While listening to your favorite political podcast, you hear an ad from a company that designs effective websites for businesses. Later, when you pull up an episode of a hit true crime podcast, you learn about a meal-kit service that promises mouthwatering dinners.
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These ads may seem unrelated to the shows’ content—and they are. But the strategy behind their placement is sound, according to research from Ping Dong and Aparna Labroo of the Kellogg School. In a new study, the researchers found that when consumers are thinking about politics, they are drawn to products they view as utilitarian rather than pleasurable.
That may come as a surprise to anyone who’s reached for a beer after a disappointing electoral outcome. But across several experiments, and an analysis of real podcast advertisements, it turned out that exposure to such information prompted a yearning for responsible governance—which in turn leads to a tendency to make more prudent consumer choices.
“A desire for the government to do things in a more responsible manner translates into higher-order goals for the consumer, herself, to be responsible in her actions,” explains Labroo, a professor of marketing.
Dong, an assistant professor of marketing, adds: “The reason is the more people think the political system is irresponsible, the more the desire to see the government be responsible is activated, and therefore, the more the consumer’s own goal is also activated.”
Thus, the more you fret about the state of the government, the more spartan your shopping cart might be.
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American political advertising and news coverage generally reaches a fever pitch on the day of a presidential election.
In 2016, Dong and Labroo used that frenzy to their advantage to conduct the first of several experiments. They solicited Americans online to answer a series of questions—either on Election Day, a month before Election Day, or a month after.
Participants were presented with two advertising concepts for a new beverage. One ad highlighted the pleasurable—or more “hedonic”—aspect of the drink: its delicious taste. The other touted something more utilitarian: the energy the beverage would provide. Participants rated on a scale from one to seven which ad they found most effective. A higher rating indicated a greater preference for the utilitarian pitch. (They also answered questions about their mood, political affiliation, and political involvement.)
Both before and after the election, participants found the utilitarian ad more persuasive than the hedonic one, ranking its effectiveness at about 4.8. But the rating crept even higher, to an average of 5.2, on Election Day, when political information is difficult to escape.
Political Cues and Consumer Choice
The researchers wanted to be sure that it was the exposure to political cues around Election Day that was driving subjects’ preference for utilitarian products. So they repeated the ad-comparison study with several adjustments.
In one, rather than using a real-world election as the source of political cues, they had online study participants look at a picture identified as either a Republican senator, a Democratic senator, or an average American. The study subjects then completed the same ad comparison task. They also ranked on a scale from one to five how much they believe politicians are wasteful.
“A desire for the government to do things in a more responsible manner translates into higher-order goals for the consumer, herself, to be responsible in her actions.”
— Aparna Labroo
The politically cued participants were more drawn to the utilitarian ad (rating its effectiveness at 4.39, on average) than those who looked at an image of an average American (who rated it an average of 3.95). And it didn’t matter whether participants had looked at a picture of a Republican or a Democratic senator, the researchers discovered. Simply seeing a politician was enough to change their rating.
What’s more, among politically cued participants, the more they believed politicians are wasteful, the more they favored the utilitarian ad. And in another, similar experiment, explicitly answering questions about responsible governance before rather than after comparing ads pushed participants to favor utilitarian ads. These results strengthened the researchers’ belief that the preference for utilitarian products comes from a desire for responsible governance.
Assessing Advertising Strategy in Podcasts
But how does the influence of political cues on consumer choice play out in the real world? To see the effects in the wild, the researchers looked to the popular genre of political podcasts.
Jessica Gamlin, a doctoral candidate at the Kellogg School and the lead author of the study, is a regular listener to political podcasts. She was intrigued by the ads she heard. “You hear them coming at different intervals on different podcasts, and sometimes you hear the same things over and over again,” she says. “I was curious about why advertisers were choosing these different podcasts to advertise on in different quantities.”
The team assigned two research assistants to listen to episodes from the top-ranked podcasts from both the “Politics & News” and “Culture & Society” genres in the Apple iTunes store.
The research assistants coded ads based on whether they took a utilitarian or hedonic approach to selling the product. (Gamlin notes that the assistants were instructed to focus on the advertising strategy, not the product: “Is the mattress being advertised based on its functionality and how it will improve your chronic back pain? Or is it something more hedonic, like ‘Think about the softness and the pleasure of sleeping on this mattress’?”) They also controlled for factors such as length of show, length of ad, and political leaning of the podcast itself.
The team’s analysis revealed that, whether advertisers are conscious of it or not, they seem to understand that political shows provide a better audience for products advertised in a utilitarian manner. In fact, 73.9 percent of ads during political podcasts were utilitarian in nature, compared to 44.6 percent of ads on nonpolitical podcasts.
“It was really exciting to see that, either knowingly or unknowingly, marketers seem to be matching the kind of podcasts, and the goals consumers listening to those podcasts might have, with the kind of products that they’re trying to advertise,” Labroo says.
A Desire for Better Governance
For the researchers, there was another surprising and heartening takeaway from the research: survey responses from several of their experiments revealed that, across ideologies and political affiliations, Americans want to see better governance.
“Among all these messages of divisiveness within the political system in the U.S., what unites us is that we do have these aspirations for better governance and a more responsible system, irrespective of who the leadership is,” Gamlin says.
Labroo agrees. “That’s actually a very positive message: We want the system to do better. We want the country to do better and we see our goals linked with it, and that’s something that drives us forward.”
Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.
Gamlin, Jessica, Ping Dong, Aparna Labroo, and Aaron Robinson. Forthcoming. "Evoking Goals to Be Responsible: When Political Cues Increase Utilitarian Choice." Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.
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