Business Psychology

Article No. 382
Customer Psychology, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Ad Reactance / Assaulted by Stereotypes

Research explores one response to ad reactance.

There I was, minding my own business, watching a favorite sporting event on T.V. My team was ahead, and I was in a good mood when a break in the action shifted the scene from the athletic field to a conversation in a suburban front yard. A late model SUV was parked in the driveway, and the wide, tree-lined street behind it was lined with 2-story homes, each with flowers and shrubs and neatly trimmed lawns. The two men talking were white, mid 30's, prosperous, and fit, with full heads of hair and flat bellies. Their relaxed conversation and the voiceover urged me to follow their example and buy this car at my earliest convenience.

Initially, my reaction was disappointment in myself. My wife, parents, and her parents would probably agree that my life was far from this ideal. But self loathing was quickly replaced with annoyance toward the ad and toward the brand. How dare they interrupt my enjoyment of this game to direct my attention to my own failings?

The producers of this ad did not intend this reaction. They expected to provoke either identification and familiarity or hopeful striving that could best be fulfilled by buying this car. For me, this intent was not realized. Ad reactance got in the way.

In sales, an effective closing technique is to create a picture of the customer using and enjoying the products we want them to buy. Advertising often uses this technique, but there is a problem. To use this persuasive strategy, ad producers must select scenes that appeal to their target audience. Typically, they fall back on common stereotypes, but as the above example illustrates, reactions can sometimes be decidedly negative and can harm the brand. In the trade, this negative reaction is called ad reactance.

In recent years, a new strategy in advertising has emerged for ads targeting women to combat ad reactance. It is called femvertising, and it calls attention to typical advertising stereotypes used in ads for women and then contradicts them. The most vivid example is women's underwear.

Stereotypical ads for women's intimate wear picture tall, young, slender models. Femvertising ads for the same products picture women with a wide variety of body sizes from tall to short, average weight to chubby, and young to mature. Messages in these ads call attention to the contrast between images of real women to the stereotypical depictions of women in traditional ads.

This ad approach has been very successful. Sales of products employing femvertising strategies have enjoyed success, but researchers have had to guess that solving the ad reactance problem was responsible. Nina Akestam from the Stockholm School of Economics recently conducted a study to find out.

Akestam conducted three experiments involving hundreds of women. She compared femvertising ads with traditional ads for products in five product categories in both print and digital media. She also explored beyond physical depictions of women and included nontraditional occupational roles and societal roles that women have long found difficult to enter. However, her focus was only on the reactions of her subjects to the ads: did they experience a reduction in ad reactance, and were brand attitudes improved with femvertising ad approaches? The answer to both was a decided yes.

Advertising, by design, is vivid. Unfortunately, stereotypical depictions of people, roles, and expectations are often just as vivid as the featured products, and this can be trouble. Ad reactance can negate the persuasive appeal of the ad and can harm brand attitudes, and it can happen with any targeted group. Akestam recommends less reliance on stereotypical depictions and more deliberate attempts to challenge common advertising stereotypes to broaden our appeal and reduce ad reactance. Seems like good advice.

Reference: Akestam, Nina, Sara Rosengren, and Micael Dahlen (2017) Advertising "like a girl": Toward a better understanding of "femvertising" and its effects. Psychology and Marketing, 34:795-806.

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Keywords: ad reactance, femvertising, advertising, closing sales
Consult Subject Index for related research.

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