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Advertisers should take care when trying to manipulate self-perception

Advertisers are forever trying to influence the way we see ourselves. Age is a prime target. Ads for body wash try to convince young teens that they are desirable young adults. Ads for sports cars try to convince 50-somethings that they are desirable younger men.

But a recent study co-authored by Mark Forehand, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, demonstrates that such maneuvers must be executed with precision to achieve the desired effect.

“People generally think that your association of self with age is static,” Forehand says. “But it actually fluctuates. It shifts toward being more or less youthful, depending on the cues you are exposed to.”

Assimilate or contrast

The study set out to discern whether consumers “assimilate to” or “contrast with” age-related advertising imagery. Forehand used a proven assessment called the Implicit Association Test to measure how strongly college students associate the concept of youth with self after viewing a series of related advertisements. When the students viewed ads featuring moderately older subjects (30-somethings), they felt older. This is called an assimilation response. When they viewed ads featuring significantly older subjects (senior citizens), they felt younger. This is called a contrast response.

“We tend to assimilate to things that aren’t too distant,” Forehand explains. “We think, ‘I’ll be that age before long. That could be me.’ But when we see something far off, we have a contrast response. We think, ‘I’m not anything like that.’ This drives the change in self-conception.”

This effect is not automatic, Forehand adds. It gets stronger the more intently a person processes whether an ad is aimed at him or her.

“People generally think it doesn’t matter whether you’re thinking about it or not,” he says. “But we found that the more intently people process whether this ad is for me or not for me, that more intensely it activates an assimilation or contrast response.”

Leveraging age

Early research by Forehand established that people respond positively to stimuli related to self-perception. To put it another way, if you get people to think of themselves as more youthful, they like youth-related products and services.

This new study’s finding builds on this insight. It demonstrates that advertisers, if they present the right kind of imagery, can persuade a target market to view themselves as either younger or older. This altered state of self-perception, in turn, increases the likelihood that those consumers will buy a product or service geared toward the young or old.

“User imagery can predispose people to liking your product,” Forehand says. “Ironically, exposing young consumers to senior citizens could increase their propensity to choose youth-related products.”

When are Automatic Social Comparisons not Automatic? The Effect of Cognitive Systems on User Imagery-Based Self-Concept Activation,” by Mark Forehand, Andrew Perkins and Americus Reed II, is published in the January 2011 Journal of Consumer Psychology.