The Dirty Laundry Effect

An unforgettable identity-based ad can backfire if you embarrass your target audience

The essentials

The identity appeal — an advertisement designed to appeal to consumers’ identity — is a popular tactic for marketers seeking to establish an emotional connection with their target markets. But this tactic is a double-edged sword, says Tandy Chalmers Thomas, assistant professor at Queen’s School of Business. In research conducted with Rebecca K. Trump (Loyola University Maryland) and Linda L. Price (University of Arizona), Thomas shows that identity appeals can backfire if consumers believe the ad airs their “dirty laundry.”

In this conversation with QSB Insight, Thomas explains what marketers need to know about the dirty laundry effect. 

The Allure of Identity Appeals

Identity appeals are advertisements designed to reflect consumers’ identity. The logic behind them is that if consumers see themselves reflected in the advertisement, it would build an emotional connection and increase loyalty, and have all those positive downstream outcomes.

Up to now, our focus has been on creating a link between an ad and consumer without taking into account social contexts — the people around them, the perceptions they may have about those people. There’s this assumption that what you need to care about is the advertisement in the vacuum. I’m saying we can’t do that anymore.

What starting me thinking on this was a fantastic campaign by Adidas. The tag running across their ads was, “Runners, yeah we’re different.” The advertisements all showed runners doing weird things. In one, there’s a picture of a runner who’s standing by the back of his truck; he’s covered in mud head to toe and buck naked, changing his clothes. This image really resonates with runners, but standing buck naked and changing beside your car is not something that’s considered socially appropriate.

If a runner were to see the ad, they’d completely get what was happening. But if the rest of the world were to see it, many runners would say, “You know what? This makes me look bad.”

Do consumers think that an ad communicates something about themselves to others?

This made me wonder if consumers’ see these kinds of ads as self-presentation. By that I mean, do consumers think that this ad is communicating something about themselves to others?

Research has shown that how you think someone is viewing you has a bigger impact than what you do or what you believe. So in this research, it’s really about the imagined audience. Consumers’ aren’t getting actual feedback from other consumers who see the ad. No one’s coming up to a runner and saying, Hey, I saw that Adidas ad and I think you’re an idiot. But they’re imagining that someone might think that about themselves. 

How the Study Was Done

In one study, we used an actual ad for Tampax tampons to assess how female consumers would respond given a change in the audience. How would they feel about an ad when it was for a female-only audience or if they knew that males would also be in the audience? When these women thought that men would likely see the ad, suddenly they liked the ad a lot less. 

In the next study, I showed university students ads that were designed to depict their student identity. I used the tagline, “You know that there is more to college than just going to class.” I told the students the idea behind the campaign was to communicate the student experience.

The way I designed the ad, it could be ambiguous as to whether or not someone perceived it as being positive about university life versus saying that all these kids want to do is party. Some of the students were told the ad would only be seen by other students. Others were told it would be shown to a much broader audience beyond university students.

The results showed that when there was this broader audience that included other people, self-presentation concerns became a really big deal. When it was just the university students seeing the ads, they said things like, “I loved this ad.” “This captures my experience.” When the ad was going out to a broader audience, some said, “I don’t necessarily want my parents to see this” or “I don’t want to be associated with these students, all they do is party.” 

Implications for Marketers: It Starts With Testing

As a marketer, you can control some of those perceptions through media placement. But in this day and age, it’s very hard to convince a consumer that only the target market is going to see the ad. Ads are no longer just in magazines or on TV shows — everything’s online. 

It certainly changes the way we should think about designing and testing ads. Traditionally, marketers pull a bunch of consumers that are part of the target market into a focus group and get them to talk about the ad. In that kind of session, self-presentation concerns are unlikely to emerge unless the facilitator really drives the questions in this direction. What this research would indicate is that marketers need to see where these potential concerns are when copy testing an advertisement.

I’m not saying identity appeals should never be used. Identity appeals can be very effective. But there has been the tendency in a lot of identity appeals to go for the jugular. While that might appeal to the very small target market, I think advertisers need to be smarter.

You want to show that you have a deep understanding of your target market but you want to make sure that deeper understanding is appropriate for a broad audience. Build that link between showing, “We understand you” and “We understand you enough to not air your dirty laundry.”

Interview by Alan Morantz

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Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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