Motive trumps incentive advertising in persuading consumers

Experts say advertising campaigns need to model positive internal motivation rather than external reasons like reward or punishment if they are to be effective.

The peer-reviewed paper, Not Whodunit but Whydunit: Story Characters’ Motivations Influence Audience Interest in Services, busts the myth that marketing campaigns should only promote positive customer experiences.

Contrary to widely held beliefs, the research suggests consumers are more likely to identify with a character who faces a decision scenario in which their well-intentioned actions potentially create harm for others. Only detailing positive consequences was a barrier to the consumers identifying with the character.

Authored by Associate Professor Tom van Laer from the University of Sydney Business School with lead author Assistant Professor Anne Hamby from Boise State University, the research shows the effect of intrinsically-motivated story characters on five key areas including:

  1. Seeking therapy
  2. Sustainability-related careers
  3. Advising services
  4. Not-for-profit donations
  5. Exercise services

Associate Professor Tom van Laer says the findings could, for example, offer key insights for health department campaigns related to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

“Imagine you have two ad campaigns, both depicting someone getting the vaccine. The first shows someone who was motivated to get the vaccine to protect their family from contracting the virus. The second person is motivated by a financial incentive offered by their employer,” said Associate Professor van Laer.

“Our research suggests that understanding the intrinsic motivation of the first person is more likely to translate to audiences. For example, the Australian Government’s COVID-19 ad released late last year is effective in showing the unintended consequences of visiting family while the main character unknowingly had the virus. Starting with the scene of the mother in ICU is a powerful opening.

“But the story peters out and doesn’t follow a clear emotional curve. What is missing is the drama of how the mother got sick and sicker over time, which would be the logical ending. Diving deeper into the motivations of the son would’ve made this ad even more effective.”

Study suggests key for influencers

The research suggests the findings should also be applied to campaigns involving social media influencers.

In the paper, forthcoming in the Journal of Service Research, the researchers suggest that intrinsically motivated influencers may be more effective than those who are extrinsically motivated.

“Whether it be Patrick Stewart, Joe Biden, or Kamala Harris, we’re seeing more and more photos of high-profile people getting the vaccine,” Assistant Professor Hamby explained.

“But the missing piece of the puzzle in terms of influencing audiences is the why.”

The research suggests influencers who are able to communicate their personal passion for a topic are more effective than those who rely purely on status.

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