Willful Ignorance: Consumer’s Avoidance of Relevant Product Information
by Kristine Ehrich
Washington State University
The University of Texas at Austin
Overview of Research
Can you imagine an instance in which a consumer has wanted to know the answer to a product-related question but, at the same time, did not want to know the answer to the question? Quite possibly you have encountered this. In what situation would your consumer use the product attribute information if you provided it to them but would not actually seek the information themselves? This is the question that is answered in our research.
We have long known that, while products that are high on ethical attributes are quite popular to talk about, they aren’t necessarily the best selling products out there. That is, we love to say that we’re interested in products that are made with concern for the environment in mind or products that we are sure are not made by child labor; however, it is not as often that these products actually sell better than their competitors which quite possibly have negative ethical attributes. Why is this?
Significance of the Research to the Discipline
Emotions and feelings are of great interest to consumer researchers. We investigate both ways in which emotions impact the manner in which we behave and we also investigate ways in which our behavior impacts our emotions. There is much research that demonstrates methods by which consumers choose to avoid negative emotions, one such way being the avoidance of making a decision at all. Our research contributes to the discipline by helping us to understand yet another way in which consumers avoid negative emotion, by not asking for information that they would have otherwise used, had it been available.
We know that, at times, consumers misinterpret information that they are uncomfortable with in order to make it fit better with their preferences. We show that sometimes consumers save themselves the trouble of distorting information by just avoiding it altogether instead. This knowledge contributes to the growing literature on how avoidance mechanisms affect consumer choice and consumer decision making.
Implications for Marketing Practice
Our results have implications for those practitioners who are marketing products with any type of ethical aspect to them. We repeatedly found that consumers are hesitant to seek ethical attribute information when the knowledge of that information has potentially negative emotional consequences. Marketing managers might spend large amounts of money and energy ensuring that they are offering products that incorporate ethical attributes only to face consumers who willfully remain ignorant of that information. Knowing that this information is actually important to consumers (as it is), managers whose products contain ethical attribute information of a favorable nature (animal friendly cosmetics, sustainable wood furniture, clothing made by strict labor regulations, etc.) should promote this. Make this information available to your consumer in such a way that it is difficult for them to not incorporate it into their decisions. On the other hand, if a manager has something to hide regarding the ethical nature of their products (for example, furniture made of wood harvested from endangered rain forests) they may not need to worry about the consumer reaction. This is because it is unlikely that the consumer will seek the information, if it is not readily visible.
This knowledge helps to explain why, even though ethical concerns are increasing in importance according to the popular press, we are not seeing a corresponding increase in the marketplace behavior. Products containing ethical attributes with a favorable or positive value are promoted but these reflect a small portion of the market. At the same time, knowledge of those products containing a negative value is successfully neglected by the consumer, and the products continue to sell.
Ehrich, Kristine R. and Julie R. Irwin (2005), "Willful Ignorance in the Request of Product Attribute Information," Journal of Marketing Research, 42 (August) 266-277.
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