UO-led research finds politeness affects trust of a brand

Writing on chalkboard

Politeness in advertising, especially too much, matters when it comes to trusting a company’s brand.

That’s the main finding of a three-part study done by marketing researchers at the University of Oregon and University of Washington. Slight variation in the tone of language can influence consumer attitudes toward a brand, said Aparna Sundar, a professor of marketing in the UO's Lundquist College of Business.

“What we observed is that the language used by a brand in its advertising certainly impacted any negative attitude toward the brand,” she said. “However, individuals did not vary their perceptions of the morality of the practice.”

The study, “Punishing Politeness: The Role of Language in Promoting Brand Trust,” was published online Nov. 13 ahead of print in the Journal of Business Ethics. Edita Cao, a doctoral student in UW’s Department of Marketing and International Business, co-authored the study.

Initially, Sundar and Cao showed consumers, who had been recruited online, a fictitious brand’s advertising with a variety of taglines that varied based on how personal or impersonal the use of language appeared. Taglines are widely known as slogans, which may be inspirational or reflect a company’s philosophy.

Armed with only the language used in the advertisement, the researchers found that consumers who did not believe that the world was just were harsher in punishing brands that used a tone that was more impersonal or more polite than it was personal or less polite.

Research has found that personal and impersonal language reflect social distance between a speaker and a listener, as well as the accompanying expectations. Impersonal speech establishes greater social distance. Personal language brings familiarity.

The researchers next created advertising that varied on how personal the consumers perceived a brand. They then developed two studies to test whether politeness in advertising affected the trust a consumer placed in the brand.

Respondents were asked to determine whether a fictitious brand should be punished on different morally ambiguous scenarios, such as the treatment of women by the brand. Subjects saw a mascot of the brand, which was presented with a slogan that that carried either more politeness or less politeness.

Slogans that were more polite were found to decrease the trust that consumers placed in the brand, and ethically ambiguous business practices seemed less forgivable in comparison to when the slogan was less polite.

In addition to observed biases in situations of ambiguous ethical practices, individual differences about the world’s being a just and fair place played a role in the observed effect of language, the researchers concluded.

The research suggests that language used in advertising and communications has far-reaching consequences for the trust that consumers place on a brand, Sundar said.

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications