Misrepresentation in the Consumer Context

Jaideep Sengupta, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Darren W. Dahl, University of Manitoba
Gerald J. Gorn, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
EXTENDED ABSTRACT - It is well known that people frequently lie in the context of interpersonal communications. Research in this area suggests that a majority of such lying behavior stems from the need to reinforce self-esteem via a process of impression management (DePaulo et al. 1996; Kashy and DePaulo 1996; Turner, Edgley and Olmstead 1975). Using this basic premise, the current research seeks to extend our understanding of such behavior to a new domain; that of consumer communications. We draw upon findings from research in social psychology on lying, and research in consumer behavior on symbolic consumption. Integrating these perspectives, we suggest that lying/misrepresentation about products and possessions is particularly likely to occur when these products/possessions are used to create a positive self-image in the context of social interaction. This proposition enables us to specify likely antecedents of lying about products and possessions. Thus, the greater the communicator’s propensity towards impression management, the greater should be the likelihood of misrepresentation. Further (and somewhat less obviously), we suggest that the relative status of the communication recipient vis a vis the communicator should significantly influence lying behavior. Research on reference group influences suggests that a crucial factor which influences the salience of impression management concerns (and thus the likelihood of misrepresentation) has to do with the nature of salient referents, such s the recipient of the communication. In particular, an individual’s self-esteem can be reinforced through the ownership and conspicuous consumption of products that are typically associated with an admired person or group aspiration (i.e., aspiration group), thus enabling the individual to identify with the aspiration group (Bearden & Etzel, 1982; Lessig & Park, 1978). Since self-bolstering is a crucial antecedent of misrepresentation, we suggest that lying about a product-related aspect, such as the product price, is particularly likely to occur when doing so enables the communicator to identify with an admired and salient referent, such as the communication referent.
[ to cite ]:
Jaideep Sengupta, Darren W. Dahl, and Gerald J. Gorn (2002) ,"Misrepresentation in the Consumer Context", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 232-233.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 232-233

MISREPRESENTATION IN THE CONSUMER CONTEXT

Jaideep Sengupta, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Darren W. Dahl, University of Manitoba

Gerald J. Gorn, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

EXTENDED ABSTRACT -

It is well known that people frequently lie in the context of interpersonal communications. Research in this area suggests that a majority of such lying behavior stems from the need to reinforce self-esteem via a process of impression management (DePaulo et al. 1996; Kashy and DePaulo 1996; Turner, Edgley and Olmstead 1975). Using this basic premise, the current research seeks to extend our understanding of such behavior to a new domain; that of consumer communications. We draw upon findings from research in social psychology on lying, and research in consumer behavior on symbolic consumption. Integrating these perspectives, we suggest that lying/misrepresentation about products and possessions is particularly likely to occur when these products/possessions are used to create a positive self-image in the context of social interaction. This proposition enables us to specify likely antecedents of lying about products and possessions. Thus, the greater the communicator’s propensity towards impression management, the greater should be the likelihood of misrepresentation. Further (and somewhat less obviously), we suggest that the relative status of the communication recipient vis a vis the communicator should significantly influence lying behavior. Research on reference group influences suggests that a crucial factor which influences the salience of impression management concerns (and thus the likelihood of misrepresentation) has to do with the nature of salient referents, such s the recipient of the communication. In particular, an individual’s self-esteem can be reinforced through the ownership and conspicuous consumption of products that are typically associated with an admired person or group aspiration (i.e., aspiration group), thus enabling the individual to identify with the aspiration group (Bearden & Etzel, 1982; Lessig & Park, 1978). Since self-bolstering is a crucial antecedent of misrepresentation, we suggest that lying about a product-related aspect, such as the product price, is particularly likely to occur when doing so enables the communicator to identify with an admired and salient referent, such as the communication referent.

Drawing on these arguments, the first two experiments in this paper used a scenario method to explore consumer lying. While consumer misrepresentation can relate to various dimensions, these experiments focused on such misrepresentation in the context of communicating whether or not a product was purchased at a discount. The importance of studying this aspect of consumer communications is illustrated by research exploring word-of-mouth communication about various retail dimensions, which found that the most frequently discussed dimension related to whether products were available on deal (Higie, Feick & Price, 1987). Two types of discount-related misrepresentations were investigated; falsely reporting the regular price when the product was purchased at a discount (Experiment 1), and falsely reporting a discount price when the product was purchased at the regular price (Experiment 2). Even though these two types of misrepresentations may be thought of as being mutually opposed, our theorizing indicates that their antecedents may be quite similarBin both cases, greater misrepresentation should be observed for higher (vs. lower) impression managers; further, misrepresentation should be more likely when the communication recipient is a member of a higher-status (aspirational) group than when the recipient is from an equal-status (peer) group. Results from the two experiments were supportive of these hypotheses.

Experiment 3 was then carried out to extend our findingsBparticularly those regarding the effects of recipient statusBto a more general context than discount purchases. The notion that product features can contribute to self-image may be thought of as a specific instance of the broader proposition that possessions in general can influence self-image (Belk, 1988). Accordingly, just as people may lie about product-related aspects in order to bolster the self, such misrepresentation should also be observed for possessions that are tied closely to the self-image one wishes to portray. Specifically, an individual’s wealth has been shown to be a key contributor to his/her self-image (e.g., Mason, 1992). Thus, in accordance with the premise that misrepresentation is likely to occur in the context of communications that are related to one’s self-identity, we expect that misrepresentation may be observed in the context of wealth-related communications. As with reporting a higher price paid for a product, lying about one’s wealth can help to convey a higher socio-economic status. Therefore, people may be tempted to report a higher level of personal wealth in an attempt to identify with an aspiration group and boost their self-image. Experiment 3 was designed to test this prediction, using a direct technique (rather than the scenario method) in order to observe actual lying/misrepresentation. Again, results were consistent with predictionsBin response to a question about family wealth (that was posed in the context of various other demographic questions), participants reported a higher level of wealth when communicating with an admired (aspirational) referent as compared to a peer referent. Taken together, results from these three experiments are supportive of our underlying theoretical premise regarding the antecedents of lying behavior, and offer several interesting implications for research relating to symbolic consumption as well as consumer communications.

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