Special Session Summary Consumers' Perceptions of Persuasive Intent: Examining Consumer Persuasion Knowledge

Patti Williams, University of Pennsylvania
[ to cite ]:
Patti Williams (2002) ,"Special Session Summary Consumers' Perceptions of Persuasive Intent: Examining Consumer Persuasion Knowledge", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 305-307.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 305-307



Patti Williams, University of Pennsylvania


Friestad and Wright (1994), introduced the "Persuasion Knowledge Model" (PKM), which is focused on how people use their knowledge of persuasion motives and tactics to interpret, evaluate and respond to influence attempts from marketers and others. Since the model's introduction, researchers have examined knowledge about marketers' motives, goals and tactics in a variety of contexts including adolescent development of skepticism toward advertising (Boush, Friestad and Rose 1994), similarities and differences in beliefs among laypeople and researchers regarding television advertising techniques and strategies (Friestad and Wright 1995), and responses to persuasion in interpersonal sales settings (Campbell and Kirmani 2000). These studies have offered insights on the type of persuasion knowledge individuals hold, as well as when and how it is likely to be evoked. This session extends the previous work on the persuasion knowledge model in a variety of ways to increase the richness of the model itself, to use the model to offer insights into other consumer behavior research streams, and to offer public policy implications.


Campbell and Kirmani extend their previous research on the use of persuasion knowledge in an interpersonal setting (Campbell and Kirmani 2000). Through both retrospective recall and diary maintenance over a period of weeks, data was collected about interpersonal influence attempts among friends, family-members, acquaintances and other interpersonal settings. Analysis reveals a number of specific tactics that individuals use to manage episodes of interpersonal persuasion, as well as specific factors that influence how such episodes are managed. These factors are integrated into an overall framework for target response to interpersonal persuasion.

Williams, Fitzsimons and Block extend previous research on the mere measurement effect, demonstrating the importance of persuasion knowledge in a new context, The mere measurement literature has shown that asking a question about intentions can substantially and consistently change the degree to which those asked intent actually engage in the target behavior. However, it is not clear why such questions might be more effective at changing behaviors than are overt persuasion attempts, which are explicitly intended to result in such change. By varying the perceived persuasive intent of the questions being asked, this research examines the premise that while consumers are likely to invoke persuasion knowledge when exposed to messages by a self-interested sponsor, persuasion knowledge is not invoked in response to simple questions.

Friestad and Wright focus on the implications that understanding of consumer persuasion knowledge and how it develops over the course of adolescence can offer to public policy makers interested in helping pre-teens to understand and evaluate marketing and advertising tactics. Their work focuses on the examination of a specific initiative currently underway, entitled, "PRE-EMPT: Preteen Education on Marketing and Persuasion Tactics," and offers insights both as to content development of such a program, as well as to the assessment of program outcomes, within the framework of their original persuasion knowledge model (Friestad and Wright 1994).



Margaret C. Campbell and Amna Kirmani

In their seminal paper on the Persuasion Knowledge Model, Friestad and Wright (1994) point out that consumers have knowledge about persuasion and that an important part of this knowledge is how to respond to, or "cope" with, others' attempts to persuade. However, while there have been literally hundreds of articles on how to persuade others, i.e., how agents persuade targets (Kellerman and Cole 1994), there is almost no published research on how people respond to others' attempts to persuade them, i.e., how targets respond to agents' persuasion attempts.

The research presented here begins to fill this gap. The objective of the research is to develop a framework of how people respond as the targets of agents' persuasion attempts. The framework includes a conceptualization of the process by which targets respond to persuasion, the specific goals and strategies used in response, and the conditional moderators of response.

We use two different methodologies to uncover the target response framework. In study 1, respondents were asked to retrospectively describe two interactions in which a different influence agent, e.g., family member, a friend, an instructor or a salesperson, tried to persuade them. In Study 2, respondents kept ongoing persuasion diaries (over a 5-week period) about situations in which someone tried to influence them. The diary entries included the agent's relationship with the target, the duration of the persuasion episode, the target's goals for the interaction, and detail on what happened during the persuasion episode. Following a grounded theory methodology (Strauss and Corbin 1990), these data were coded to reflect the underlying concepts and categories in the protocols.

Based on the data, we build a conceptual framework of the target response process. This was found to include the following stages: 1) the target's interpretation of the persuasion attempt; 2) the target's actual responses to the attempt (both internal and external responses); 3) the target's evaluation of the interaction; and 4) the target's reinterpretation. The overall framework and definitions and discussion of each of these response process categories will be presented.

Analysis of the data reveals a number of factors that influence the response process. These include: the importance of the persuasion topic to the target; the relationship between the target and the agent (e.g., relative power, trust); the goals of the target (e.g., preserve relationship, behave ethically); characteristics of the situation (e.g., familiar or unfamiliar); characteristics of the target (e.g., within subject variation in strategy use over time); and the tactics used by the agent (e.g., pushy vs. nonpushy). These factors are part of the overall target response framework and we discuss how these enter into the process.

Finally, the data were also coded in terms of the specific response tactics that targets use. Some of these are themselves persuasion tactics (e.g., counterarguing, explaining) and others are more in line with coping with the persuasion attempt (e.g., keeping silent, postponing).

We have developed a theoretical target response framework following a grounded theory methodology with a subset of the data, and to test a part of the theory using content analysis methods. This paper makes a contribution to the literatures on persuasion knowledge, compliance gaining and influence, and interpersonal relations.



Patti Williams, Gavan J. Fitzsimons and Lauren G. Block

In marketing research, consumers are often asked questions about their intentions to purchase, either from a general product category ("How likely are you to purchase an automobile?") or about a specific brand ("How likely are you to purchase a Ford?"). Such questions have consistently been shown to have substantial impact upon consumers' likelihood to engage in the behaviors at question (Fitzsimons and Morwitz 1996; Fitzsimons and Williams 2000; Greenwald et al 1987; Morwitz, Johnson and Schmittlein 1993; Sherman 1980). For example, Morwitz et al. (1993) found that for both automobiles and personal computers, simply measuring participants' general category-level purchase intentions led to significantly greater levels of purchasing in the product category. However, how is it that simply asking questions, an act not necessarily intended to influence behavioral outcomes, appears to have such a significant and consistent impact on behaviors, while overt persuasion attempts such as advertisements, which are intended to directly influence behavioral outcomes, are not always so successful? Two studies were conducted to directly address this question.

In Study 1, we explicitly manipulated the perceived persuasive intent of the question being asked by varying the source of an intention question about one of two health related behaviors: flossing and eating fatty foods. For each behavior, one group (control) received no question, while a second received a question about how likely they would be to floss in the coming week (question). In addition, there were two conditions wherein the question was sponsored by an external agency. In one case (sponsored question-objective) the sponsoring agency had no selfinterest, or profit agenda, in encouraging the respondent to floss. In contrast, in the sponsored question-self-interested condition the agency had a profit agenda consistent with encouraging the respondent to floss. Results for flossing behaviors showed that the control group flossed 5.5 times in a week while those in the question condition flossed 9.9 times, replicating the basic mere-measurement effect. The sponsored question-objective source condition flossed 7.5 times, while the sponsored question-self-interested source decreased flossing behavior dramatically to only 1.7 times per week. A similar pattern of results was found among those asked intentions about eating fatty foods, however, in this case, those asked by the self-interested sponsor (with an agenda to decrease fatty food consumption) significantly increased the number of times they ate such foods above the levels reported by the control group. Manipulation checks and thought protocols show that participants in the sponsored question-self interested condition perceive the question to have a higher persuasive intent than do those in the other conditions. The results suggest that when a question is asked by a source that appears to have self-interest in the subject of the question, decision makers may adjust or override the effect of having been asked an intentions question by invoking their knowledge about persuasion attempts and persuasion tactics. Interestingly, in both cases reported above, respondents appear to have over adjusted, resulting in even lower rates of flossing, or even higher rates of eating fatty foods, than in the relevant control conditions.

Under what circumstances will such persuasion knowledge be invoked? Previous research has shown, through a process-dissociation procedure, that the mere measurement effect operates primarily via an automatic activation process rather than as a result of effortful processing (Fitzsimons and Williams 2000). In contrast, Campbell and Kirmam (2000) found that the use of persuasion knowledge required cognitive resources and thus is an effortful process. Study 2 replicates the conditions found in study 1, with the inclusion of another factor to manipulate processing resources (blink counting; Fitzsimons and Williams 2000). Results show that under conditions of divided attention, the effects of persuasion knowledge found in the first study are eliminated. As a result, when limited resources are available, even those asked questions by a self-interested sponsor do not invoke persuasion knowledge and thus respondents do not adjust their performance of the behaviors accordingly. Rather, the respondents asked about intent under divided attention report levels of the behavior similar to those in the general question conditions, compared to the control group not asked intent.

Researchers have long known that the manner in which a question is asked can influence underlying psychological processes, and, consequently, affect the response to that question (Feldman and Lynch 1988; Schwarz and Sudman 1996). Research on the "mere measurement effect" has shown that beyond affecting the response, the act of asking a question can, in and of itself, actually change the respondent's behavior. The present research extends past work to high importance behavioral contexts focused on health behaviors, and provides evidence for the psychological mechanism through which this relationship operates. Specifically, we argue that the "mere measurement" effect occurs below the level of consciousness, and that any "correction" of this automatic change in behavior only occurs in situations in which the respondent perceives that the questioner is attempting to use the question to persuade them and has significant cognitive resources available to effortfully invoke persuasion knowledge when responding to the question.



Marian Friestad and Peter Wright

The consumer research community has not been as actively involved as one might expect in the recently intensified discussion within American society on the appropriateness of marketing to youths (pre-teens; adolescents). In modern American society, "youth marketing" is rampant. Pre-teens and teenagers are increasingly targeted by marketers' campaigns, which extend beyond traditional media into schoolrooms and schoolbooks. Internet-based communication with children makes it more feasible than ever for marketers to target youngsters with a variety of marketing tactics. Youth targeted marketing of certain addictive and dangerous products has received harsh scrutiny and much public debate. The public perception is, however, that if consumer researchers participate at all in this, they do so primarily as consultants to youth marketers. This perception is also shared by a significant number of researchers in the fields of psychology and medicine. And, indeed, not much research beyond the important but limited basic studies of the 1970's has been provided by the consumer research community to inform this debate, and especially, to aid in "consulting" to targeted youths.

Recently, several scholars have urged the consumer research community to more actively study how youngsters acquire or can be taught knowledge of marketers' tactics and how such knowledge gets passed along within the social and education systems (Friestad and Wright, 1999; John, 1997, 1999; Wright, 1999.) The "Persuasion Knowledge Model" (Friestad & Wright 1994) suggested that youngsters start to develop "everyday persuasion knowledge" in middle childhood and adolescence, and that as this knowledge grows in completeness, complexity and accuracy, it serves them as a valuable resource in interpreting and coping with marketers' influence attempts.

In their ACR presentation, Friestad and Wright discussed how persuasion knowledge can be effectively taught in education programs designed for pre-teens. They describe such a program, still at the "initiative" stage, which they call PRE-EMPT-. Pre-teen Education on Marketing and Persuasion Tactics. They discussed the value of a consumer education program rooted in a detailed model of the elements of persuasion knowledge, in terms of the development of program content and assessment of gains in knowledge. They reviewed recent (post- 1994) research related to the development of persuasion knowledge, within the consumer research field and outside it. One example of this includes the burgeoning work on social metacognition. Another area reviewed concerns work on a child's 'theory of mind', i.e., how a youngster learns about the hidden psychological events in other people's minds. A third related area that was discussed is what evolutionary psychologists' conjecture about the development over generations of "Machiavellian" tendencies in human and animal populations. A fourth related area is work on media literacy. A fifth includes work on the modularity of human intelligence, including functionally specialized modules dealing with social relationship tasks. A sixth area discussed deals with the central issue of how people encode the concept of a "tactic" (e.g. advertising tactic; negotiating tactic) in memory, and the connection in lay knowledge between such a concept and the concrete verbal or visual manifestations of an intended tactic youngsters experience in daily life.


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