Is showing brand love always good? It depends. In their recent publication, Matthew D. Rocklage and Russel H. Fazio (2020) dive into online reviews to examine the effects of expressed positive emotion on others’ purchase intentions. It is not uncommon for companies to encourage, or be encouraged by, customer reviews that boast affection for their company’s products or services. However, they find that these actions may backfire and turn off potential customers after reading such online reviews. In five laboratory experiments and two field studies using 100,000 real-world online reviews, the authors point out that reviews that contain positive and emotional content (e.g., “I love my new blender!”) lead readers to discount emotional claims and react less favorably toward certain types of products. Specifically, this emotion backfires when expressed to others for utilitarian (e.g., blenders, microwaves) but not hedonic products (e.g., music, movies).
The key is people’s expectations: when expectations are violated, the review is likely to backfire. Readers do not expect to read strong positive and emotional reactions to utilitarian products—products that have a functional use. The study finds that mistrust underlies this divergence. In essence, emotions expressed toward a utilitarian product evoke surprise and a sense that the review is odd, which may lead to mistrust by the reader. So, when customer reviews for a utilitarian product, such as a food blender, contain positive and emotional content, readers’ expectations are violated, making the review less credible and, as a result, less effective. This unexpected and counterintuitive negative response to positive emotional content only holds for functional products. For hedonic products, or products associated with feelings of pleasure, online reviews that possess positive emotionality are both desired and expected by readers and result in more favorable outcomes. Lastly, the study shows, the backfiring effects can be diminished if the reviewers can establish expertise in the product domain or introduce rationality in explaining the emotion they express.
The Evaluative Lexicon: A Universal Linguistic Analysis Tool
Rocklage and Fazio recognized that the language we use to describe our feelings is often fueled by emotion and has underlying connotations. The authors utilized a new linguistic analysis tool – the Evaluative Lexicon (EL) – to examine and quantify language in terms of emotionality, valence, and extremity. For instance, describing a product as “exciting” or “smart” is primarily positive, but these adjectives differ based on their emotionality. The EL quantifies this difference by grouping “ hot” words (i.e., emotional) and “cold” words (i.e., rational) and incorporates the evaluative connotations of each adjective. Compared to alternate text analysis programs, EL has the distinct advantage of universal application, providing insights across domains and is capable of measuring an impressive 40+ attitudes in a single analysis. Researchers can access this software for free at evaluativelexicon.com.
Highlights from the Article
- For hedonic products, positive emotionality has enhancing effects for both reviewers and readers.
- Reviewers who express greater positive emotion are more favorable toward their products, and consumers who read these reviewers also become more favorable toward those products.
- For utilitarian products, the same level of positive emotionality results in positive product judgments from reviewers, but for readers, it backfires and decreases their purchase intentions.
- Mistrust underlies this divergence: emotion expressed toward a utilitarian product evokes surprise and a sense that the review is odd, which leads to mistrust of the review.
- Emotional reviews for utilitarian products are less likely to spread, be read by others, and are less likely to make it to those products’ front page on Amazon.com.
- These backfiring effects can be attenuated if reviewers establish their expertise in the product domain or if they offer explanations supporting the emotion they express.
Reducing the Backfire from Expressed Emotions in Online Reviews
What does this mean for marketers? The context of an online review matters, and the most effective online reviews are those in which reviewer language matches readers’ expectations based on product type. Companies should refrain from simply requesting positive feedback regardless of the product type and should pay closer attention to the type of product being reviewed. Companies should urge their customers to spread the love for hedonic products (e.g., music) but to rationally explain why they are favorable toward utilitarian products (e.g., blenders). There’s no “one size fits all” for online product reviews, and marketers should encourage reviews that align more with potential buyers’ expectations. So, if you fall in love with a new song, by all means – sing its praises, but for the emotional praising of your new blender – mum’s the word.
Matthew D. Rocklage and Russel H. Fazio (2020), The Enhancing Versus Backfiring Effects of Positive Emotion in Consumer Reviews. Journal of Marketing Research, 57 (2), 332–52.