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Anxiety in Advertising

Provocative research from USC Marshall shows anxiety helps consumers decide to adopt a new product

June 22, 2020
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When that new skincare product hits the market, you may have high hopes that it will reduce wrinkles. But if you’re also a little anxious about whether it will irritate your skin, you will be much more likely to buy it.

You read that right.

It sounds counterintuitive, but researchers at the USC Marshall School of Business are the first to document a provocative finding: When a new product comes to market, consumers are moved to try it when hope and anxiety are both strong.

Deborah MacInnis, Charles L. and Ramona I. Hilliard Professor of Business Administration and professor of marketing at USC Marshall, and co-authors Yu-Ting Lin, University of New South Wales, and Andreas Eisingerich, Imperial College of London, published a set of studies in a forthcoming Journal of Marketing article titled “Strong Anxiety Boosts New Product Adoption When Hope Is Also Strong.”

If market research reveals that consumers already have strong anxiety about outcomes from a new product, marketers should develop communications that evoke strong hope, not downplay the anxiety.

“To our knowledge, our research is the first to show the interactive effect of strong hope and strong anxiety on new product adoption decisions,” said MacInnis, whose research focuses on the role of emotions in consumer behavior and branding. She is the recipient of the Journal of Marketing’s Alpha Kappa Psi and Maynard Awards for the papers that make the greatest contribution to marketing thought and the Long-Term Contribution Award from the Review of Marketing Research.

Hope, Anxiety and Doing Your Homework

The researchers define hope as a positive emotion experienced in regard to a future outcome that fits your goals or expectations, like fewer wrinkles after using a skin cream. Anxiety is a negative emotion experienced in regard to a future outcome that does not fit your goals, like skin irritation.

Hope and anxiety, the researchers found, motivate people to engage in action planning, which they define as “contemplating actions that support the occurrence of hoped-for outcomes and actions that avoid the occurrence of anxiety-arousing ones.”

More simply, action planning involves gathering information about the pros and cons of using a product. “For example, the consumer who feels strong hope and strong anxiety about a new skincare product might plan to read usage instructions carefully, to ask friends if they have tried it, and to look up the product’s ingredients and potential side effects,” the researchers wrote.

And with knowledge comes power. “Action planning boosts new product adoption by enhancing consumers’ perceived control over outcomes,” the researchers discovered.

Three Studies with Diverse Populations

The researchers provide data from three studies that use different products (all actual products) and consumer populations from diverse geographical locations and socio-economic backgrounds.

Study 1 was a field study sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, involving participants from eight countries. The researchers tested respondents’ intentions to adopt a medication designed to protect individuals from contracting HIV/AIDS. Study 2 investigated whether business managers in an executive education program decisions would purchase a new skincare product. Study 3 involved postgraduate college students’ buying decisions about a new energy drink.

In Studies 2 and 3, the researchers manipulated hope and anxiety with two sets of product disclaimers and/or social media reviews: one designed to evoke strong hope (anxiety) and the other designed to evoke weak hope (anxiety).  

For instance, in Study 3, a social media review was used to make people feel more or less hope for the benefits that a new energy drink could give them.

Strong hope: I felt energized and clear-headed even hours after drinking it. The mental focus the product gave me allowed me to accomplish a lot more in my day than I typically accomplish. This product did everything I had hoped that it would do.

Weak hope: I did have some marginal improvements in energy and clear-headedness, but only for a very short time. Any improvements in mental focus were marginal, though, as it didn’t allow me to accomplish too much more than what I typically accomplish. The effects were clearly not as dramatic as I had hoped for.

Product disclaimers for the energy drink were designed to evoke either strong or weak anxiety about potential downsides of the new product:

 Strong anxiety: Use with care. Can cause rapid heartbeat, gastric distress and sour breath odor.

Weak anxiety: Use with care. Can cause slight increase in heart rate, mild stomach flutters and slight breath odor.

Those participants who read the strong hope social media comment and the anxiety-evoking disclaimers were the most likely to buy the new product.

Implications for Marketers

The researchers had clear advice for marketers.

If market research reveals that consumers already have strong anxiety about outcomes from a new product, marketers should develop communications that evoke strong hope, not downplay the anxiety.

Conversely, if market research reveals that consumers have strong hope for the product but low anxiety, marketers might benefit by providing information designed to enhance consumers’ anxiety about possible outcomes of new product adoption. “Warning labels, disclaimers, disclosures and vivid images are potentially valid vehicles for enhancing potential anxiety,” the researchers wrote.

Not only could anxiety encourage the purchase of a new product, it could also enhance product satisfaction, the researchers added.

MacInnis explained, “To the extent that consumers consider outcomes that do not fit with their goals and plan for how they can be avoided, they may ultimately be more satisfied with the product than would consumers who never considered potential anxiety-evoking outcomes or engaged in action planning.”