Expectancy-Discrepant Information: Does Format Influence Effects?

Debra L. Scammon, University of Utah
ABSTRACT - Public policy is concerned with protecting the consumer from false, deceptive, and/or misleading brand information. This concern has led to a situation where a manufacturer may be required to disclose some brand information which may be discrepant with the consumers' currently held beliefs about the brand (i.e., corrective advertising, affirmative disclosure, ad substantiation). Little is known about the effects of such expectancy-discrepant information on consumers. This study investigates three areas of potential impact of expectancy-discrepant information on consumers--consumers' brand image/comprehension, consumers' brand perception in relation to an "ideal" brand, and consumers' psychological feelings about a brand selection decision. Two information disclosure formats are studied.
[ to cite ]:
Debra L. Scammon (1978) ,"Expectancy-Discrepant Information: Does Format Influence Effects?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 145-150.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 145-150

EXPECTANCY-DISCREPANT INFORMATION: DOES FORMAT INFLUENCE EFFECTS?

Debra L. Scammon, University of Utah

[The author would like to acknowledge the guidance of Harold Kassarjian and James Bettman, UCLA who served as dissertation committee chairman for the experimental study from which this paper was excerpted. Appreciation is also expressed to Kenneth Miller, University of Utah whose comments on earlier drafts of this paper were invaluable.]

ABSTRACT -

Public policy is concerned with protecting the consumer from false, deceptive, and/or misleading brand information. This concern has led to a situation where a manufacturer may be required to disclose some brand information which may be discrepant with the consumers' currently held beliefs about the brand (i.e., corrective advertising, affirmative disclosure, ad substantiation). Little is known about the effects of such expectancy-discrepant information on consumers. This study investigates three areas of potential impact of expectancy-discrepant information on consumers--consumers' brand image/comprehension, consumers' brand perception in relation to an "ideal" brand, and consumers' psychological feelings about a brand selection decision. Two information disclosure formats are studied.

INTRODUCTION

Recently there has been extensive discussion, both in the marketing and social issues literature and in governmental hearings and meetings, regarding the appropriate role of policy-makers in consumer protection. This discussion has centered around determining the priority of issues appropriate to consumer protection programs. At the heart of much of this discussion lies the problem of availability of purchase-relevant information to the consumer and his/her use of this information in making purchase decisions. The discussion to follow focuses on one particularly crucial case of information availability, the case involving the disclosure of brand information contrary to or discrepant with the consumer's preconceived expectations about a brand. The effectiveness of two disclosure formats is compared.

PUBLIC POLICY INTEREST

The concern of policy-makers with the quality of the consumer "information environment'' [The term "information environment" is used here to denote the entire array of product-related data available to the consumer. The term is adapted from James R. Bettman, "Issues in Designing Consumer Information Environments,'' Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 2 (December 1975), pp. 169-177.] is not so much with how consumers interpret and use the information made available to them but rather whether or not purchase- relevant information is available to consumers if they want to use it in their brand choice decisions. As a result, information available about a brand may or may not be relevant to a particular consumer's decision to buy that brand. In addition, this information may or may not paint an accurate and realistic picture of the brand and its characteristics, i.e., the information may be false, deceptive, and/or nonexistent. Upon search for and consideration of brand information, consumers may find themselves in any of four situations:

1. They find they have no prior knowledge about the brand and thus no prior expectations about its contents, quality, performance, etc.

2. They find they have accurate and sufficient knowledge and expectations about the brand and need no further information to confirm their beliefs.

3. They find they have roughly accurate knowledge and expectations about the brand, but desire further confirmation to increase their confidence in their brand evaluations.

4. They find they have inaccurate knowledge and information about the brand and need new information to point out this discrepancy and convey and accurate facts about the brand.

The second situation, where consumers have accurate and sufficient product information, may be the ideal from a consumer protection point of view. However, advertisers often find themselves facing consumers in either the third situation for established products where consumers have accurate but insufficient information to make a decision or the first situation for new products where consumers have insufficient information to make a decision. Thus, in some cases, for their own best interests, commercial sources can be expected to "fulfill" consumers' information needs. The issue of strict availability of information to consumers is obviously important then in the first and third cases above. The Nutrition Advertising Rule (39 Fed. Reg. 39482, 1974) and other affirmative disclosure actions have been proposed to assure the availability to the consumer of purchase-relevant facts when insufficient information or no data have previously been available to consumers.

However, it is in the fourth situation, where misinformation abounds, that public policy should place its regulatory emphasis. To correct erroneous product conceptions necessarily involves the disclosure of new information. For those consumers who have formed their product beliefs and/or brand comprehension on earlier inaccurate information, this new information is likely to be discrepant with their expectations about the brand. In this situation, the minimization of consumer deception and/or consumer biases founded on incorrect information can come from the discovery of the most effective way of correcting erroneous perceptions, images and/or product knowledge.

Effects on Consumers of Disconfirmation of Expectations

Studying the effects of disconfirmed expectations on consumers' product evaluations has been of interest from a marketing management point of view in attempting to maximize customer satisfaction with a product. Past research has used four theoretical models to predict the effects on product evaluations and customer satisfaction of discrepancies between expectations and actual or objective product performance:

1. Cognitive dissonance theory would suggest any discrepancy between actual and expected performance would be minimized by the consumer by adjustment of his perception of the product's performance to be more in line with his expectations of its performance, thus resulting in satisfaction.

2. Contrast theory suggests the consumer will magnify any discrepancy in performance between expectation and reality and will experience dissatisfaction with the actual performance.

3. Generalized negativity theory suggests that any discrepancy between expectation and reality will result in a negative evaluation of the product and a dissatisfied consumer.

4. Assimilation-contrast theory suggests that if the disparity between expectation and reality is small the consumer will assimilate the difference by perceiving the product's performance in line with his expectations. However, if the disparity is large the consumer will contrast or magnify the perceived disparity. Thus, a discrepancy could result in either a satisfied or a dissatisfied consumer.

Studies using these four theoretical models as bases for investigation have concluded that brand claims should not be overly exaggerated nor overly understated but rather, should be consistent with the actual attributes, quality, and performance of the brand. This honesty about the brand appears to create a high level of customer satisfaction with the brand once it is "experienced" (Anderson, 1973; Cardozo, 1965; Olshavsky and Miller, 1972).

An equally important question is how exposure to expectancy-discrepant information (other than experiential information) effects consumers' brand evaluations and subsequent satisfaction with the brand. Consumer protection legislation may involve requiring advertisers to give consumers information which is discrepant with consumers' current beliefs and expectations (especially through the use of remedies such as corrective advertising). In fact, it could be argued that there is little need for policy makers to be concerned with giving consumers information consistent with their current knowledge and beliefs if these are accurate.

When consumers have been given false or deceptive brand information, public policy may require the dissemination of information to correct any misconceptions based on the previously inaccurate information (i.e., corrective advertising). In effect, policy may require that consumers be given information disconfirming the expectations about a brand created through previous communication of false or deceptive information. Of interest then are the effects on consumers' brand evaluations of information deliberately designed to disconfirm their expectations. Exposure to such information could cause several quite different effects. Consumers could:

1. Believe the new information and change their attitude toward or perception of the brand.

2. Not believe the new information, mentally reject it, and continue believing what they had previously believed.

3. Not believe the new information but be curious about the discrepancy and seek further information to clarify the confusing situation.

4. Become confused and uncomfortable, not knowing what to believe (Maloney, 1962).

These possible reactions differ in their desirability from the point of view of the public policy objective underlying the information disclosure requirement. Thus, they have very different implications for public policy formulation. It is therefore critical to determine which reaction is the most likely response and whether the format of the disclosure influences the response.

A TEST OF THE EFFECTS OF TWO FORMATS FOR THE DISCLOSURE OF EXPECTANCY-DISCREPANT INFORMATION

The Experimental Design

Past research on information processing suggests that the degree to which new information is perceived as discrepant with currently held beliefs might be influenced both by the amount of new (discrepant) information presented and by the format of that information, i.e., its complexity/simplicity (Jacoby, et. al., 1974a,b; Russo, 1975).

As part of a more extensive investigation of the effects of amount and format of information on consumers' product evaluations, an experiment was designed in which respondents were assigned to groups receiving different amounts of purchase-relevant information in different formats (Scammon, 1976). The proposed Trade Regulation Rule on Nutrition Advertising (39 Fed. Reg. 39482, 1974) provided an appropriate framework for this analysis since its guidelines suggested different disclosure formats (%Recommended Daily Allowance or adjectival descriptions of the nutrient content) and several amounts of information (zero, four, or eight nutrients) which advertisers might be required to use when presenting nutrition claims about their products.

It was necessary to be able to introduce information discrepant with preconceived notions about the test brands. To do this, two brands of peanut butter (Skippy Peanut Butter and Koogle Peanut Butter Surprise) were selected. Skippy was significantly more well known than was Koogle and Skippy had a well established image in the minds of consumers. Skippy was rated significantly more well-known, more wholesome, and higher on nutrition value than was Koogle by a control group receiving no nutrition information on either brand (see Table 1).

TABLE 1

BRAND IMAGE PROFILES MEAN RATINGS OF BRANDS ON SELECTED ATTRIBUTES

To maximize the possibility of image change, during the experiment Skippy was portrayed as the "nutritionally inferior" brand, an image discrepant with the one revealed by the control group. The information on Koogle was left unmodified so it was not discrepant with Koogle's current image.

The nutrition information was presented to respondents in 30-second color commercials for the two brands which had been modified by superimposing replicas of nutrition labels with the appropriate formats (% RDA or adjectival descriptions) and amounts (zero, four, or eight nutrients) of nutrition information over the last six seconds of the commercials as proscribed in the Nutrition Advertising Rule (see Figure 1).

FIGURE 1

SAMPLE DISCLOSURE FORMATS

The Experimental Procedure

Subjects were selected on a quota basis from a group of California residents and tourists participating in a commercial television pilot preview test. During the preview test data were gathered on demographic and socioeconomic variables as well as frequency of purchase, importance of, and last brand purchased of peanut butter. Twelve subjects at a time were asked to stay after the preview to participate in a focus group interview. During this interview they were shown three 30-second commercials -- a control commercial, then the two test commercials (the test commercials were reversed in presentation order during 1/2 of the sessions to guard against any order bias). After exposure to the commercials, subjects responded to a short questionnaire regarding the test commercials including questions about their brand choices and brand preference, their images of the test brands, and their feelings about the decision situation. These responses were analyzed by comparing groups exposed to the information in the two different formats. Where appropriate, the responses were analyzed separately for Skippy (expectancy-discrepant condition) and for Koogle (non-discrepant condition).

Following the experiment, subjects were debriefed. Subjects were given a letter explaining the use of false brand information and giving subjects the real brand data.

The findings reported below and their implications for public policy are discussed in the context of a situation where consumers currently have inaccurate information which needs to be corrected before they can make accurate brand choice decisions. The major concern is with finding an effective method for communicating expectancy-discrepant information in such a manner that consumers come away with accurate brand perceptions. Secondarily, interest is in discovering how consumers deal with this discrepant information, i.e. how they feel about their decision situation and their information environment.

FINDINGS AND PUBLIC POLICY IMPLICATIONS FROM THE STUDY

Assuming one major role of public policy in protecting consumers is to point out areas where consumers' product knowledge is either insufficient or inaccurate, data from this study indicate adjectival descriptions communicate more effectively with consumers than do percentage contents data.

The More Nutritious Brand

After exposure to nutrition information in one of the two test formats (percentage RDA or adjectival descriptions), subjects were asked to identify the "more nutritious" brand in order to judge the communications effectiveness of the disclosures. An overall chi-square test of the difference between the observed and expected experimental cell frequencies for those subjects choosing each brand as the "more nutritious" one revealed a significant difference between groups exposed to the two different information formats regardless of the amount of information they were exposed to (Tables 2 and 3). Examination of the data suggests that the adjective format is superior to the percentage format in helping respondents identify the "more nutritious" brand.

TABLE 2

PERCENTAGE OF RESPONDENTS CHOOSING EACH BRAND AS "MORE NUTRITIOUS"

TABLE 3

CHI-SQUARE ANALYSIS OF RESPONDENTS CHOOSING EACH BRAND AS "MORE NUTRITIOUS" AFTER RECEIVING NUTRITION INFORMATION IN VARIOUS FORMATS

Brand Image In Relation to an Ideal Brand

After exposure to the nutrition information, subjects were queried regarding the perceived distance of each of the test brands from their "ideal" brand. Subjects were simply asked to indicate how close each of the test brands was to their "ideal" brand on an overall basis rather than attribute by attribute, the method that has been used in several past studies (Jacoby, Speller, and Kohn, 1974a, b). Theoretically, if nutrition is an important attribute and a brand is perceived as nutritious, it should be rated as "close to" the ideal. Conversely, the "less nutritious" brand should be seen as "far from" the ideal. Thus, it was expected that, following exposure to the most effective format for the nutrition information, Koogle would be seen as closer to the ideal and Skippy as further from the ideal. It appeared that for Koogle, the unknown brand for which the information presented to subjects was not discrepant with pre-exposure knowledge, the nutrition information neither moved the brand closer to nor further from the ideal brand no matter what the format of the information. Analysis of variance of the mean perceived distance scores between groups revealed a non-significant main effect for format (Tables 4 and 5).

TABLE 4

PERCEIVED DISTANCE OF KOOGLE FROM IDEAL BRAND

TABLE 5

ANALYSIS OF VARIANCE OF PERCEIVED DISTANCE OF KOOGLE FROM IDEAL BRAND

However, the information presented to respondents on Skippy, the well-known brand, disconfirmed subjects' preconceived notions and/or expectations about the brand. Respondents entered the experiment with a strong pre-exposure preference for Skippy. [Using the responses of subjects in the control group that saw no commercial messages as surrogate indicators for the experimental groups' pre-exposure brand evaluations showed 93.7% of the respondents preferred Skippy over Koogle.] The disclosure information portrayed Skippy as a "less valuable" product than subjects had expected. Analysis of variance of the mean perceived distance score of Skippy from the "ideal" brand revealed a significant difference between groups exposed to the two different information formats regardless of the amount of information they were exposed to. Skippy was perceived as further from the "ideal" by those exposed to adjectival information than by those who saw percentage information (Tables 6 and 7).

TABLE 6

PERCEIVED DISTANCE OF SKIPPY FROM IDEAL BRAND

TABLE 7

ANALYSIS OF VARIANCE OF PERCEIVED DISTANCE OF SKIPPY FROM IDEAL BRAND

These data suggest that the FTC and other regulatory agencies may want to develop different information disclosure requirements for new and for established products. However, in recommending the use of adjectival disclosures, the regulatory agencies must be cautious that their proscriptions and remedies are not punitive in nature. The danger with using adjectival disclosures is that they appear to facilitate downward evaluations of products.

Consumers' Psychological Feelings

A related problem arises when considering the effects of expectancy-discrepant information (i.e., disclosures designed to correct an erroneous perception of a well-known brand) on consumers' subjective-psychological feelings. How can consumers be expected to deal with the resulting conflict, discomfort and dissatisfaction? Will they abandon any thoughts of purchase of the brand described? will they continue buying the brand they have always bought? Will they stop buying that type of product altogether assuming one brand is just like the others? Or will they seek additional information to quiet their discomfort and dissatisfaction?

Subjects in this test were asked to indicate whether they preferred Skippy or Koogle. They then were asked to rate their certainty regarding their choice, their confusion during the decision-making process, their satisfaction with their decision, and their desire for more information. These ratings were on 5-point scales with 1 representing the most positive response.

By comparing the experimental groups on their mean scores on these subjective state scales, analysis of variance revealed significant differences for satisfaction and desire for more information (Tables 8 and 9) between the groups exposed to the two different formats.

TABLE 8

MEAN SUBJECTIVE STATE SCORES

TABLE 9

SUMMARY OF THE SIGNIFICANT EFFECTS OF INFORMATION ON RESPONDENTS' SUBJECTIVE STATES AS REVEALED BY ANALYSIS OF VARIANCE

The data from this study suggest that those respondents receiving adjectival disclosures are less satisfied with their choices than are those receiving percentage disclosures. This decreased satisfaction appears to result in a desire for more additional information, probably to clarify the discrepancy evident between the new information and prior brand expectations. If this desire for additional information leads to actual search for information, it may not be too unreasonable to expect consumers to seek additional information. Consumers may look for information to "validate" the adjectival labels attached to various products. Once validated, these labels might be used with more confidence in the future.

SUMMARY

In designing legislation and judicial remedies to protect consumers, major concern of policy makers lies in the prevention of deception or the correction of images based on deceptive or misleading information. Both of these objectives can be obtained through communication of the true facts about brands on the market. Policy may thus require the communication of information discrepant with commonly held beliefs about a brand.

This study attempted to determine which of two alternative information disclosure formats would be most effective in communicating expectancy-discrepant information to consumers. The data indicate that an adjectival format is superior to a percentage format in helping respondents identify the "more nutritious" brand, in increasing the perceived distance between the "less nutritious" brand and the "ideal" brand, and in creating a lower level of satisfaction with the chosen brand which appears to be related to a desire for more information. It appears that with respect to the effects hypothesized in this study, exposure to expectancy-discrepant information may cause consumers to reevaluate their attitudes toward a brand or, at least, desire further information to clarify the discrepancy revealed. Both of these effects are desirable from a consumer protection point of view when considering a situation where currently held consumer beliefs are based on erroneous information.

Further research is needed to evaluate the effects of expectancy-discrepant information on consumers and to evaluate the impact of adjectival descriptors over time.

REFERENCES

Rolph E. Anderson, "Consumer Dissatisfaction: The Effect of Disconfirmed Expectancy on Perceived Product Performance," Journal of Marketing Research, 10 (February, 1973), 38-44.

James R. Bettman, "Issues in Designing Consumer Information Environments," Journal of Consumer Research, 2 (December, 1975), 169-177.

Richard N. Cardozo, "An Experimental Study of Customer Effort, Expectation and Satisfaction," Journal of Marketing Research, 2 (August, 1965), 244-249.

Jacob Jacoby, Donald E. Speller, and Carol A. Kohn, "Brand Choice Behavior as a Function of Information Load," Journal of Marketing Research, 11 (February, 1974 a), 63-69.

Jacob Jacoby, Donald E. Speller, and Carol A. Kohn, "Brand Choice Behavior as a Function of Information Load: Replication and Extension," Journal of Consumer Research, 1 (June, 1974b), 33-42.

J. C. Maloney, "Curiosity Versus Disbelief in Advertising,'' Journal of Advertising Research, 2 (June, 1962), 2-8.

Nutrition Advertising Rule. 39 Red. Reg. 39482, 1974.

Richard W. Olshavsky and John A. Miller, "Consumer Expectations, Product Performance and Perceived Product quality," Journal of Marketing Research, 9 (February, 1972), 19-21.

J. E. Russo, "More Information is Better: A Reevaluation of Jacoby, Speller and Kohn," Journal of Consumer Research, 1 (January, 1975), 68-72.

J. E. Russo, G. Krieser, and S. Miyashita, "An Effective Display of Unit Price Information," Journal of Marketing, 39 (April, 1975), 11-19.

Debra L. Scammon, "The Effects on Consumers of Varying the Amount and Format of Purchase Relevant Information," unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 1976.

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