by Scott Berinato in Harvard Business Review | 9:52 AM Tuesday May 11, 2010
This is a powerhouse blog entry, one of the most important and relevant stories published online in a long time, written in a superior style, and enjoyed by the smartest, most influential minds of our generation.
That may not be true but, at the same time, you can't prove it's false, which is what makes the statement puffery, a legal defense with its roots in a ruling from 1957. A store that claimed the "world's lowest price" was challenged, and the advertiser said its slogan was "typical puffing." The FTC agreed and defined puffery as a "term frequently used to denote the exaggerations reasonably to be expected of a seller as to the degree of quality of his product, the truth or falsity of which cannot be precisely determined."
Which is to say, it's vague marketing BS.
But there's no law against BS. FTC policy is not to pursue cases of deception that are deemed puffery, since puffery is "advertising claims that the ordinary consumers do not take seriously."
But let's think about that. If consumers don't take these claims seriously, why would companies companies bother making the claims? Why would rational managers, with a laser focus on their bottom line, spend millions of dollars to tell us their product is "made from the best stuff on earth" if we dismiss such claims out of hand? If it doesn't work, what's the point of puffery?
Doctoral student Alison Jing Xu and research partner Robert Wyer of the University of Illinois College of Business wondered, too. So they set up some experiments to test the power of puffery. Their results, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, are both intuitive and surprising.
First, the researchers asked groups of men to evaluate beer ads, some of which claimed the beer was brewed with the "European pilsen method." They also evaluated ads for cleansing gels, some of which claimed the product contained a powerful ingredient called "sebopur complex." (Xu had fun making up the puffery claims, which does seems like a fun job.)
Men rated the beer ads with puffery lower than average. Xu believes that the men considered themselves knowledgeable about beer and since they hadn't heard of this brewing method, figured it was an advertising gimmick. The men also rated the cleansing gel ad with puffery higher than average. In this case, Xu believes, the men considered themselves unknowledgeable about the product so they assumed "sebopur complex" was something useful they didn't understand.
Indeed, when the researchers tested women, the results were exactly the opposite. They rated the beer higher and the cleansing gel lower.
So we are skeptical about claims when we feel we have some knowledge about the products. Xu saw this as counterproductive to marketers. "What I saw coming through was that puffery seemed to influence people who are not major consumers of your type of product," Xu says, "but it turns away consumers who are experts or have relatively higher knowledge."
Whether or not these consumers are actually knowledgeable about the product appears to be less important than how knowledgeable they think they are. In another experiment, Xu gave subjects quizzes about fabrics. Some were given an easy quiz and told 90 percent of previous subjects had trouble with it, making those subjects feel smarter than the average bear. Others were given a difficult quiz and told 90 percent of previous subjects found it easy, which made them feel, well, inadequate.
After the fabrics quiz, subjects were asked to rate ads for down vests; some subjects got ads that boasted about the vest's "MRT fleece" and "SD Microguard Plus lining."
Of course, those who believed they had higher knowledge than others rated the vest lower while those who were manipulated to believe they had less knowledge rated the vest higher.
There was one interesting deviation in the results: Originally, Xu told subjects the ad appeared in a popular, general interest magazine. In a follow up, she told subjects the ad came from a professional trade publication targeted at people who work in the industry that the ad was about. In this case, everyone evaluated the ads more favorably. The context seems to shift people's perception; Xu speculates that the subjects were thinking that the advertisers wouldn't try to pull one over on a deeply knowledgeable, professional audience and so assumed the claims must have had some merit.
She's pursuing research on this topic. If consumers do think of advertising as a conversation, it's not good news for puffery-addicted advertisers, since we don't tend to converse in platitudes. In fact, Xu says, research has shown that when people communicate positive and negative information, rather than just positive information in, say, job interviews, they gain higher trust.
Xu asks, "Does this translate to advertising?" Maybe. She's watching an interesting case in the field right now: Domino's Pizza current, decidedly un-puffy ad campaign. Domino's is admitting its previous faults; telling consumers negative things about itself and its product.
"And it appears it's increasing their sales," Xu says. "Why is that?"