Cognitive dissonance in advertising

Creating Cognitive Dissonance

Despite social proof casting doubt on their veracity, it seems that social scoring platforms continue to be popular in social media marketing.

We shouldn’t be surprised; these tools offer a quick, if not effective, means of identifying those who might help brand messages cut through the growing online noise. Despite this, I’m still rather optimistic on the future of influence marketing.

I’ve been pleased with the changes I’ve noted while presenting our book and its methodology to clients and general audiences at conferences this past year.

While slow, there’s definitely recognition that audience segmentation and customer decision-making processes are largely ignored by marketers and platforms seeking to use influence marketing as a key business development strategy.

The Next Level of Influence – Cognitive Dissonance

A premise that seems to resonate well with audiences exploring true influence marketing is the concept of cognitive dissonance, which social scientists explain as a feeling of discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs.

In terms of influence marketing we can think of it this way: What transpires in the minds of potential consumers when a product recommendation offered by socially popular personalities or media outlets, conflicts with preconceived notations or previous experiences with that product?

Similarly, what occurs in the purchase decision process when online social recommendations conflict with the consumer’s social, political, or religious views?

A popular example is cigarette marketing during the 1960s, which positioned smoking as healthy when early medical evidence demonstrated a link between smoking and cancer.

This is a good example of cognitive dissonance: Through various media channels, celebrities were used to advocate the smoking of cigarettes, yet consumers were – often subconsciously – aware that cigarettes were bad for their health. A conflict existed.

Similarly, we can look to those advocating boycotts of brands like Chic-fil-A for speaking out against gay rights. The desire to eat at the popular fast food establishment may conflict with moral, social, and political views in many.

Which conflicting side wins when consumers make a decision, and how do marketers use influence marketing to sway those decisions?

It’s important to note that often the dissonance that exists in consumers’ minds is created by conflicting social commentary or opposing recommendations. A prime example is the battle occurring between Android and iOS mobile operating systems.

Consumers are faced with conflicting messages from influencers, media, and advertising that promote one over the other. Consumers, whose personal preferences and experiences match those shared by a large online community, find their decision-making process conflicted when faced with overwhelming social advocacy for the alternative.

When marketers understand the logistics of cognitive dissonance, it can be used as an effective marketing strategy.

For example, Android-based mobile phone manufacturers can use monitoring software and natural language processing to discover online conversations that would indicate which groups of consumers are experiencing cognitive dissonance that would negatively affect purchase decisions to their favor.

From this base, marketers can realign both content marketing and influencer identification efforts to support those whose decision to buy an Android-based device is conflicted or to insert conflict into the decision-making process of those whose instinct is to purchase an iOS-based device.

Understanding the effects of cognitive dissonance on consumer behavior is a new frontier for influence marketing and can be used offensively as well as defensively.

Managing Existing Customers

Of course, this dissonance occurs post-purchase as well, and so it’s critical to apply this thinking to existing customers. Just as prospects experience cognitive dissonance when making a purchase decision, social science and psychology has proven the concept of “buyer’s remorse” in customers.

Most consumers experience some cognitive dissonance, even if just momentarily, after purchasing a product.

  • “Did I make the right decision?”
  • “Did I shop around enough?”
  • “Was there a better price available elsewhere?”

The existence of this conflict can be damaging towards a brand’s efforts to build repeat business and brand advocates. We discuss this in Influence Marketing:

Influence marketing is often relegated to customer acquisition efforts, yet the need to create advocates and social proof around a brand necessitates better engagement with existing customers. Identifying cognitive dissonance in existing customers allows marketers to pinpoint the micro-influencers that may help alleviate the tension and sway their belief towards a feeling of satisfaction with the purchase and possibly even advocacy. Left alone, consumers with these feelings may return the product, or worse, turn to social channels to complain about it. The returns and online negativity can be curbed when true influence marketing techniques are applied to this consumer segment.

Be it defensive or offensive sales strategy, or customer satisfaction efforts, the use of influence marketing to offset cognitive dissonance in prospects and customers is a science that marketers must quickly become adept at.

A couple of decades ago I sat on the invisible side of a two-way mirror and studied the members of a focus group as they watched some television ads my company was testing.

One of my company’s most vocal supporters watched an ad that positioned our product as quite similar to our major competitor’s product. He immediately lambasted our competitor. Did you catch that? He saw a test ad in which our product claimed the same marketing position as our major competitor, and immediately assumed that the ad had been produced by that competitor, and promoted the competing product.

Was he easily confused? I think the answer is much more interesting: he suffered an episode of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term.

The term was coined in 1957 by social scientist Leon Feistinger to describe the uncomfortable tension which results from a person having two conflicting thoughts at the same time. Feistinger theorized that when the mind is presented with evidence which contradicts strongly held beliefs, the mind acquires or invents new information in order to justify the belief.

Our supporter in the focus group was presented with evidence that one company (ours – his favorite) was claiming attributes of a company he actively disliked. His reaction? It must be the OTHER company making these claims. To admit otherwise would be to admit that his favorite product had THOSE characteristics.

Selective observation is another manifestation of cognitive dissonance. We see this in each of the Presidential debates. Viewers accept those statements which reinforce their current beliefs (justification), and ignore those which contradict (denial). You can accurately gauge the politics of each network commentator by noting which of the candidates the commentator proclaims to be the winner.

How does cognitive dissonance affect advertising?

In general, people tend to be optimistic. They believe themselves to be virtuous, to be intelligent, to be successful. And pointing out the difference between people’s self images and the reality of their current situations can be a valid advertising strategy. The resulting cognitive dissonance can create an incomplete feeling in the customer who doesn’t own whatever the advertiser is selling.

Does it work on everyone? Of course not. But, it can work on enough customers to be a valid strategy.

  • John thinks of himself as successful, but he drives a 5-year-old car. Mr. Car Dealer reminds John that the new precision driving machine only appeals to those with discerning tastes, and that being seen in a performance car will telegraph to the world that John is someone to be reckoned with.
  • Jim loves his wife. Mr. Jeweler suggests that if he really loved her, Jim would show it with jewelry as precious as she is. Mr. Jeweler suggests that two months salary is the appropriate amount to consider spending to tell her he’d marry her all over again.
  • Jake is a young professional, at the beginning of his career. Jake has been advised to look successful in order to appear to management to be ready for promotion. Jake’s friends drink one of the mass advertised domestic beers. Jake has been affected by the advertising of an import positioned as higher quality.
  • Most advertising delivers images of what people say they want. Most advertising emotionally connects the those images things the advertisers sell. Cognitive dissonance adds the elements of guilt, regret, anxiety, or dereliction.

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    Cognitive dissonance is the psychological discomfort we experience when our belief clashes with contradictory information. This unsettling state of anguish, in turn, motivates us to reconcile the difference, either by changing our behavior or altering the importance of conflicting/dissonant beliefs.

    Let’s take an example.

    A smoker enjoys smoking, but also knows it’s detrimental to health. To minimize dissonance, they can give up smoking (change behavior) or rationalize their habit saying everyone has to die one day, or it isn’t as harmful as drinking. The latter sounds bizarre, but shows the extent to which people are willing to go to reclaim their peace of mind!

    So what’s it got to do in an ecommerce setup? A lot.

    As more and more people are shopping online, they’re also becoming increasingly skeptical. They notice every tiny detail before they hand over their hard-earned money to you! This means there’s even more of a chance that if they come across any conflicting information on your website, they will experience cognitive dissonance.

    You, therefore, must identify loopholes and create a plan that solidifies their trust in you.

    Wondering what can trigger cognitive dissonance and how to deal with it? Keep reading to find out.

    Display Trust Signals On Your Website

    As a safety measure, one of the first things online shoppers do to lower the perceived risk of transaction is look for trust signals, some of which are discussed below.

    #1: Multiple, Reputable Payment Options

    According to a survey published on HubSpot, 59% of buyers abandon a transaction if their preferred payment option isn’t available. Why? Because people have a varying degree of loyalty towards different payment methods. So bear that in mind and tailor your payment process accordingly. You’ll be leaving a lot of money on the table if you don’t!

    Think about your target audience demographics and payment behavior in specific countries and regions. After all, the mode of payment popular in the US may not necessarily be as popular in Asia.

    #2: Trust Logos

    With fraud cases on the rise, people are wary about sharing their private information, fearing it will be misused. The good news though is that with trust logos (privacy seals, SSLs, or brand association badges) in place you can tell your customers they are in safe hands.

    So, which ones are recommended to use on your website? Well, there’s no one straightforward answer. A famous Baymard’s trust study from 2013 states that people don’t have a preference between trust seals and SSL seals, but they definitely show a preference for antivirus companies, possibly because they are familiar with them. This perceived sense of security based on familiarity implies that people simply want to see a trust seal because it makes them feel safe.

    To dig a little deeper, CXL Institute conducted a study to expand on the above-stated Baymard Institute’s findings. They found out that familiar brands like Norton, Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, and Google are the most trusted seals when paying online. What they also discovered was gender and generational differences in ‘perceived’ security. Clearly, this means you must optimize for your audience and not randomly choose a trust logo.

    Verified by Visa Program and MasterCard Secure Code on the Victoria’s Secret checkout page.

    #3: Reviews and Testimonials

    By showcasing social proof on the homepage, product or the pricing page, and near the shopping cart, you will:

    • Reassure your customers of their choice.
    • Counter any objection/contradictory thought that surfaces in their mind.
    • Stop them from unnecessarily overthinking the consequences.

    LeadQuizzes uses ‘wisdom of the crowd’ on the pricing page to positively influence their website visitors.

    If you run a platform like Etsy, it’s a good idea to add seller ratings to put your customers at ease, as shown below.

    #4: Money Back Guarantee

    Giving a money back guarantee is a surefire way to keep post-purchase dissonance at bay. There’ll be no room for regret because the stakes are low. Customers can return the product if they are even slightly dissatisfied with it!

    But simply ensuring a money back guarantee isn’t sufficient. You’ve got to have a simple and transparent return and refunds process explained on your website. There’s every chance these customers will buy from you again. Here’s proof: 95% of shoppers prefer buying again from the same platform if they had a positive and convenient exchange or return experience.

    Step-by-step explanation of return procedure on Zappos

    Order Confirmation Transaction Emails

    If you didn’t know, an order confirmation email has the highest average open rates at 70%! Two reasons why:

    First, it casts away a customer’s apprehension and informs them that their order has been received. Second, it gives them a sense of security; these emails function as receipts required at the time of reimbursement and returns.

    If you haven’t been sending order confirmation emails, you’re breaching their trust. The only way to right this wrong is to start sending them and make sure they include:

    • A personalized thank you note to extend the excitement of their purchase.
    • Purchase details, like the order number, purchased item (with images), payment details, delivery address etc.
    • Shipment tracking and an estimated delivery time frame.
    • Customer services’ contact information and a link back to the website.

    Amazon’s email containing relevant shipping and order details

    Leverage the Choice-Supportive Bias

    Have you ever bought something and immediately regretted it, but also defended your decision because you believe you don’t make bad decisions? That’s choice-supportive bias in action.

    During this decision-rationalizing process, we tend to ‘ascribe positive attributes’ to our choice and amplify the negative features of the rejected option. Think of it as a way to reduce cognitive dissonance.

    When it comes to your customers, you can reinforce the bias by sending positive and reassuring messages during key stages of their journey. They will end up feeling terrific about themselves!

    ‘Great choice, there’ or ‘Your cart has some of our bestsellers’ is a perfect way to flatter someone adding a product to their cart. It validates their choice and motivates them to keep shopping. You can also recover abandoned carts by featuring testimonials in your emails. It triggers the choice-supportive bias and before you know it, your customer’s back on the purchase path!

    In fact, once they checkout, pep them up with a congratulatory, ‘What fine taste’ message!

    Another way to activate choice-supportive bias is by pitting free and premium features against each other. The free trial user will immediately be more confident about their choice and might even become a paying customer!

    Create a Sense of Closure

    Customers love having choices but also find it overwhelming. Even when they do zero down on one and buy it, they agonize over all the other still available options and begin to regret their decision! This is why it’s important you offer some kind of choice closure to your customers and shut their minds off from alternate choices!

    An effective choice closure strategy is asking for product reviews. Make sure you time your request and ensure they’ve used your product long enough to write a review that’s closer to their actual experience.

    This Sephora email includes a sample review and rating to motivate customers to write their own!

    Provide Exceptional Customer Service and Support

    There’s nothing more dreadful than dealing with a customer who’s having second thoughts about their purchase! It may seem like all your efforts of building a customer-client relationship have gone to waste. One way you can rectify this situation is by providing an excellent customer service. And it starts with being there for them at every stage of their buyer’s journey.

    7 out of 10 U.S. consumers say they’ve spent more money to do business with a company that delivers great service. Plus, when it comes to making a purchase, 64% of people find customer experience more important than price.

    What’s interesting is that even businesses have realized it:

    Econsultancy’s 2018 DIgital Trends Report

    Speaking of which, here’s how you can follow suit and prioritize customer satisfaction:

    • Ensure your customer services and support team knows the business inside-out.
    • Have a contact page easily accessible from anywhere on the website.
    • Mention how long it takes you to respond to queries. It’s called expectations management.
    • Do away with canned responses; become more human.
    • Use a live chat tool for faster customer support and better customer experience. A study revealed that as many as 77% of customers won’t make a purchase on a website if there’s no live chat option available!


    Once a customer has a stellar experience with your brand, they will stick with you for longer and become repeat customers. Furthermore, their word-of-mouth marketing will grow your existing customer base!


    Send Feedback Surveys to Feel Your Customer’s Pulse

    Listening to your customers is the quickest way to learn what causes buyer’s remorse. But getting actionable insights means asking the right questions. Have a look on what to ask:

    • What made you buy the product?
    • How is it helping you?
    • What doubts did you have before buying it?
    • What was the biggest challenge in finding the right product?
    • What made you nearly abandon our website?
    • Was there any particular information you couldn’t find an answer to on the website?
    • Any other comments or remarks?

    Meanwhile, it also helps to follow some of the best practices when creating a survey:

    • Use simple, jargon-free language.
    • Throw in a variety of questions, e.g.: multiple choice, likert scale, ranking, rating etc.
    • Ask neutral questions like ‘How helpful was our customer services team today?’.
    • Avoid double-barrelled questions, which means address only one topic per question.
    • Show a progress bar to keep them going.
    • Ask open-ended questions towards the end.
    • Test on multiple devices.
    • Always A/B test.

    With that taken care of comes the timing of the survey. Ideally, send it when you’re still fresh in their minds. Their answers will be closer to their actual experience and you’ll be on your way to fixing bad experiences in no time!

    Connect With Them Over Your Blog

    The more invested a customer is in you, the stronger the chances they will slip into a state of cognitive dissonance. It’s especially true for B2B buyers.

    To tackle this, develop an ongoing stream of content in the form of a blog. Apparently, 71% of B2B buyers engage with blogs during the purchasing process. Your customers are no different. A Content Preferences Survey Report says, 47% of buyers consume three to five pieces of content before contacting a sales rep.

    Once you consistently create valuable and relevant content, you’ll be viewed as an expert. Combine that with your interest in interacting with your readers in comments, and you’ll create massive opportunities for your sales team. Prospects will walk straight into your marketing funnel because you seem trustworthy, interested in helping first and clinching a sale later.

    You can learn a great deal about getting blogging right from Zapier. They write detailed, informative posts and are able to impress their website visitors.

    Wrap Up

    By now you know the strategies you can use to reduce the chances of your customers experiencing cognitive dissonance.

    Remember that all that your customer expects is a smooth experience from the beginning to end. They should be able to locate trust signals, know you’ve received their order, and that you are there when they need your help. Even returning the product shouldn’t be a hassle.

    Also, shut them off from available options to reduce post-choice regret and analyze survey feedback to learn about the source of their buyer’s remorse.

    Over to you now: How ready are you to take the bull by the horns?!

    Anyone who has taken an entry-level psychology class is probably familiar with the concept of cognitive dissonance, but for anyone who needs a refresher, let’s review:

    Cognitive dissonance is the idea that our brains cannot hold two conflicting thoughts at the same time. Due to the discomfort this causes, the brain slightly alters or justifies one of these ideas in order to reduce discomfort and restore balance.

    This practice is nothing new. Whether we are aware of it or not, our brains are always justifying moral dilemmas just so we can function day to day sans an existential crisis. However, I’ve noticed that with recent events in popular culture, this defense mechanism has caused some to justify, brush-off or even flat out ignore some pretty serious issues.

    As the #MeToo movement and the Times Up initiative have gained traction over the past several months, nearly every week another prominent figure is accused of sexual misconduct. Often times, the men accused have been Hollywood actors, comedians, producers, etc. It is likely that prior to learning of their accusations, many of us were, or still are, fans of these men or their work.

    Personally, I have always been a fan of Aziz Ansari’s work, from his stand-up comedy, to his role on “Parks and Recreation,” to his original Netflix series “Master of None.” Ansari has, for the most part, always been considered a socially aware entertainer, even calling himself a feminist, and speaking out on issues such as the immigration ban and the islamophobic rhetoric of the Trump administration.

    Considering these factors, many found it shocking to learn that he too is a perpetrator of sexual misconduct. Though the blurred lines presented in the article describing the incident caused a lot of discourse and debate over what constitutes consent (which is a whole other discussion in itself), many fans of Ansari were quick to defend his actions, claiming that the victim was blowing things out of proportion. Such is life when it comes to exposing the shortcomings of any beloved celebrity, or the response to any victim of assault for that matter.

    This is just one example of how cognitive dissonance plays into how we perceive anything and everything through a moral lens. But when our cognitive dissonance blinds us from recognizing dangerous, inherently harmful behavior, that’s where things get tricky. We saw this again with Logan Paul, the YouTuber with 13 million subscribers who exploited the dead body of a suicide victim in one of his vlogs. His young fans initial response was to defend him or to choose to ignore his blaringly depraved behavior.

    On the other hand, through the process of cognitive dissonance, upon the discovery that a person associated with something we like (i.e. a show, book, movie) has done something bad, it could lead us to feel as though the the thing we like is automatically bad as well, causing us to feel ashamed for liking the thing to begin with.

    This of course, is also wrong. We shouldn’t feel shame for enjoying the things we enjoy, as long as they aren’t truly harmful. People are quick to “cancel” anything that is even remotely problematic, even if just by association. It is nearly impossible to fully avoid consuming media, food, products, culture, etc. that is entirely unproblematic.

    However, by being more aware of how cognitive dissonance plays a role in our lives, and thinking critically about why we feel the way we do about certain things, hopefully we can learn to accept things as they are. Denouncing harmful actions when we see them, and maintaining a level of awareness about all that we consume rather than denying its flaws is a healthier way of living.

    Why Cognitive Dissonance Is A Critical Media Strategy

    Posted by Brad Phillips on October 22, 2014

    Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. (source: Wikipedia)
    I recently worked with a company that is frequently portrayed by the media as a “bad guy.” As a result of receiving some critical media coverage, the company’s executive team ordered a clampdown on external communications.
    That means no more interviews. All interactions with the media occur solely through written statements. That way, the company figures, reporters will be unable to twist their quotes. By maintaining a paper trail, they feel safer and better protected.
    There’s one problem with that approach: Their defensive posture results in media stories that contrast the company’s cold, lawyerly written statements with their opponents, who speak to the press, appear open, and look more sympathetic.

    When working with the company’s representatives, I had an “A ha!” moment. I noticed that all of the spokespersons were smart, funny, and instantly likeable. Unfortunately, the public couldn’t see that for themselves, since their statements contained none of those things. But if they could—if the public could see that this company was made up of thoughtful people who were trying to serve their customers well—it could force them to change their thinking.
    Think of it this way: A customer who thinks, “Oh, I hate that company. Their customer service sucks.” would believe that their beliefs were well founded when watching a news report that showed the company communicating solely through uninspired written statements.
    But a customer who thinks, “Oh, I hate that company. Their customer service sucks.”— and who then sees a company vice president expressing sincere commitment to improving their service—might experience a bit of cognitive dissonance (“I thought they were jerks. I still don’t love them, but maybe they’re not as bad as I thought.”).
    If your company is in a defensive crouch but has charismatic, credible, and thoughtful spokespersons, ask yourself this question: Would our interviews create cognitive dissonance for some members of the audience? And if they would, should we really depend solely on written statements to carry our message?
    Like this post? Read the book! The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview is available in paperback, for Kindle, and iPad.

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