Consumer Engagement and Deception

I was struck suddenly by a disconcerting connection between two ideas I’ve been reading and thinking about lately. I am finally reading a book I’ve been meaning to for years (it was published in 2009) entitled “Deception in the Marketplace: The Psychology of Deception Persuasion and Consumer Self-Protection” by the always thoughtful and excellent academics David Boush, Marian Friestad, and Peter Wright. At the same time, I am working with a young research assistant on the topic of consumer trust and engagement with brands, particularly in the social media space.

Here’s how the connection happened. On the same day I was reading that when learning about products, consumers tend to pay more attention to objective reviews from outside their social group than reviews from their friends I was reading a discussion of the rise of new forms of deception, which followed the rise in online and other technological advances. I came across the following by Boush et al, page 189.:

“When a marketer uses a deception tactic in a new-to-the-consumer communication medium, the consumer may not initially be effective in detecting and coping with that tactic in this unfamiliar context, even if they have dealt well with it in a more familiar context.”

The authors go on to discuss an example of a consumer who may be wary and well-protected against experts depicted in TV ads, but who may be more gullible and less suspicious when encountering a self-identified expert online. That seems to me to be an argument against trusting online bloggers and product reviews, which seem to be the dominant way many consumers now assess products.

Personally, this resonates, and is a little disconcerting. For example, if I were to see a TV ad where the spokesperson said “I am an expert at baking, and I can tell you that this is the best bakeware I’ve ever used” I know I would indeed, have my persuasive defenses up. This tactic would trigger what Friestad and Wright call Persuasion Knowledge. But if I were to read a review showing the same text verbatim, from an rater/user, I think I would be more likely to trust that. That’s odd. And I am in no way a member of the younger, more digital generation. As their online engagement with brands is often (likely) higher, generally, where does that leave their skepticism? Is it higher, as they have greater online persuasion knowledge, or lower, as they haven’t yet learned to see a possible link between increasing engagement online and a higher capacity to be deceived by a marketer online?

This troubling line of thought may make it into my next research project. Let me know your thoughts, that is, if you trust me enough to engage!

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