Tinted Lenses

How bias distorts perception and shapes social interaction.

Hawks in Sheep's Clothing

How "informative advertising" sells us a bill of goods.

This blog is concerned with bias in a broad sense -- not just in the context of intergroup psychology.  Humans are blessed (or cursed, depending on your perspective) with simple decision rules that allow us to make quick decisions.  Often, the resultant judgment is a 'good enough' but non-optimal choice -- a process that psychologist Herbert Simon referred to as "satisficing" (a portmanteau of "satisfy" and "sufficing").  Cognitive and social psychologists, as well as political scientists and consumer behaviorists, have labeled a variety of apparent biases that the average person brings to bear when making decisions.  I will discuss a number of these in future postings; today I will discuss the influence of apparent objectivity in persuasion.

Advertising is ubiquitous in the 21st century.  If you have nothing else to do this weekend, trying making a tally sheet of every single advertisement that you see or hear, in every forum and format: on TV, on the city bus, on billboards, in store windows, on your grocery store receipts, etc.  (After you hit #300 or so, you'll see my point.)  Because we are inundated with ads, marketers have to try all kinds of tricks to gain our attention and our consumer confidence.  We are charmed with songs and jokes.  We are promised reliability and quality, and 30-days-or-our-money-back.  We are made to fear that if we don't "act now" on each "unique opportunity", then we will lose the opportunity to "get in on the ground floor".  We hear testimonials from "real people who are just like us", and see suburban vignettes where people exasperatedly insist that "there's got to be a better way" to paint their house, preserve their food leftovers, or trim their dog's toenails.  (The day isn't far off when some gadget will promise to do all three simultaneously.)

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All of these techniques can be effective in their own way, but most adult consumers (and, increasingly, their children) are savvy to these appeals.  Some people claim to enjoy commercials as pure entertainment, and thus don't care about the veracity of the claims therein, but many others lament the lack of good, objective facts in most advertisements.  It is no coincidence that Consumer Reports magazine, with an avowed agenda solely in general consumer interest, has one of the largest circulations in the United States.  The average person probably doesn't have the time, inclination, or know-how to do double-blind taste tests of cereal brands, but they're interested in the results when others do such tests.

In the late 1990s, Kevin Trudeau was a constant fixture on late-night television.  Trudeau, an expert pitchman and repeatedly convicted fraudster -- how often those two seem to go together!! -- deliberately disguised infomercials in the slickly-produced form of an interview show.  In some of these, he played the expert "guest", in others, the temporarily-skeptical "host", but in every one of them some product or program of dubious value (memory improvement, easy weight loss, alternative medicine) was excitedly and forcefully promoted.

Variants on this approach can be found in short-form commercials.  A particularly sneaky type of appeal pretends to present unbiased information to the consumer.  The Buchanan Group is a marketing firm that uses this "third-party" tactic as the backbone of its advertising solutions.  Take a minute to look over this site and the commercials available there.  You will notice that they "represent leading brands", but they are careful to present the ad in a seemingly objective way -- insisting that they are providing "facts and value" to us at home.

Social psychologists have long been concerned with the impact of source characteristics on persuasion.  Since the 1940s, we have studied the phenomenon known as the "sleeper effect", in which people remember persuasive information but forget that the source of that information was suspect in some way (e.g., non-expert, in a conflict of interest, etc.; for a recent review, see Kumkale & Albarracin, 2004).  Initially, people are not persuaded, but over time, as the content of the appeal is decoupled in memory from the "discounting cues" that cast doubt on that content, attitude change may occur.  (You might think of examples from your own life, such as confidently repeating medical advice that you originally heard on an episode of E.R.)

For a similar reason, I've always had a niggling concern about commercials that are broadcast during newscasts -- specifically, that the context of the news, which we assume to be true, gives a veneer of legitimacy to the advertisements.  Newspaper advertising inserts often mimic the typeface and layout of the newspaper itself, and are thus likely to fool the undiscerning eye.  However, that's a topic for a different post.

How do you, as a consumer, avoid being taken in by these appeals?  The best approach is to do your homework --  as in the Watergate scandal, you should "follow the money".  Who sponsored the ad?  Are the people giving you information truly independent?  At the risk of becoming cynical, you should recognize that these corporations rarely have the consumer's best interests in mind; if they did, they'd stop spending so much money on deceptive advertising and pass the savings along to us in the form of reduced product prices.

As always, I am interested in your thoughts!

 

Reference

Kumkale, G. T., & Albarracin, D. (2004).  The sleeper effect in persuasion: A meta-analytic review.  Psychological Bulletin, 130(1), 143-172.

Steve Livingston is a social psychologist based in Toronto.

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