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.
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.