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Is the Purpose of Advertising to Create Cognitive Dissonance?

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Advertising deals with people's feelings and emotions. It includes understanding of the psychology of the buyer, his motives, attitudes, as well as the influences on him such as his family and reference groups, social class and culture. In order to increase the advertisements persuasiveness, advertisers use many types of extensions of behavioral sciences to marketing and buying behavior. One such extension is the theory of cognitive dissonance. The purpose of advertising can be to create a cognitive dissonance to generate a favorable response from the buyer toward a product or a concept.

The purpose of advertising

The purpose of advertising is simply to sell a product or a service. In social contexts ads have many other applications such as reducing accidents, increasing voting and reducing smoking which must be assessed instead of profit. However people do not automatically buy a product after they are exposed to an ad. First, they have thoughts or feelings about a product, and then they buy it. Advertising and other types of marketing communications directly affect consumer's mental processes. Advertising can be thought of as stimulus that produces a response or an effect. Moreover, the main objective of advertisements is to convince consumers that the alternative offered by the product provides the best chance to attain the goal.

The attitude toward the advertisement is defined "as a predisposition to respond in favorable or unfavorable manner to a particular advertising stimulus during a particular exposure occasion ". The range of feelings generated by advertisements is broad and spreads from contentment to repulsion. Those feelings can have a direct impact on brand attitudes.

It is really important for advertisers to generate a feeling that will modify the buyer's attitude toward a product. One of the strategies used by advertisers is to create a cognitive dissonance in people's mind.

What is Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Cognitive Dissonance Theory, developed by Leon Festinger (1957), is concerned with the relationships among cognitions (Festinger, 1957). In this context, cognition can be perceived as a piece of knowledge that may inscribe an element of an attitude, an emotion, a behavior, a value, and so on (Festinger, 1957). For example, the knowledge that you like the color blue is a cognition. People hold a multitude of cognitions simultaneously, and these cognitions form irrelevant, consonant or dissonant relationships with one another.

Cognitive Irrelevance probably describes the bulk of the relationships among a person's cognitions. Irrelevance simply means that the two cognitions have nothing to do with each other. Two cognitions are consonant if one cognition fits with or is consistent with the other. People like consonance among their cognitions. We do not know whether this aspect is innate or is learned, but people do prefer cognitions that fit together to those that do not. It is this simple observation that gives the theory of cognitive dissonance its interesting form. And, two cognitions are said to be dissonant or incompatible if one cognition follows from the opposite of another (Festinger, 1957). Two factors mainly affect the strength of the dissonance: the number of dissonant beliefs, and the importance attached to each belief. According to the theory, there are three ways to eliminate the dissonance. The first one consists in reducing the importance of the dissonant beliefs, the second one in adding more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs and the last one in changing beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent. The last option seems to be the most interesting for advertisers, because it gives them the opportunity to make a change in people's beliefs by creating a dissonance. This change could result in a modification of their attitudes and trigger a purchase decision, which is exactly the purpose of advertising.

The effects of fear appeals on consumers

Advertising uses many different types of appeal and a number of media to achieve a variety of goals. One of the applications of the theory of cognitive dissonance is the fear appeal. Despite the controversy on the subject, fear is an effective advertising appeal often used in marketing communications (15 per cent of all television ads) because consumers seem to remember ads which use fear appeals better than they remember ads using no emotional appeal.

Advertisers thought a few years ago that the more the fear was important; the more the desire to fight this fear was important, which led them to the conclusion that the effectiveness of the advertising message was proportional to the level of fear aroused. But some researchers have found that strong fear appeals tend to be less effective than moderate messages. Apparently, the relation between the fear and the effectiveness of the advertisement resembles an inverted U-shaped curve. If the level of fear is too important, it can provoke in the consumer mind a defense mechanism. This process can lead to avoid the advertising message, to deny the threat, or to choose or distort the message. Consumer's attitude toward an ad are important to advertisers because people who dislike an ad are likely to resist its effort to increase the favorability of their attitudes toward the product itself. If the consumer thinks a specific advertising practice is unethical or immoral, a number of unwanted outcomes can appeared in the consumer's mind, ranging from consumer indifference toward the advertising product to more serious actions such as boycotts or demands for government regulation. A famous example of this behavior was the response of consumers after Reebok broadcasted an advertisement on Bungee-jumping, in which a bungee jumper plunged into his death because he wore Nike athletic shoes instead of Reebok Pumps. Reebok attempts to suggest the superiority of the Pump athletic shoes using a joke about violent death. This ad stayed only a few times before being pulled by Reebok because of the number of consumer complaints. Therefore, advertisers should be aware and concerned about the ethical aspect of advertisements. It is necessary to take into account ethical consequences because a particular ad may deter long term objectives and create various and involuntary negative reactions to the ad and the brand.

On the other hand, strong fear appeals concerning high relevant topic cause the individual to also experience cognitive dissonance, which is resolved either by rejecting the practice or by rejecting the unwelcome information.



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