Thursday, October 31, 2013

Persuasion is local

I do my best to avoid advertising.  I don’t have cable TV.  I listen to public radio.  But, I can’t avoid it completely.  I was reminded of that recently when I went to see one of the big summer blockbusters at a local theater.  I had to get to the theater early to avoid sitting right up front, but that meant I had to endure 20 minutes of advertising that the theater used to keep me “entertained” while I waited for the start of the show.

As I sat in the theater, I looked at the diverse audience.  There were young kids there with parents.  There were packs of teens.  There were grandparents taking grandchildren.  There was also a racial and ethnic mix in the crowd.  So, how can the same ad reach all of these people?

On the one hand, it is clear that a big part of advertising is just exposing people to a product or brand.  Research on mere exposure going back to the 1960s shows that people like things better when they have seen them before than when they are new.  I have written about the effects of mere exposure in other blog entries. 

But, what about the content of the message in an ad?  Even if the product is one that would appeal to most people in the crowd, do people respond differently to different kinds of messages? 

As luck would have it, I didn’t have to wait long for an answer.  There is a nice paper in the June, 2012 issue of Psychological Science by Jacob Hirsh, Sonia Kang, and Galen Bodenhausen that looked at the effectiveness of different advertising messages based on people’s personality traits.

Personality psychologists have identified the “Big Five.”  These traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, and neuroticism) are the broad ways that people differ from each other.  For example, extraverts tend to like excitement and to be the center of attention in group situations, while introverts do not.  People who are highly agreeable tent to like to please others.

The researchers developed five versions of an ad for a new phone.  Buried in the ad were sentences that were aimed at people with a particular personality trait.  For example, for the extraverts, the ad said that the phone was designed for “strong, active, outgoing people like you…you’ll always be where the excitement is…[this phone] will keep you in the spotlight.” 

The ad designed for highly agreeable people had sentences like “You’ll have access to your loved ones like never before…designed with empathy and consideration…get in touch with your caring side.”

The study was run using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which is a site where people can do simple tasks and get paid.  Researchers are increasingly using Mechanical Turk to collect data, because it allows them to go beyond the population of college students that are normally used in research studies.

Research participants saw one version of the ad and rated how effective they thought it was.  Then, they filled out a brief questionnaire that assessed their personality along the Big Five dimensions. 

The data showed that ads were rated as more effective when the message resonated with an aspect of a person’s personality.  That is, people with high levels of extraversion responded favorably to the ad that was written for extraverts, while people with low levels of extraversion responded negative to that ad.  Obviously, people have many different aspects to their personality, so the same person might respond favorably to many different ads if they were all tailored to their personality characteristics.

This study demonstrates a weakness of the typical approach to advertising that blankets people with messages.  Any given ad is going to appeal most strongly to people with particular personality characteristics.  The same ad may be quite effective for people high in a particular characteristic and rather ineffective for people low in that same characteristic.

I suppose that is where social media like Facebook come in.  Presumably, people’s patterns of usage of social media provide information about their personality.  This information could be used by advertisers to present messages that are specific to their traits in ways that would maximize the appeal of those messages. 

Of course, if you don’t want to be influenced by ads, just shut off the TV and take a walk.