Consumers' Belief in Their Ability to Judge the Truthfulness of Sales Claims

Robert Baer, Bradley University
Rustan Kosenko, Bradley University
ABSTRACT - The present paper reports that consumers have confidence in their ability to detect whether or not a salesperson is telling the truth. They believe that they can gauge salesperson truthfulness by the persuasiveness and quality of the sales message. In an experimental setting, we found that subjects' tendency to believe the salesperson was influenced by whether or not experimental conditions reinforced or challenged their belief in the relationship between sales message persuasiveness and salesperson truthfulness.
[ to cite ]:
Robert Baer and Rustan Kosenko (1991) ,"Consumers' Belief in Their Ability to Judge the Truthfulness of Sales Claims", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 310-316.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 310-316

CONSUMERS' BELIEF IN THEIR ABILITY TO JUDGE THE TRUTHFULNESS OF SALES CLAIMS

Robert Baer, Bradley University

Rustan Kosenko, Bradley University

ABSTRACT -

The present paper reports that consumers have confidence in their ability to detect whether or not a salesperson is telling the truth. They believe that they can gauge salesperson truthfulness by the persuasiveness and quality of the sales message. In an experimental setting, we found that subjects' tendency to believe the salesperson was influenced by whether or not experimental conditions reinforced or challenged their belief in the relationship between sales message persuasiveness and salesperson truthfulness.

INTRODUCTION

Discerning whether or not an advertiser or salesperson is telling the truth is a pervasive problem encountered by consumers and is a concern of governmental regulatory bodies. Although our economic system generally has faith in the individual as a consumer, critics contend that many products and services are so complex that even a reasonably well-informed buyer would need the aid of an expert to make a wise decision. The situation is complicated by the fact that some marketers consciously attempt to deceive their customers. Establishing the credibility of promotional claim is becoming a pressing problem. Investigators have reported that feelings about advertising have grown less favorable over time (Anderson and Engledow, 1978; Bauer and Greyser, 1968). A recent poll (USA Today, 1989) indicated that 24%-of the public believe that marketing claims have become less honest in recent years while Krugman and Ferrell (1981) reported that advertising practitioners said that the second most difficult problem they faced was creating honest, nonmisleading advertisements.

Marketing trustworthiness can be considered from an attributional perspective (Settle and Golden, 1974; Hansen and Scott, 1976; Calder and Burnkrant, 1977; Smith and Hunt, 1978. Attribution theory is a collection of theories (Bem, 1965; Kelley 1967, 1971, 1972; Jones and Davis, 1965) that seek to explain the cognitive processes involved when an individual infers the causes of their own or another person's behavior. Mizerski, Golden and Keenan (1979) and Folkes (1988) have provided two excellent reviews that describe the applicability of attribution theory to a wide range of consumer behavior. A theme that runs throughout attributional work is the perceiver's tendency to characterize behavior as caused by either inner traits, beliefs or dispositions internal attribution) or by prevailing social and environmental concerns (external attribution). This dichotomy is especially useful for considering consumer perceptions of truthfulness. For example, given an opinion expressed by a salesperson, the customer must decide whether the stated opinion was caused by (1) the salesperson's true beliefs about the product (internal attribution) or (2) variable situational contingencies such as the salesperson's vested interest in the making of the sale or simply the normal expectations of the job (external attribution). Through this attributional process, a person judges whether a salesperson's verbal statements are trustworthy, i.e., a reflection of their genuine beliefs about the product (Hansen and Scott, 1976).

The principle importance of the attributional process stems from the relationship between attribution and behavior. Often we react not so much as to the mere fact of another's behavior as to the perceived causes and intentions underlying that behavior. Knowing why a salesperson said what he or she said is more useful than merely knowing what was said. Thus, if a sales message was attributed to the salesperson's vested interest in the sale, the consumer would be less certain about the actual characteristics of the product and would be less inclined to buy than if the message was considered to be an indication of the salesperson's true beliefs.

Despite a propensity to mistrust marketing claims, there is evidence to suggest, that to some extent, consumers may take the salesperson's word at face value and that consumers are perhaps less skeptical than they realize. Baer (1990) reported that subjects tended to believe salespeople even when there was little reason to have confidence in the truthfulness of their claims. Subjects in his experiment were asked to judge an automobile salesperson's genuine-belief toward the product he or she was selling. Some subjects had been told that due to many choices of available brands from which to choose (long product line), the salesperson could be considered to have little stake in the sale of any single product item and was therefore free to express his or her genuine beliefs about the product (choice). Other subjects had been told that there was only one product available (short product line) and that the salesperson was forced to sell that one car (no choice). The salesperson then gave a sales message that was either favorable or unfavorable towards the product. The results indicated that in both the choice and no-choice condition, subjects attributed a product attitude toward the salesperson that was consistent with the direction of the sales message. That is, in the long product line condition, salespersons who spoke favorably about the product were perceived as having more favorable attitudes than those who spoke unfavorably. More importantly, even in the short product line condition, subjects still tended to infer attitudes that were consistent with the direction of the sales message. Thus, subjects made attributions that indicated that they thought salespersons held attitudes toward the product that were consistent with their verbal statements about the product. This is a rather surprising finding that runs counter to intuitive notions that depict consumers as highly skeptical of marketing claims.

Why would consumers infer that the sales message is a reflection of the salesperson's true beliefs about the product? After all, a sales environment is one in which there are powerful plausible external causes for the salesperson's behavior. As a result, consumers should approach this situation with caution and be skeptical about salesperson motives.

The purpose of the present study was to examine an explanation for this tendency to regard the sales message as a reflection of the salesperson's genuine product attitudes. One possible explanation is that even though consumers know that some marketing claims are not truthful, they nonetheless believe in their ability to detect which claims are truthful and which ones are not. The problem for the customer is that even though there are powerful external forces that may account for the salesperson's behavior, many salespeople may still actually believe what they say. The customer must somehow use the available information to make an inference regarding a particular salesperson's truthfulness.

Miller and Rorer (1982) and Miller, Baer and Schonberg (1979) theorized that people in this situation adopt a diagnostic judgment set and invest the person's behavior with diagnosticity under the assumption of a strong correlation between the quality, extremity and persuasiveness of the person's behavior and their true beliefs. Thus, consumers have confidence in their ability to detect the salesperson's beliefs. They perceive that salespeople will produce strong, unequivocal and persuasive sales messages if, and only if, they personally endorse the product. Conversely, salespeople will perform relatively poorly if, and only if, they are forced to argue against their true product beliefs. Thus, if a salesperson gives a convincing sales presentation, consumers will infer that he or she believes in what they say. Similarly, Reeder and his colleagues (Reeder, 1985; Reeder and Brewer, 1979; Reeder, Fletcher and Furman, 1989) have shown that people expect others to behave consistently with their attitudes such that a person who possesses a certain attitude would not be expected to be able to act in a way that deviates from that attitude to any great extent. Thus, a salesperson forced to take a position about a product with which they do not agree, would be expected to do a relatively poor job (i.e., would be rather unconvincing), while those who had to defend a product in which they did believe would make a rather convincing presentation. Under the assumption of a strong correlation between message quality and persuasiveness and the salesperson's true beliefs, consumers believe that they can detect the salesperson's true beliefs from the quality and persuasiveness of their sales presentations.

If this line of reasoning is correct, then one should be able to either diminish or heighten the tendency for perceivers to regard the salesperson as truthful by providing them with information that either challenges (disconfirms) or reinforces (confirms) their belief in a strong correlation between sales message quality and persuasiveness and the salesperson's product attitude. The present study created experimental conditions that either challenged or supported subjects' belief in their ability to detect salesperson truthfulness. Subjects in our experiment received information that showed that there was either a strong or weak relationship between a salesperson's product attitude and the kind of sales message they gave when required to sell a product in which they did not believe. If judgments about message truthfulness are based upon the persuasiveness and strength of the message, then one should be able to diminish consumer faith in the sales message by providing subjects with information that shows the message persuasiveness is not a good predictor of salesperson product beliefs. Similarly, faith in the message can be enhanced by providing information that confirms people's belief that sales message persuasiveness is a good predictor of the salesperson's product beliefs. On the basis of this analysis, the following predictions can be made:

H1: In the absence of any information regarding the predictability of salesperson belief by message persuasiveness, subjects will tend to regard a persuasive sales message as truthful and attribute an attitude to the salesperson that is consistent with the position taken in the sales message.

H2: When information is provided to subjects that confirms their belief that message persuasiveness and salesperson beliefs are related, subjects' tendency to attribute an attitude to the salesperson that is consistent with their position taken in the sales message will be strengthened.

H3: When information is provided to subjects which disconfirms the predictability of salesperson product belief by message persuasiveness, subjects will regard the sales message with caution and should not attribute attitudes to the salesperson that are consistent with the position taken in the sales message.

METHOD

Overview

The design was a 2 x, factorial. The independent variables were the salesperson's expressed beliefs toward the product (favorable versus unfavorable) and the extent to which the sales message confirmed or disconfirmed subjects' assumptions regarding message strength as a predictor of salesperson beliefs (confirm versus disconfirm versus no information). The major dependent variable was the subjects' estimation of the salesperson's genuine beliefs about the product.

Participants

The participants were 129 male and female undergraduate business students who volunteered to participate in the study. Participants were run in small groups ranging in size from four to twelve. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the six cells in the experimental design.

Construction of Stimulus Materials

Persuasive messages pertaining to the sale of an automobile were developed. The messages were adopted from sets of persuasive messages reported by Pratkanis, Greenwald, Ronis, Leippe and Baumgardner (1983). The sales message consisted of a fictitious brand name and a description of the product's attributes. To create a description, paragraphs based on articles appearing in Consumer Reports were composed. Three attributes (durability, safety and handling) were chosen because different automobiles should vary among these characteristics. Fifteen different sales messages were created to reflect widely varying degrees of persuasiveness and quality. The sales messages were pre-tested by a convenience sample of twenty students who, on four separate 9-point semantic differential scales, rated each sales message in terms of its persuasiveness, quality, strength and extremity. These ratings confirmed that the fifteen messages did indeed vary in terms of these four characteristics.

Procedure

Stimulus materials were presented in booklet form. The cover page of the booklet described the experiment as an investigation of the way in which people make judgments about products and salespeople based upon limited information. Subjects read written scenarios portraying automobile sales transactions. Each subject was given a sales message to read. Subjects were told that there was a short product line, i.e., only one model available. Because of the short product line, the instructions emphasized that the salesperson may not have been free to express his or her real opinion to the customer. Subjects were shown a 9-point semantic differential rating scale (1 = extremely unfavorable, 9 = extremely favorable) upon which the salesperson's genuine attitude toward the product had been checked. Subjects received fourteen additional sales messages. The instructions to each one emphasized the potential inability of the salesperson to express his or her true beliefs because of a short product line. Also, for each sales message, the salesperson's genuine attitude was indicated by a circle on the rating scale. For all fifteen sales messages, the salesperson expressed either a favorable attitude toward the product (7, 8 or 9 on the 9-point scale) or an unfavorable attitude (1, 2 or 3 on the 9-point scale). In some cases, the salesperson's real attitude conflicted with what they stated in their sales presentation, while in other cases it was consistent.

Manipulation of Confirmation-Disconfirmation of Assumptions

In the confirmation condition, we intended to lead subjects to believe that the persuasiveness and quality of the sales message was indicative of a salesperson's beliefs. The sales messages and corresponding salesperson product attitudes that were provided showed that salespersons with attitudes strongly in favor of the product (7, 8 or 9 on the 9 point scale) gave sales messages that supported the product that were strong, persuasive, extreme and of high quality (rated 7, 8 or 9 on a 9-point scales during the pre-test). Those who did not believe in the product (1, 2 or 3 on the 9-point scale) gave sales messages that supported the product that were weak, unpersuasive, mild and of low quality (rated 1, 2 or 3 on 9-point scales during the pre-test). Thus, for subjects in the confirmation condition, sales messages were used that correlated highly (r = .82) with the salesperson's attitude.

In the disconfirm condition, we intended to lead subjects to believe that the strength and quality of the sales message was not related to how the salesperson felt about the product. As in the confirmation condition, each subject read fifteen sales messages ostensibly given by fifteen different salespeople who, because of a short product line, were not necessarily free to express their true beliefs about the product. However, in the disconfirmation condition, salespersons who were either strongly in favor or strongly against the product gave sales messages that varied in terms of quality, strength, extremity and persuasiveness. That is, regardless of their personal feelings toward the product, some salespeople gave weal; sales messages while others gave either ambivalent or convincing presentations (ratings of 1-9 on 9-point scales). In the disconfirmation condition, sales message strength and quality correlated poorly (r = .1(>) with salesperson product attitude and could therefore not be used to gauge the salesperson's product attitude.

Subjects in the no-information condition did not receive any information regarding the extent to which salesperson attitudes could be predicted from sales message strength. That is, subjects in this condition did not receive the fifteen different sales messages and they did not receive any information about the product attitudes of any previous salespeople.

Manipulation of Salesperson's Expressed Beliefs

Following the fifteen different sales messages, subjects received one final sales message. This message omitted the ttitude scale that had been used to indicate the salesperson's genuine attitude in the fifteen previous cases. Subjects were instructed once again that there was only one brand of car currently available. Consequently, it was emphasized that salespersons were not free to sell the models in which they most believed. If the salesperson thought that the one car was not a good car, they were not free to express their opinion to the customer.

TABLE 1

ATTITUDE ATTRIBUTION

Salespersons expressed beliefs toward the car that were favorable or unfavorable. The belief consisted of one sentence for three different product attributes that were described that assigned a value of either "poor" (unfavorable) or "excellent" (favorable) to each of three attributes. In addition, salespeople in the favorable condition began their sales message with an overall excellent assessment of the car and concluded by recommending its sale. Salespersons in the unfavorable condition began with a poor evaluation and concluded by not recommending its sale.

Dependent Measures

As the major dependent measure, subjects attributed an attitude toward the salesperson. Subjects were asked, "What do you think is the salesperson's deepest and most genuine belief about the car?" (1 = extremely poor car, 9 = extremely good car). Additional questions asked subjects to rate the quality, strength, persuasiveness and extremity of the sales message (all on 9-point scales).

RESULTS

Results were analyzed by a 2 x 3 ANOVA. Manipulated variables were the salesperson's expressed beliefs toward the product (favorable versus unfavorable) and the extent to which subjects' assumptions about the sales message strength salesperson belief relationship were confirmed (confirmed versus disconfirmed versus no information).

Attitude Attribution

A significant main effect for expressed beliefs, F (1,123) = 31.22, p < .01 was obtained. These results indicated that salespeople who spoke favorably about the product were perceived as having more favorable attitudes (x = 6.76) towards the product than those Xo spoke unfavorably (x = i 4.85). In terms of the central questions of this research, however, the dataare best understood in terms of expressed beliefs x confirmation of assumptions interaction, F (1,123) = 8.59, p < .01. The means are shown in Table 1. These results indicated that in the no-information control group, attitudes were attributed to salespeople in line with the direction of the sales message, i.e., salespersons who spoke favorably about the product were perceived as having more favorable attitudes (x = 6.68) than those who spoke unfavorably (x = 4.85), F (1,44) - 9.89, p < .01. Data from the no information condition support the first hypothesis and replicate those of Baer (1990) by showing that even under no-choice conditions (short product line), people are prone toward internal attributions and tend to take the salesperson's word at face value.

The second hypothesis was also supported. Subjects in the confirmation condition attributed attitudes that were even more extreme in the direction of the sales message x favorable = 7.55, x unfavorable = 3.82, F (1,40, =37.84, P < .01. The third hypothesis was also supported. Under disconfirmation conditions, there was no statistically significant difference in the attitudes attributed to salespersons who spoke favorably (x = 6.05) and unfavorably (x = 5.80), F < 1.

Sales Message Ratings

Subjects rated the quality, extremity and persuasiveness of the sales message. These sales message characteristics were rated on 9- point rating scales (1 = very low, 9 = very high). A main effect for direction was obtained for both the persuasive, F (1,123) = 6.10, p < .01, and quality measure, F (1,123) = 11.96, p < .01. Sales messages in favor of the product were seen as more persuasive (x = 5.31) and of higher quality (x = 5.61) than sales messages against the product (x = 4.48 and 4.49 respectively). Also a significant main effect for confirmation of subjects' assumptions was obtained for all three measures. Subjects in the confirmation condition reported that the sales message was more persuasive (x = 5.50) than subjects in either the disconfirmation (x = 4.46) or no-information condition (x = 4.67), F (1,123) 3.41, p < .05. They also thought the message was of higher quality in the confirmation (x = 5.93) than disconfirmation (x = 4.78) or no-information condition (x = 4.44), F (1,123) = 7.92, p < .01, and was more extreme in the confirmation (x = 6. ))than disconfirmation (x = 4.78) and no- information condition (x = 5.09), F (1,123) = 5.19, p < .01. No interactions were obtained between the salesperson's attitude (favorable/unfavorable) and the confirmation/no confirmation/disconfirmation manipulation for either the quality, extremity or persuasiveness measure.

DISCUSSION

Consumers' perceptions of salesperson truthfulness were examined from an attributional perspective. Given an opinion about a product expressed by a salesperson, the customer must decide whether those statements accurately reflect the salesperson's true beliefs (trustworthy), or whether they are merely the result of the salesperson's vested interest in making the sale. The present paper contends that consumers have confidence in their ability to detect the salesperson's true beliefs even when they know that there is ample reason to doubt the veracity of the claim. A study was designed to test the proposition that consumers hold implicit expectations about the kinds of behaviors that are likely to be emitted by salespeople who hold particular beliefs toward the products they sell. People expect salespeople to compose sales messages in such a way that their personal beliefs can be inferred. They assume a correlation between the salesperson's attitude and the persuasiveness, strength and quality of the sales presentation. They believe that a salesperson who tries to sell a product in which they do not believe will give themselves away by doing a relatively poor job, while those who truly believe in what they say will do a good job. These expectations are held to play a key role in the attributional process.

If perceptions of salesperson beliefs are based on the presumed correlation between salesperson belief and sales message persuasiveness and quality, then one should be able to influence perceptions of salesperson belief by strengthening or diminishing consumer confidence in this presumed correlation. We created experimental conditions that showed that the presumed correlation was either accurate or inaccurate and observed the corresponding effect on subjects' tendency to believe a persuasive sales message. We found that subjects were less likely to regard the persuasive message as indicative of the salesperson's beliefs when we diminished rather than strengthened confidence in the presumed correlation. These results add further support for the contention that customer inferences about salesperson truthfulness are based upon the perceived persuasiveness and quality of the sales message.

We also reported that subjects in the confirmation condition thought that the sales message was more persuasive, extreme and of higher quality than subjects in the disconfirmation and control conditions. It appears that not only did subjects use the persuasiveness and quality of the sales presentation to gauge the salesperson's attitude, but that the reverse was also true., i.e., they used the salesperson's attitude to make judgments about sales presentation persuasiveness. Having presumed a correlation between message persuasiveness and salesperson attitude and having read a persuasive sales message, subjects elevated their perceptions of persuasiveness, quality and strength relative to the subjects in the other conditions.

The results of this study highlight the importance of message quality, strength and persuasiveness as a basis for consumer perception of a salesperson's truthfulness. However, these intuitive beliefs may often mislead a consumer into believing a salesperson just because they make a convincing presentation. Reeder et al. 1989 reported that people often underestimate the extent to which someone can do an effective job despite not believing in what they say. Miller et al. 1979 reported that students forced to perform a task that contradicted their personal beliefs often did a reasonably good job. Students in their experiment were assigned to write essays defending political positions in which they did not believe. Yet, these essays were rated just as persuasive and of the same quality as essays written by students who believed in what they wrote. Since salespeople should be particularly adept at making convincing presentations regardless of their personal beliefs, the consumer may often be mislead by this presumed correlation.

The results from the no-information control group replicate those of Baer (1990). Surprisingly, these data show that rather than being skeptical about the veracity of sales claim, subjects tended to take the salesperson's word at face value and attribute an attitude that was consistent with the position taken in the sales message. Although surprising for a marketing context, these results are consistent with what Ross (1977) claims is a rather pervasive tendency in the perception of other people. He claims that people are generally biased toward making internal attributions. People tend to infer that an individual's actions are compatible with their beliefs even when that individual clearly had no choice in his or her actions. Logically, one should discount the behavior as an indication of the person's underlying beliefs when the individual had little or no control over their behavior. This bias toward internal attributions has been termed the "fundamental attribution error." While some (e.g. Harvey, Town and Trope, 1981; Monson and Snyder, 1977) have questioned whether or not the error is "fundamental", the evidence suggests that in many situations people are prone to make internal attributions. Attributional studies (e.g., Jones and Harris, 1967; Miller, 1976; Miller, Baer and Schonberg, 1979) have gone to great lengths to minimize the tendency to make internal attributions by exaggerating the salience of the external pressure on the actor. These studies do not successfully reduce the error because they do not challenge or negate subjects' belief in their ability to detect the truth despite the external pressure. This study suggests that the error is based on the presumed belief-persuasiveness correlation rather than the reduced salience of the external pressure.

How can we rectify the apparent contradiction between attributional research that indicates a tendency to accept the salesperson's word and the more commonly held view that consumers have widespread mistrust for sales claims. Two suggestions are posed. First, by considering trustworthiness from an attributional perspective, we have measured trustworthiness differently. In the traditional approach, subjects rate trustworthiness or credibility on a semantic differential scale. However, this is a rather leading question which is liable to prompt responses indicating a lack of trust for the message. Attributional studies, on the other hand, ask subjects to attribute a product attitude to the salesperson. That is, subjects try to estimate the salesperson's genuine product attitude, i.e., the degree to which they hold a certain attitude. These measures also show that the message is regarded with caution, i.e., subjects do not attribute very strong attitudes to the salesperson. Nevertheless, they do attribute product attitudes in the direction of the sales message. A second possible reason for the apparent contradiction may revolve around differences in mass media versus personal presentations. Perhaps the dishonesty that is perceived in advertising can be subsumed by a personal touch, i.e., a salesperson who appears to believe what they say. People just seem to trust other people. This underscores once again the importance of the sales message in determining perceived truthfulness.

These findings are somewhat distressing. With the propensity of consumers to believe in salespeople's veracity, the potential for consumers to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous salespersons evoking sincerity and confidence in their sales presentations could serve to undermine the integrity of boni fide sales professionals. Given the potential spill-over effect (a dissatisfactory purchase experience that carries over to the next purchase situation), there is a potential for pronounced public policy implications.

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