokes "sinister attributions" involving feelings of dishonesty and hoodwinkmanship that further lower attitudes towards the brand.

The graph below demonstrates this effect. Two groups saw the exact same advertisement. A fantastic advertisement that we determined beforehand to be very well liked. But group one were not shown who the brand was that made the advertisement, and group two were shown who the brand was. We determined the brand was disliked before we used the brand.


 The results found that those who were not shown the brand liked the advertisement more than the group who were shown the brand. Interestingly, the group that were shown the brand also disliked the brand less after viewing the advertisement, because they felt they were being hoodwinked in some way.




You watch a new advertisement on TV that captures your attention. It shows beautiful scenery, features your favourite style of music, and displays a product that you feel you actually might buy. How do you react when you discover the brand is one that you previously disliked? You may feel disappointed, and wish the brand was one that you liked. Or, you may like the brand slightly more than before, as the sponsor intended.

In this research I found a third reaction, whereby otherwise liked advertisements produced by disliked brands result in the viewer feeling the brand is deviant and sinister. Negative reactions to positive persuasion knowledge like this example have been demonstrated in previous research. Main et al. (2007) for example found that complements given by salespeople negatively affect attitudes towards the salesperson (Main, Dahl, & Darke, 2007). The study found that although people might acknowledge the complement, they might also impute insincere motives behind the complement despite genuine sincerity. Other research has also found that triggering persuasion knowledge can decrease the effectiveness of sales tactics by heightening consumers’ awareness that they are the target of an attempt to influence their behaviour (Brown & Krishna, 2004; Campbell & Kirmani, 2000). A common thread in these studies is that activating persuasion knowledge can lead to scepticism against the sponsor, or broader scepticism against the media in general (Obermiller & Spangenberg, 1998). However, although these studies have shed considerable light towards understanding awareness of manipulative intent, we still have little understanding of thought processes beyond mere scepticism. Moreover, I am not aware of any research that has found evidence of this effect in the context of advertising. This article addresses this gap by focussing on consumer reactions to advertising when the brand is disliked.

According to attribution theory, people often assign reasons for an occurrence, and attribute underlying causes (Heider, 1958; Jones and Davis, 1965; Kelley, 1967, 1973). Doing so helps us to interpret events, and make sense of what is happening around us (Medcaf, 1990, Harvey and Weary, 1984). Put in the context of advertising, we propose that consumers who view an advertising message where the sponsor is disliked will develop negative attributions that lower their evaluation of the advertisement, and further lower evaluation of the brand. We posit that the more negative evaluation occurs because of the development of sinister attributions. Sinister Attribution Theory proposes that people will tend to hold overstated and irrational feelings towards another person if they simultaneously feel they are themselves being scrutinised (Kramer, 1994). I suggest that prior dislike of a brand may evoke similar irrational feelings resulting in sinister attributions, thus lowering evaluations towards the advertisement and brand.

Against this background, this study is the first to identify evidence of sinister attributions worsening attitudes towards brand and television advertisements.  In two experiments, I find evidence showing that consumers who dislike a brand develop significantly less favourable attitudes towards an advertisement sponsored by the brand, than those who were relatively indifferent towards the sponsor. Furthermore, I find evidence showing that participants who dislike a brand develop significantly worse attitudes towards the brand itself after viewing an advertisement sponsored by the disliked brand, than before the advertisement was viewed.


Experiment 1

The objective of experiment one was to test our prediction that sinister and deviant attributions would form when watching an advertisement where the sponsor was disliked. To provoke elaboration and persuasion knowledge, we matched the theme of the advertisement with the reason for dislike. So for example those who disliked a brand because of poor service would see an advertisement about giving good service. This aim was to create a sense of mental imbalance, motivating participants to elaborate and change their attitude towards the brand and advertisement  (Heider, 1946). Several studies have demonstrated that congruency between message and target expectations leads to elaboration and greater attitude change (Dahlen, 2005; Edwards, Li, & Lee, 2002; Russell, 2002).

Design, participants, and procedure

The study employed a 2(congruent/not congruent) × 2(dislike brand/not disliked brand) between subjects design.  To determine brand likability, a pre-test was conducted. One hundred undergraduate and postgraduate students were asked to rank four large well-known mobile phone service providers operating in the local market. Then, all participants were asked to describe why they ranked their least favourite brand the way they did. Sixty-four percent of students ranked one brand in particular as their least favourite. Thirty respondents indicated that they disliked this brand because they provided poor customer service (e.g., “Incredibly bad customer service…”). Twenty-four indicated that they disliked the brand because their prices were too high (e.g., “Personally for me I automatically think it's the most ridiculously expensive brand”).


All respondents were then contacted again to participate in the next phase of the experiment. All but eight agreed. Those who consistently rated the same brand as their least favourite and gave the reason for dislike as either poor service or prices too high were split into two groups corresponding to their reason for dislike –“Price” and “Service”. The remaining respondents were randomly allocated to price or service according to their least favourite brand.


Those in the Price group watched an advertisement sponsored by the disliked brand where the main message of the brand was that they give good value in terms of price. Those in the Service group watched an advertisement where the main message of the brand was they give good service. Both advertisements were professionally produced. All participants in each group were measured on self-reported scales attitudes towards the advertisement, persuasiveness of the advertisement, attitudes towards the sponsor (the brand), and deviancy, honestly, sinisterness, and trust towards the brand.


Participants who ranked the sponsor of the advertisement last in the pre-test (they liked the brand the least), and indicated their reason for dislike was price (poor value for money) thought the advertisement was more sinister (M = 5.75; SD = 0.91), than participants who did not rank the brand last (M = 4.07; SD = 1.59),  F(1, 47) = 20, p < .001. They also thought the advertisement was more deviant M = 5.25; SD = 1.45; F(1, 47) = 20.56, p < .001, more dishonest M = 5.45; SD = 1.01; F(1, 47) = 15.41, p < .001, and could not be trusted M = 5.05; SD = 1.40; F(1, 47) = 9.24, p < .01. Their overall attitude towards the advertisement was lower M = 2.75; SD = 1.35 than participants who did not rank the brand last in the pre-test M = 4.73; SD = 1.33; F(1, 47) = 25.56, p < .001.


Similar results were found for participants who ranked the sponsor of the advertisement last in the pre-test (they liked the brand the least), and indicated their reason for dislike was poor service. That group also thought the advertisement was more sinister (M = 6.08; SD = 4.89), than in the group who did not rank the brand last (M = 4.89; SD = 1.92),  F(1, 47) = 14.12, p < .001. They also thought the advertisement was more deviant M = 6.00; SD = 0.75; F(1, 47) = 14.12, p < .001, more dishonest M = 5.96; SD = 0.87; F(1, 47) = 10.30, p < .01, and could not be trusted M = 5.77; SD = 0.82; F(1, 47) = 11.30, p < .01. Their overall attitude towards the advertisement was lower M = 3.08; SD = 0.81 than the group who did not rank the brand last M = 4.02; SD = 1.57; F(1, 47) = 21.25, p < .001.


A paired samples t-test was calculated to determine if evaluations of the brand and advertisement changed in the before and after conditions; specifically, whether participants' evaluations of the brand lowered even further after viewing the advertisement.  For those whose reason for ranking the brand last was price, the results found that evaluation of the brand was lower after viewing the advertisement M = 3.10, SD = 1.78 than before viewing the advertisement M = 3.65, SD = 1.68; t(19) = 3.18, p < .01). This result was replicated in the service group: evaluation of the brand was lower after viewing the advertisement M = 2.08, SD = 1.12 than before viewing the advertisement M = 2.67, SD = 1.23; t(25) = 4.18, p < .001).



Experiment 1 found evidence of sinister and deviant attributions towards the advertisement when the source of dislike towards the brand was congruent with the message of the advertisement. Participants who disliked the brand because of poor service, and then saw an advertisement from the disliked brand with the theme of giving good service, perceived the advertisement to be more sinister, deviant, and dishonest than those who did not dislike the brand. Similar results were found when the reason for dislike and advertisement theme was about price. Evaluations of the brand were also both lowered after viewing the advertisement. Presumably, participants were uncomfortable with a brand they disliked trying to persuade them with a message in direct contrast to their prior knowledge.


The present research contributes to our understanding of how consumers can form judgements towards brands and advertisements when the sponsoring brand is disliked. Previous research has found that people may assume sinister motives behind persuasive messages when the source is suspected to have an ulterior motive (Main, et al., 2007). This research also found negative judgements may not necessarily occur through a deliberative process, but rather may form automatically. Building on these findings, this research makes two main contributions. First, the present research demonstrates how judgements towards advertisements can involve negative attributions when the message of the advertisement is positive. 




Beautiful Websites and the Psychology of Web Surfers

21. December 2012


Beautiful women make great con people. So do handsome men (remember the suave characters in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels?). The mechanisms making us trust beautiful people more than regular looking folk can be traced to our instinctive desire for bloodline continuation. We’re naturally suspicious of strangers –potentially they could steal our food, or land, threatening our survival. But, at the same time attractive people of the opposite gender make preferred mates. Attractiveness suggests healthiness, an important component in bloodline continuation. So, we develop trusting relationships easier with attractive people, as a result of our instinctive desires to mate with healthy partners.

But what about objects? Can we trust objects that are beautiful more than objects that are not? Probably not; objects don’t normally communicate like humans, and the link between object design and designer is most often unknown. In other words, the human element of most objects is muted and not at all salient in the viewer’s mind. But what if the object did communicate, and did have a strong human element whereby the visual aspect could be viewed as an extension of somebodies personality? Like a website.

The Webreep project found a direct relationship between trusting intentions and the attractiveness of websites. When we contemplate the reasons why, we see many similarities to the mechanisms shaping trust towards other humans. Websites may be viewed as an extension of a person, with a personality and other associations that go beyond objective evaluations. Websites communicate, are adorned with decorative features, and may have ‘balance’- a key characteristic of beauty in human beings. Convention in web design has finally taken hold; gone are the awkward experimental designs of yore. The rule of thirds, and the golden triangle often found in nature are also regularly found in website design now. The column system now popular is essentially a 2/3 main column flanked by a 1/3 width right column. Website logos are located top-left, search boxes belong on the right, and the ‘face’ (the main image on a homepage, sometimes called the hero) is at the top of the page, just below the ‘crown’ (top content).

Trust has traditionally been the most important obstacle for website vendors to overcome. Understandably consumers from early on have been very cautious about providing their contact and financial details online. Not surprisingly, in the early years of internet adoption, the websites that faired best were those that had a physical presence and had already formed some type of relationship with consumers. Trust is still an enormous component of website design, without it consumers simply won’t transact. Attracting thousands of visitors to your website or facebook page is meaningless if they don’t pull out their wallets at some point.




About Brent Coker

Brent Coker

Hi. I’m Dr Brent Coker, an internet consumer psychologist, and inventor of Webreep. Here I blog mostly about my research, and how customers behave on the web! 


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