“Supplies are limited!”
Such pushy imperatives are as common in advertising as attractive models and catchy taglines. But do they work?
Past research has found that restrictive messages in advertising make customers balk. On the surface, it’s easy to understand why; no one likes to feel as though they’re being bossed around. Yet it’s an extremely common means to motivate reticent buyers. In a recent review of the top 10 U.S. magazines, 72% of the ads contained at least one restrictive message, such as “Call today!” or “Buy now!”
If consumers hate this type of advertising, why do so many companies employ it?
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Our research finds that one key variable might account for why people respond to bossy ads: the relationship they have with the brand in question.
Over the course of several studies of how people respond to advertising, our team at the University of Alberta School of Business learned that when consumers aren’t committed to the brand—as tends to be the case with newer entrants (think: a new body wash, or a hip new store)—bossiness in advertising is very effective.
But when buyers feel great trust and loyalty to a brand, they respond negatively to pushy ad copy. This is because only committed relationship partners have the ability to make credible threats to buyers’ freedom.
Think of it this way: Imagine that your spouse asks you to wash the dishes. You know that if you fail to comply with this request, there are likely to be negative consequences for the relationship—which you would rather avoid. Thus, you feel like you must wash the dishes—but this feeling of being forced into washing the dishes makes you upset, and causes you to resent your spouse. It’s not a feeling you’d have with a someone you barely know.
We captured this phenomenon in an advertising context by studying campaigns from brands with which consumers have committed relationships. Imagine a typical person who has had a loyal relationship with a greeting-card manufacturer encounters a “Buy now!” ad from that company. Much like washing the dishes, she would rather not do this—yet she worries about damaging the relationship or feeling guilty if she does not comply. At root, her long relationship with the manufacturer makes her feels like she must comply, and this threat to her freedom leads her to actively dislike the ad.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should shelve pushy advertising if you have loyal customers. When the bossy imperative is presented with a clear reason (say, a supply shortage), committed consumers no longer recoiled at the restrictive messaging. So, you can add some urgency to your pitch—just make sure to back it up.
Sarah Moore is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Alberta School of Business.