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Ethics
Praising Customers for Ethical Purchases Can Backfire

Maryam KouchakiAta Jami

October 06, 2016 UPDATED October 14, 2016

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Look on the back of a Starbucks cup, and you may find this message: “YOU are a pioneer in using recycled cups. Everything we do, you do. Your business lets Starbucks do business in a way that’s better for the planet. Like leading the way in cup technology with the first U.S. hot cups made with 10% post-consumer recycled fiber . . . Good for you, you.”

These customer-praising marketing messages are part of a broader trend in “corporate societal marketing,” which aim to emphasize companies’ social efforts to consumers. These messages are everywhere: On our visit to SeaWorld last year, event hosts told us we had helped animal-rescue programs by simply purchasing our tickets. And socially focused companies like Toms, which appeal to consumers with their “buy one, give one” promise, also praise consumers’ purchasing behavior with their altruistic tag (e.g., “With every product you purchase, TOMS will help a person in need”).

Organizations use these CSR messages to promote themselves as good corporate citizens. But it is also assumed that exposure to such messages would help make consumers more aware of certain social/environmental issues and therefore promote subsequent altruistic behaviors and choices. For example, seeing that Starbucks cup might make consumers care more about products made from recycled materials. But do such messages truly promote altruism? Or is it possible they could do the opposite, and actually advance self-interested actions on the part of consumers?

A well-known theory in moral psychology called “moral licensing” suggests that the latter might be true. Moral licensing essentially means that when people do something good—such as donating to a charitable cause—they feel subsequently free or licensed to act in a more negative or morally ambiguous way. So someone gets a self-image boost after doing a good deed, and this feeling helps inoculate them from feeling guilt or shame about later self-indulgence or unethical behavior. This has been studied in different contexts. For example, one study showed that participants who selected green products over conventional products were more likely to cheat on a future task. And even imagining acting altruistically can boost self-image and license individuals to engage in self-interested behavior, such as, for example, choosing to buy a luxury product (designer clothes) over a necessity (home appliance).

Moral licensing can also occur as the result of collective behavior. Our previous work showed that members of groups that had done something good, such as selecting to interview a Hispanic applicant for a job, felt licensed merely by their membership in the group to later act badly on their own—in this case, they discriminated against the minority job candidate.

This time, we were interested in how companies’ CSR messages to consumers affected consumer behavior. We examined whether the framing of the message—whether it praised customers for good deeds (“your use of recyclable cans and bottles help us protect the environment”), or merely publicized the company’s values (“our recycling program protects the environment”)—had any effect on how consumers responded and later behaved.

We conducted six studies on diverse samples with over 450 participants, from undergraduate students to working adults. Using different variations of praise messages and participants, we consistently observed that messages featuring customer praise backfired and led to subsequent selfish behavior. Our results were recently published in Management Science.

In one study, participants viewed a short 40-second Starbucks commercial that either praised a customer for making an ethical purchase (it used phrasing such as: “Everything we do, you do. You buy more fair trade certified coffee than anyone else”) or praised the company for its ethical business practices (“Starbucks is the biggest buyer of fair trade coffee in the world”). Think of these frames as customer praise (“Look at the good you’ve done for society”) and company praise (“Look at the good we’ve done”). After viewing the messages, people were asked to make hypothetical choices about buying unrelated products. For example, participants had to choose whether they’d buy traditional or eco-friendly batteries. We found that people chose the eco-friendly batteries less after viewing the ad that praised them for a good choice—33.3% of those who saw customer praise chose the eco-friendly batteries, whereas 69.6% of those who saw company praise chose the eco-friendly batteries.

In another study, participants were randomly assigned to view one of the messages written from the perspective of the CEO of a company. Afterwards, participants played a version of the dictator game, in which they allocated $20 between themselves and another participant in the room. We found that the message featuring customer praise resulted in subsequent selfish behavior—those participants kept more money for themselves.

Finally, in a field study we conducted on a U.S.-based volunteer group, volunteers received one of two versions of an email from the organization’s director: one praising the volunteer’s individual efforts on behalf of the organization, and the second praising the group of volunteers as a whole for their work. At the end of the email, volunteers could click through to claim a gift of either a luxury backpack or a utility travel bag. We found that volunteers were more likely to self-indulge by choosing a luxury backpack over a plainer version when a thank-you message praised them specifically (84%) versus thanking “the group” (64%).

These results show that customers who received messages lauding their behavior were more likely than those who received messages about a company’s or a group’s behavior to later choose selfishly. It is important to note that we only tested the immediate, short-term effects of these CSR messages; we do not know how long they persist.

In another study, we measured consumers’ environmental values before exposing them to either a consumer-praising or company-praising message. We found that people who were already highly committed to the environmental cause being called out in the message were less likely to be influenced by a consumer-praising message, as their self-image was less likely to rise further as a result of the praise.

These findings are consistent with research showing that when people are focused on the progress they’ve made toward a given goal, they are more likely to indulge in negative behavior soon afterward. For example, dieters are more likely to “cheat” by choosing less healthy snacks when they become aware of the weight they’ve already lost or when they exercise. The self-referential focus on progress (“I’ve achieved something good”) in effect licenses them to engage in more dubious, even self-destructive acts (“Now I can do something bad”). So giving customers credit for making progress toward an altruistic goal may play a role in immediately boosting self-indulgent behavior.

We also found that company-praising messages can actually promote more positive, altruistic behavior compared to both no-praise and customer-praise messages. So while highlighting an individual’s personal progress or contribution with regard to social impact is more likely to backfire, focusing consumers’ attention to a cause may lead to more positive behavior.

Alongside corporate philanthropy which reached $18.5 billion in 2015, companies have been spending more on cause-related marketing—it reached about $2 billion dollars in 2016. But if firms want to actually encourage more positive social behavior, they need to highlight consumers’ commitment to a cause and ask for their continuous support (“help us continue to do this”), rather than praise people for their contributions (“you did help us to do this”).

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to include the link to the study in Management Science.

Maryam Kouchaki is an assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. Her research focuses on decision making and ethics.

Ata Jami is an assistant professor of marketing at the College of Business Administration, University of Central Florida.
This article is about ETHICS
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Comments
1 COMMENTS

Noritaka Hara 21 days ago

In this context, carbon offset will surely have backfired impact on individual behavior.
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