Seeking Pleasure? Or Avoiding Pain?
Skip to content
Podcast | Insight Unpacked Season 1: Extraordinary Brands and How to Build Them
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;

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.
Most Popular This Week
  1. Your Team Doesn’t Need You to Be the Hero
    Too many leaders instinctively try to fix a crisis themselves. A U.S. Army colonel explains how to curb this tendency in yourself and allow your teams to flourish.
    person with red cape trying to put out fire while firefighters stand by.
  2. What Triggers a Career Hot Streak?
    New research reveals a recipe for success.
    Collage of sculptor's work culminating in Artist of the Year recognition
  3. What’s the Secret to Successful Innovation?
    Hint: it’s not the product itself.
    standing woman speaking with man seated on stool
  4. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  5. How Much Do Campaign Ads Matter?
    Tone is key, according to new research, which found that a change in TV ad strategy could have altered the results of the 2000 presidential election.
    Political advertisements on television next to polling place
  6. What Went Wrong with FTX—and What’s Next for Crypto?
    One key issue will be introducing regulation without strangling innovation, a fintech expert explains.
    stock trader surrounded by computer monitors
  7. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  8. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  9. How Experts Make Complex Decisions
    By studying 200 million chess moves, researchers shed light on what gives players an advantage—and what trips them up.
    two people playing chess
  10. Yes, Consumers Care if Your Product Is Ethical
    New research shows that morality matters—but it’s in the eye of the beholder.
    woman chooses organic lettuce in grocery
  11. Why Well-Meaning NGOs Sometimes Do More Harm than Good
    Studies of aid groups in Ghana and Uganda show why it’s so important to coordinate with local governments and institutions.
    To succeed, foreign aid and health programs need buy-in and coordination with local partners.
  12. Product Q&A Forums Hold a Lot of Promise. Here’s How to Make Them Work.
    The key to these online communities, where users can ask and answer questions, is how many questions get useful answers.
    man sits at computer reading Q&A forum
  13. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  14. When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?
    A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
    How immigration affects the economy depends on taxation and worker skills.
  15. What the New Climate Bill Means for the U.S.—and the World
    The Inflation Reduction Act won’t reverse inflation or halt climate change, but it's still a big deal.
    energy bill with solar panels wind turbines and pipelines
  16. Post-War Reconstruction Is a Good Investment
    Ukraine’s European neighbors will need to make a major financial commitment to help rebuild its economy after the war. Fortunately, as the legacy of the post–World War II Marshall Plan shows, investing in Ukraine's future will also serve Europe's own long-term interests.
    two people look out over a city
  17. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  18. The Political Divide in America Goes Beyond Polarization and Tribalism
    These days, political identity functions a lot like religious identity.
    people engage in conflict with swords
More in Marketing