You’re at the grocery store, scanning your phone while walking through the aisles. An article pops up about a CEO caught embezzling millions from the employee pension fund. You shake your head in disgust, then turn your attention to which ketchup to buy.

And while it seems entirely unrelated, the condiment you choose could be impacted by the news you just read.

“Witnessing a moral violation can actually change people’s product choices,” explains Ping Dong, an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School.

At work is a human need for maintaining the social order. When we see or hear about an immoral act, it feels like a breach to the social order, Dong explains. Our instinct is to try to repair that breach. One way to do so is by demonstrating our own conformity to majority opinion, which signals that violating social norms will not be tolerated.

Dong’s research looked at this phenomenon in the realm of consumer choice. She and Chen-Bo Zhong from University of Toronto find that we are more likely to buy a popular brand or product, as opposed to something that is unique, when we feel the social order has been breached.

“Witnessing these moral violations makes people want to restore the balance of the social order,” Dong says. “You want to conform to what the majority of others are doing.”

Her findings have implications for marketers honing their message for different groups of customers. Perhaps people in a state experiencing a government scandal are shown ads touting a car’s popularity, while those elsewhere see ads that suggest a vehicle will make them stand out in the crowd.

“For marketers nowadays, it’s very easy to do online targeting,” Dong says. “They can use different marketing communication strategies to consumers living in different areas.”

Conformity and Consumer Choice

It can feel like we are inundated with all manner of scandal. Think Volkswagen cheating on its emissions tests, or Wells Fargo’s creation of fake bank accounts, or any number of politicians forced to resign in disgrace

“We’re exposed almost constantly to these immoral behaviors with the popularity of smartphones and the Internet,” Dong says. “So I wondered what the consequences are.”

The researchers designed several experiments that tested whether people feel compelled to conform to majority opinion when making a choice after witnessing or reading about a moral violation.

“Witnessing a moral violation can actually change people’s product choices.”

And while choosing which sofa to buy may seem entirely unrelated to reading about corporate scandal, the researchers predicted they would find a link.

“Although endorsing a majority product obviously brings no repercussion to the original transgressor and does little to actually restore the balance of social order for consumers,” they write, “the feeling that they belong to a majority group may nevertheless signal social order and attenuate consumers’ concern about condemning and punishing moral violators.”

Morals and Magnets

In their first experiment, the researchers asked about 200 undergraduate students to read and summarize one of three articles, purportedly from The New Yorker.

One described a recent financial scandal where banks engaged in “fraudulent activities to manipulate interest rates”—which was intended to convey moral violation—while another article described the same scandal but attributed it to innocent error. The third article did not touch on scandals at all, instead discussing how natural disasters can damage economic development.

Participants were then offered a free magnet as a thank you gift. They were presented with two boxes of magnets to choose from: one was full and the other, which contained a different-colored magnet, was only one-quarter full. Participants were told that the last group of students had preferred the magnets from the emptier box, and therefore the magnets from that box appeared more popular to them.

Those who read about the manipulative bankers were far more likely to choose the “popular” magnet. Indeed, 55 percent of them did so, compared with 33 percent of those who read about the banks’ innocent error, and 38 percent who read about natural disasters.

The researchers got similar results when participants actually witnessed a transgression.

About 200 students took a test where they had to list word synonyms. They were seated in small groups and were told not to use their phones to look up answers.

Some groups were told they would be paid a small amount based on how many synonyms they individually came up with; others were told that only the person in the group who came up with the most synonyms would be paid. Afterwards, all participants were presented with the choice of magnets.

The twist: in some groups, a person posing as a participant cheated by very obviously looking up answers on Dictionary.com.

Those who had been sitting with a cheater were more likely to pick the popular magnet. And this held regardless of whether participants thought the cheating hurt their own chance of earning money.

“No matter whether you are a direct victim or you are just an observer, you are almost equally affected,” Dong says.

Mitigating Factors for Consumers

Next, the researchers wondered about circumstances that would mitigate this need to pick popular items after witnessing a moral violation.

What if, they wondered, the violator had been punished? Perhaps that would satisfy a person’s need to restore the social order and they would not feel compelled to do so themselves through their purchases.

To test this, online study participants read about a corrupt CEO. Participants were randomly assigned into three groups. In one group, participants read that the company board sued the CEO. In another, participants read that he was awarded a large bonus despite his misbehavior. In the third group, participants read about a CEO’s typical-day experience, in which no moral violations are mentioned.

“I predict that in places with higher chances of political scandals, people will be more likely to purchase more popular brands.”

Participants were then asked to fill out an ostensibly unrelated survey about brand choices. For several different products ranging from bike lights to sofas, they were shown three brands to choose from. Each of those choices was labeled as being preferred by either a large, medium, or small amount of market share.

As expected, people who read about the unpunished CEO were more likely to choose the most popular items than those who read about the punished CEO or those who read about a CEO’s typical day.

Participants were also asked how much the story felt like a threat to the social order by answering questions like “to what extent corruption would harm the order of society.” Those who read about the unpunished CEO expressed a higher perceived threat to the social order than participants in the other two groups.

Another study addressed a different mitigating factor: Would people still choose to go with the majority if the majority was itself perceived as immoral?

Participants who read about the same banking scandal as in earlier studies were then asked if they would want to join one of two book clubs: a more popular one that was made up of people in the financial industry and a less popular one made up of nonprofit employees. (A survey confirmed that participants perceived people working in finance to be less moral than those at nonprofits.)

Indeed, unlike in the other studies, those who read about corrupt banks were not more likely to choose the popular, yet morally suspect, book club.

“There are really two forces at work,” Dong explains. “One is you want to conform, and the other is you want to be moral. So when the desire to conform is actually compromised by this desire to be moral, the effect disappears.”

Lessons for Marketing Communication Strategies

These findings may help marketers customize their messages.

Perhaps a retailer is selling something in both high- and low-crime areas. Given that people in the high-crime area are more likely to be exposed to a moral violation, they may gravitate toward popular choices.

So when a customer is in a high-crime area, “you may want to stress that this is your best-selling product,” Dong says. “In lower-crime places, maybe you want to stress that your product is really unique and you can stand out by using it.”

Dong is now further testing her theory by looking at real purchase behavior. She has research underway analyzing data from national grocery chains to see if purchases change based on the prevalence of regional news coverage of moral violations such as political scandals.

“I predict,” she says, “that in places with higher chances of political scandals, people will be more likely to purchase more popular brands.”