Seeking Pleasure? Or Avoiding Pain?
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Marketing Apr 6, 2007

Seeking Pleasure? Or Avoiding Pain?

It all depends upon how customers view themselves

Based on the research of

Jennifer L. Aaker

Angela Y. Lee

Will your customers respond more strongly to advertising that promises fun, happiness and prosperity? Or will an ad stressing the avoidance of illness or hardship be a better sell?

The answer depends on how your customers see themselves, says Kellogg Marketing Professor Angela Lee. Those who define themselves as individuals - for example, stereotypical Americans -probably will respond more to ads that promise greater enjoyment in life.

Those who see themselves primarily as members of a larger group - for example, people in East Asian cultures - tend to pay more attention to ads suggesting a product will help them avoid a negative fate.

“In the United States, we tend to focus on ‘self-enhancement,’” notes Lee, who investigates the impact of cultural differences on consumer behavior. “We want to better ourselves.

“But in China and other East Asian countries, people tend to see themselves as part of a larger group. It is a more self-critical culture, and people focus more on responsibilities, obligations and security.”

For the Chinese and others with this “interdependent self-view,” membership in the group takes precedence over individual achievement. Therefore, they will respond most strongly to threats to their ability to interact with the group.

They are also more risk-averse, Lee notes, and more influenced by ads that focus on avoiding undesirable outcomes. Ads with a “prevention focus” - those that promise to spare the customer from negative consequences such as disease or danger - appeal more strongly, in general, to those with this view.

Lee says marketers can increase their effectiveness by ensuring that ads appeal to their desired audience’s self-view.

“We pay more attention to what is relevant to us,” says Lee, who published her findings with co-researcher Jennifer L. Aaker of Stanford University in a June 2001 article in the Journal of Consumer Research.

A North American audience in Lee’s study, for example, responded more favorably to sample ads for a tennis racket when these ads stressed the glory of winning a tournament. A Chinese audience, meanwhile, was more persuaded by messages stressing the importance of not losing the tournament.

But self-view can be manipulated, Lee adds, through “priming” - the practice of exposing customers to stimuli that lead them to think about themselves or others in a certain way.

In Lee’s study, for example, the Chinese audiences were read a statement encouraging them to think of their individual interests. They were told they were about to play a championship tennis match and had the chance to bring home a large trophy for themselves.

The North American study subjects, meanwhile, were told their team’s hopes rested on their performance in the match, thus priming them to think in a more interdependent way.

Afterward, the typical Chinese response to the tennis-racket ad reflected a desire to seek a positive outcome, while the North American subjects responded more warmly to advertising that played to their desire to avoid a negative result.

“The notion that people with an independent self-view seek out pleasures while those with an interdependent self view avoid pains helps explain why different people adopt different strategies to achieve their goals,” Lee says.

“What makes it even more interesting is the fact that the way we look at ourselves is not fixed. We are very adaptive and can project ourselves in a different light as the situation changes.”

Featured Faculty

Mechthild Esser Nemmers Professor of Marketing; Faculty Director, Golub Capital Social Impact Lab

About the Writer
Rebecca Lindell, staff writer for the Kellogg School of Management. Article featured originally in Kellogg World, Spring 2002
About the Research
Aaker, Jennifer L. and Angela Y. Lee (2001), "I Seek Pleasures and We Avoid Pains: The Role of Self Regulatory Goals in Information Processing and Persuasion," Journal of Consumer Research, 28 (June), 33-49.
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