In their 1999-2000 series of articles on the problem of “market manipulation”(see Westlaw, Westlaw, and SSRN), Doug Kysar and Situationist Contributor Jon Hanson detailed how advertisers manipulate affective/emotional processes of consumers. In a book about the risks and perceived risks of smoking (edited by Situationist Contributor Paul Slovic), Hanson and Kysar have a chapter examining the manipulative practices of the cigarette industry. From it, we have copied the following excerpt:
The impact of experiential thinking in the consumer context has been stated nicely by an early proponent of the significance of affect to decision making:
We sometimes delude ourselves that we proceed in a rational manner and weigh all the pros and cons of the various alternatives. But this is probably seldom the case. Quite often, ‘I decided in favor of X’ is no more than ‘I liked X.’ . . . We buy the cars we ‘like,’ choose the jobs and houses we find ‘attractive,’ and then justify these choices by various reasons . . . (Zajonc, 1980).
In other words, our affective responses to products often determine the purchasing decision, regardless of whether we experience the decision as having resulted from “reasons.” Significantly, our affective response can dominate the consumption choice even when our rational processing system suggests a contrary decision. Indeed, the affective system can often confound the rational system by causing logically distinct categories like “cost” and “benefit” to become conflated in the individual’s mind. Thus, a manufacturer that succeeds in generating a positive affective response with respect to its product may gain the added effect of lowering consumer estimates of the product’s potential to cause harm.
Consumer product manufacturers clearly strive to cultivate positive affect in relation to their products. This effort can be seen in the omnipresent practice of feel‑good advertising that carries little if any information about the product being pitched, but plenty of gushing views of the happiness, wealth, and beauty that allegedly can be gained from its consumption. Tobacco ads are no exception. Indeed, the decades‑long “Marlboro Man” campaign of Philip Morris might be considered the ultimate in such “lifestyle advertising.” By frequently offering depictions of the free and natural cowboy smoker, Phillip Morris instilled in many smokers a positive affective association with the product. Consequently, subsequent negative information about smoking was (and is) viewed by the consumer through the bias of experiential thinking. As Seymour Epstein (1994) explains, “Cigarette advertising agencies and their clients are willing to bet millions of dollars in advertising costs that the visual appeal of their messages to the experiential system will prevail over the verbal message of the surgeon general that smoking can endanger one’s life, an appeal directed at the rational system” . . . . Given the durability of such practices throughout this century, the bet appears to be a good one.
Apart from those general efforts to generate positive affect for their products, tobacco manufacturers have also capitalized on qualitative characteristics that influence how individuals perceive and respond to risks. To give just one example, consider the recent “natural” marketing campaigns adopted by R.J. Reynolds for its Salem Menthol cigarettes and Brown & Williamson for its Kool Natural cigarettes. Both feature such content as forest green design schemes, Edenesque images of waterfalls and lush foliage, and repeated use of the words “nature” and “natural.” A recent print ad for Kool Natural Lights, for instance, repeats the word “natural” a remarkable thirteen times in a single half-page advertisement. The companies skirt deceptive advertising liability by linking “natural” with the cigarettes’ mint leaf-supplied menthol flavor. The overall effect of the campaigns, however, is far more subtle. As behavioral researchers have noted, people respond more favorably to risks that they view as emanating from natural, as opposed to man-made, sources. In other words, a risk may be underestimated by people simply because it is attributed to nature. R.J. Reynolds has exploited this cognitive bias in the tagline to its Salem ads: “Menthol from nature. Created by plants, not people.” Never mind that cigarettes typically contain hundreds of additives, many of which are created by people, not plants (Hanson & Logue, 1998).
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The July issue of Psychological Science includes a research report (by lead author Sonya Dal Cin and four collaborators) describing a fascinating new type of evidence (relying on the implicit association tests developed by scholars such as Situationist Contributors Mahzarin Banaji and Brian Nosek) that sheds light on the causal link between how exposure to positive affective cues — in this case smoking by protaganists in movies — to smoking attitudes, intentions, and behavior. We have excerpted a bit of that report and its abstract below.
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Exposure to smoking in movies is a potential influence on youths’ smoking behavior. Cross-sectional . . . and longitudinal . . . surveys have shown that greater exposure to smoking in movies predicts increased likelihood of trying smoking, even after accounting for a wide range of potential confounding factors . . . . A few experimental studies have supported a causal argument, revealing that exposure to movies in which smoking takes place predicts more favorabvle attitudes toward smokers . . . and increased self-reported likelihood of smoking . . . . However, the mechanisms underlying these effects are poorly understood, and until recently . . . , accounts of these mechanisms were entirely speculative.
In this article, we report experimental data that speak to this debate, while advancing understanding of basic social psychological issues. Among nonsmokers, similarity between one’s self-concept and one’s image of a smoker predicts trying smoking . . . Similarly, among youth who have never smoked, liking movie stars who smoke and considering oneself to be similar to peers who smoke are associated with intentions to smoke and subsequent smoking initiation. . . .
More generally, researchers interested in the persuasive impact of narratives suggest that greater identification with characters increases persuasion . . . , but the determinants of identification are not entirely certain. . . .
Our main objective in this study was to examine identification with a movie character who smokes and the influence such identification has on one’s own self-concept. Given that smoking is considered socially undesirable in North America, we expected that our participants, particularly nonsmokers, might have difficulty reporting changes in smoking self-concept. To overcome this possible limitation, we administered not only traditional explicit (self-report) measures, but also a less-deliberative, implicit measure of the association of smoking with the self. This circumvented the potential influence of social-desirability biases inherent in explicit measures.
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Undergraduate men were randomly assigned to view film clips in which the male protagonist either smoked or did not smoke. We measured subsequent levels of self-smoking associations using a reaction time task, as well as self-reported beliefs about smoking and smokers. Greater identification with the smoking protagonist predicted stronger implicit associations between the self and smoking (for both smokers and nonsmokers) and increased intention to smoke (among the smokers). Stronger implicit self-smoking associations uniquely predicted increases in smokers’ intentions to smoke, over and above the effects of explicit beliefs about smoking. The results provide evidence that exposure to smoking in movies is causally related to changes in smoking-related thoughts, that identification with protagonists is an important feature of narrative influence, and that implicit measures may be useful in predicting deliberative behavior.
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Narratives are ubiquitous, and history reveals that certain conditions (i.e., when individuals identify with a character), narratives may be able to change (or at least selectively activate) implicit associations, with potentially insidious consequences.