Buyer Beware

Anne Collier Rehill
June 01, 1996

"Mommy, don't buy that, you'll only be able to use it once . . . put it back! They just want you to buy it!" In a Giant supermarket, Mita Sujan's five-year-old daughter, Ayesha, implores her mother not to buy the disposable camera toward which her hand is straying, bewitched by one of advertising's many packaging ploys.

"My, my," comments a passing shopper, "you have quite a knowledgeable little consumer there."

Small wonder: Ayesha has been picking up information about the advertising business for nigh onto five years now. Her mother is a professor of marketing and Binder Faculty Fellow in Penn State's Smeal College of Business Administration, where she's been conducting consumer research since 1983.

Sujan came from India in 1979 with her husband (Harish Sujan, associate professor of marketing, also in the Smeal College), to complete her doctorate at UCLA. After undergraduate work in economics at Delhi University, she worked for several years in international advertising in Bombay, her hometown. She wound up heading a market research department, and it was there she realized where her main interests lay.

The many psychology courses she subsequently took at UCLA inspired her to "really figure out what was going on inside the consumer's head," she says, and this remains her chief focus today: why shoppers do what they do. It's a psychological approach to advertising and, she points out, just one way to look at the field.

Much of advertising today targets viewers who respond to emotional patterns in TV ads, and this is the area upon which Sujan and her associates, Hans Baumgartner and Dan Padgett, are currently focusing. Sujan's studies involve "on-line analysis," for which consumers—which could be any of us but in her case it's usually students—sit and watch commercials, moving a computer mouse to the right or left according to how they feel. By measuring the extent of movement, the researchers record the intensity and direction of emotions and learn how to maximize viewers' responses.

Sujan has rated the effectiveness of various commercials, in particular for Lintas, a worldwide advertising agency based in Bombay. The agency had no idea which had worked best or why, although they did have records of how their own managers had scored the ads and how the clients had liked them. Sujan's task was to sift through all this information and interpret it. Also available to her was data on how a brand's market share changed after a commercial's appearance.

As she worked, Sujan coded the ads: format, type (drama, information, slice-of-life), the kind of emotion used and its intensity, and the emotional patterns. Were there multiple peaks, or did they start low and build to a crescendo? Or were they uniformly high throughout? Coding the emotional patterns, Sujan next determined which combinations worked best to seduce the consumer.

Her research has indeed become more and more "advertising-focused" during the last ten years, Sujan confirms. Her work does not involve consumer education, but she does believe that the public is, and should be, becoming better-educated, more aware. Taking the time to read product labels and consumer reports eventually affects buyers' "cognitive beliefs," another area into which she's been probing.

Are juices healthy, do you think? And do you in fact think of the new juice sparklers as sodas just because they're on the shelf next to the sodas? Alternately, do you conclude they're "a more fun version of juices" if they're in the juice section?

Along with your cognitive beliefs, Sujan is also interested in the deeper question of what kinds of emotions you may have stored vis-Ö-vis a product. The marketer's task is somehow to appeal to this store of knowledge and use it. This can be tricky business because, it turns out, memories can be quite distracting. The risk is that you may stop thinking about the product at all, lost blissfully (or not) in the past.

For instance, Sujan might watch how you respond to one of those ads that are supposed to make you remember your grandmother's apple pie back on the farm. Coincidentally, there's this great new telephone system in the ad about Granny's house. But you might not notice the phone at all; you might get lost in your reveries of wonderful days past, thinking of Granny and how much you wish she and the farm were still here . . . But wait a minute—you're supposed to be thinking about how much you need Bell Atlantic's latest computerized telephone, complete with viewing screen and stereo speakers!

It's referred to as nostalgia advertising, or autobiographical self-referencing, and Sujan, along with colleagues James Bettman and Hans Baumgartner have concluded that it is effective only up to a point. Because advertisers may lose you in your own self-referencing, it may be preferable to show the farm just briefly, moving right along to a shot of your cozy apartment in the city, from where you're chatting with Granny as you watch her on your phone's TV screen. The idea is to get you to conjure up a pleasurable memory just long enough to predispose you favorably toward the product.

Self-referencing is just one way to get you emotionally involved; others include presenting a mini-drama. Recognizing that shoppers have become more savvy, advertisers have risen to the challenge. You probably don't mind being entertained as much as you mind being persuaded, they've postulated. Knowing you know they're playing "mind games" with you, Sujan says, they've changed the game plan and come up with drama ads, hoping you'll find them entertaining—even more so than the TV program. Taster's Choice commercials, for example, now offer the unfolding of an entire love story—if you tune in from ad to ad. The challenge is to get those of you who hit the mute button at commercials to just stop it. You are, Sujan explains, one of the reasons emotional responses are of such interest in advertising.

Mita Sujan, Ph.D., is professor of marketing and Binder Faculty Fellow in the Smeal College of Business Administration, 701 Business Administration Bldg, 801 Park Avenue, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-4250. Her research is supported in part by the Binder fellowship. Hans Baumgartner, Ph.D., is assistant professor, and Dan Padgett is a doctoral student, both in the Smeal College of Business Administration. James R. Bettman is the Burlington Industries Professor of Business Administration at Duke University.

Last Updated June 01, 1996