The findings show that consumers filter ad claims, rather than accepting them blindly. As a result, the authors say, effective advertising should relate to consumers on a personal level, rather than talking down to them.
Based on a study that gauged consumer reaction to technical, tough-to-decipher advertising claims, researchers say consumers become immediately suspicious when they see or hear information they perceive as useless. The result often is a loss of trust, and maintaining trust is very important in advertising, the study explains.
A fictional cleansing gel ad used in the study trumpeted ingredients such as "Sebopur Complex," while another ad promoted a beer brewed through the "European Pilsen Method." How consumers responded to the technical-sounding claims varied based on their own personal knowledge of the product and where the ad appeared, according to findings.
Consumers who considered themselves less knowledgeable than the target audience rated products higher, assuming the puzzling references were useful but merely over their heads. However, consumers who considered themselves well-informed about a product reacted negatively, viewing puffery as an effort to trick them with meaningless information, according to the study.
Where puffed-up advertising appears also matters, the study found.
Consumers have differing reactions based on their personal product knowledge when ads appear in popular, mainstream media, the study found. But all consumers generally have a positive impression of ads in media geared toward industry professionals, concluding that the claims are meaningful to the experts they serve.
The findings show that puffery could be counterproductive for companies that rely on ads in the popular media. Though murky claims can sway less-informed consumers, they can alienate the knowledgeable buyers who provide the greatest sales potential.
"Puffery can actually hurt in your target market," said co-author Alison Jing Xu. "For instance, puffery in beer ads could influence women, but men are the primary buyers and may like a product less if ads include meaningless information they think is just there to persuade them."
The backlash could have long-term implications if consumers have a strong negative reaction to the claims, Xu said. "Positive impressions of products can change easily, but not negatives."
Puffery in advertising has been around for at least a half-century as companies seek to carve a niche in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
"Advertisers need to catch consumers' attention and make products impressive," she said. "But attention only helps when it's positive and this study says advertisers need to be careful as they try to set themselves apart. They can alienate the buyers they most seek."
"When advertisers create campaigns, they should try to imagine that they're engaging in a conversation with their target audience," she said. "So if using technical terms is important, they should explain them. It's important that your audience knows what you're talking about."
Citation: Alison Jing Xu, Robert S. Wyer Jr, 'Puffery in Advertisements: The Effects of Media Context, Communication Norms, and Consumer Knowledge', Journal of Consumer Research, March 2010