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The social context of advertising consumption

Final Activity Report Summary - SCADCO (The Social Context of Advertising Consumption)

Products and services can provide consumers with solutions to socially sensitive problems. One of the main issues faced by organisations operating in industries such as personal care, counselling or pharmaceuticals is how to manage and minimise the embarrassment caused in consumers by their products.

In this project, I investigated the influence of social context on consumers’ emotional responses to advertising messages. In particular, I explored the joint role of social context, advertising timing and advertising targeting in ad-induced embarrassment. I developed a socio-dynamic theory of ad-induced embarrassment that explained how the presence of others and the media context determined the level of embarrassment experienced by consumers during exposure to potentially embarrassing advertising messages.

While previous literature was mostly concerned with the effect of social context on the intensity of emotional experiences during a specific episode, e.g. ‘happiness shared is happiness doubled’, my socio-dynamic theory of embarrassment focussed on how response to emotional events depended on earlier shared emotions. I conducted four experiments that demonstrated that embarrassment was a joint function of:

1. whether the social identity threatened by the message was shared or not by the viewing companions and
2. advertising timing.

For example, in one study, female participants viewed a television (TV) program in the company of either a male or a female. In the presence of a male, a gender-specific embarrassing ad, e.g. an ad for a personal hygiene product targeting females, was experienced as more embarrassing when it was presented before rather than after a gender-neutral embarrassing ad, e.g. an ad for a sexually transmitted diseases targeting both genders. No effect of order of ad presentation was observed for the same ad in the presence of a female. In addition, order of ad presentation did not influence the embarrassment generated by either a gender-neutral embarrassing ad or neutral ads.

An important contribution of this paper was to show that the potential of a social situation to generate embarrassment could be mitigated by social dynamics initiated by previous shared embarrassment, with direct implications for media planning. For instance, the findings suggested that it might be beneficial to advertise a solution to a specific health problem within a TV program addressing a taboo topic. The implications of this discussion extended beyond advertising, for example to patient-doctor interactions or to customer-salesperson contexts. In fact, the sequential dependency in embarrassment discovered in this project was reminiscent of how the military and other organisations socialized and initiated their members. Therefore, the findings of this project provided a framework for studying consumer embarrassment based on social mechanisms common to everyday consumption.