Suspicious minds: FSU researcher documents consumers’ increasing skepticism

Peter Darke

"This jacket makes you look 20 pounds lighter!" "These shoes go perfectly with your skirt!" "Lime green is really your color!" Sales pitches such as these can be heard every day in just about any mall in the United States.

However, such ploys likely do little to clinch a sale—and may, in fact, create negative perceptions among shoppers, says Peter Darke, an assistant professor in the department of marketing of Florida State University’s FSU College of Business.

"Consumers today look at everything with a skeptical eye," Darke said. "Before they even set foot in a store, they already are inclined to mistrust the use of flattery by salespeople, as well as claims made in ads they’ve seen in the media."

With colleagues Darren Dahl of the University of British Columbia and Kelley Main of York University, Darke cowrote "Deliberative and Automatic Bases of Suspicion: Empirical Evidence of the Sinister Attribution Error," a paper that examines the reactions of consumers to flattery from store clerks. The paper, just published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, explores whether consumers decide a salesperson is untrustworthy through a deliberate or an automatic decision-making process.

To gather data, the researchers ran three experiments that involved consumers buying sunglasses at a sales kiosk. Of the 102 study participants, 37 were male and 65 female.

In the first experiment, sales clerks flattered consumers before their purchase. During the second, sales clerks flattered consumers after their purchase. In both instances, they used three statements:

  • "That’s a great pair of sunglasses."
  • "I think they look good on you."
  • "They really suit you."

With the third experiment—which acted as a control—sales clerks chatted with consumers but didn’t offer any flattery.

After buying a pair of sunglasses, participants then completed a questionnaire that asked how trustworthy they found the sales clerk.
"Consistently, the study participants said that even when it was obvious the compliment didn’t serve any underlying sales motive, they still didn’t trust what the sales clerk had to say," Darke said.

Such suspicion of others’ motives is typical in a society that is absolutely drowning in marketing campaigns and sales pitches, he said.

"Generally speaking, it has become the consumer’s default position to react negatively to what is perceived as an attempt to manipulate him or her," Darke said. "Even when there isn’t an obvious motive for a salesperson’s flattery, such as generating a sale, we are programmed to assume the worst."

And speaking of consumer skepticism, Darke has published a second paper that shows how deceptive advertisements can have the effect of making consumers cynical about all advertising, not just the ones making false claims.

With colleague Robin J.B. Ritchie of the University of Western Ontario in Canada, Darke cowrote "The Defensive Consumer: Advertising Deception, Defensive Processing, and Distrust" (download PDF), which shows how deceptive advertising engenders distrust that negatively affects people’s responses to subsequent advertising from both the same source and other sources. The paper, just published in the Journal of Marketing Research, indicates that the negative effects of ad deception are relatively long-lasting in the sense that they are observed for additional advertisements encountered 24 hours after the initial deception.

"Deceptive ads induce negative beliefs about advertising and marketing in general, thereby undermining the credibility of further advertising," Darke said. "For companies that advertise, the lesson is clear: They must do a better job of guaranteeing the accuracy of their own and others marketers’ advertising content if they want consumers to keep paying attention."