The seduction tactics used in advertising are so subtle that it’s just as well that national and European governments impose strict rules as to what is permitted. But the controls could be made even tighter in the view of Bob Fennis, Professor of Consumer Behaviour at the University of Groningen. At the same time he urgently advises us to arm ourselves more effectively against stimuli that arouse our urge to buy. ‘You should go shopping at times when you’re aware of the dangers of temptation. For example, do your shopping before you go to work.’
Although all is fair in love and war, advertisers do in fact have to adhere to some rules. For example, they’re not allowed to lie or to slander their competitors, and they can’t use every possible tactic to tempt consumers. Fennis: ‘Consumers must be viewed as rational beings who are aware of their freedom of choice. After all, that’s also the basis of economic theory. I am not an ethicist, but marketers should not be allowed to take advantage of consumer defencelessness if their motives are suspect. If an advertisement subconsciously alerts people to the importance of wearing a seatbelt, that’s perhaps a different story. Sending a subliminal message is then something positive because drivers do of course have to pay attention when on the road. And in this case it also serves the public interest.’
When it comes to influencing buyers, a key factor is the extent to which consumers are on their guard. Forewarned is forearmed, but there are always limits to this vigilance, says Fennis. ‘Compare it with a battery that will eventually run out. If people are tired after a busy day, they won’t pay as much attention to what they buy, to whether they need it and whether it’s too expensive. And remember, this applies just as much to a jar of peanut butter as it does to a major purchase like a new car. It is this same tiredness that telemarketers take advantage of. They can drain your mental batteries during a phone conversation simply by continuing to talk, and then they come at you with their sales pitch.’
This is an example of the grey area in which advertisers and marketers like to operate, says Fennis. ‘They always push the boundaries of what’s permissible and what isn’t. I believe that greater attention should be paid to this area. Fortunately, we have the Consumer Authority, but I would like to see them focus more on devising guidelines for dealing with such situations. At present the Consumer Authority looks at lying and cheating, at cases that are clear cut. But there are also more subtle forms of influence, such as telemarketing, that nudge the boundaries of what is acceptable. The Consumer Authority doesn’t look at these cases.’
Even more important than the government or a consumer watchdog is the responsibility of consumers themselves. Fennis: ‘You can train your battery, and in a pleasant way too. Making sure that you stay in a positive mood will put you in a better position to resist temptation. Self-affirmation – in other words, maintaining your integrity – can also affect the strength of your batteries. And people should realize that they’re more vulnerable than they think. Don’t go to places where there is lots of temptation if you’re not feeling strong. After a hard day at work, don’t spend the whole evening at the shops – at least, not unless you want to come home with things that you don’t want.’
Prof. Bob M. Fennis (Tilburg, 1968) studied social psychology at Utrecht University and communication science (cum laude) at Radboud University Nijmegen. He obtained his PhD with a dissertation entitled ‘Health on television: Studies on the content and effects of mass media messages.’ Fennis worked as senior research and communications advisor for the Ministry of Transport and Public Works and as senior consultant at Boer & Croon Corporate Communication. In 2001 he was appointed lecturer at the VU University Amsterdam. In 2004 he became associate professor at the University of Twente and at Utrecht University and in 2010 he was appointed professor in the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Groningen.
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