We have all been taught not to judge by appearances because our conclusions might be wrong. However, it seems we cannot help relying on appearances to draw inferences and form judgments. An innovative research endeavor by Derek D. Rucker (Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management), Richard E. Petty (Professor of Psychology at Ohio State University), and Pablo Briñol (Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid) examines the qualitative differences that message framing can have on a consumer’s judgment. Message framing is organizing and structuring a message without altering the arguments or attributes of the featured product. Rucker and his coauthors found that if an identical message is framed in two different ways, its persuasiveness can vary even though both framing methods present the same objective information.

“While I was shopping online,” explains Rucker, “I noticed that different Web sites were using different formats to report consumers’ feedback about a product.” Some Web sites (such as Epinions.com) clearly organize each consumer’s feedback into pros and cons about the product—adopting what Rucker and colleagues call two-sided framing. In contrast, other Web sites (such as Amazon.com) use one-sided framing—simply presenting user feedback without clearly structuring it into positive and negative information. (For an illustration of these formats, see Figures 1 and 2.) Consequently, two different reviews can contain substantively equivalent information but differ in how apparent it is that both positive and negative aspects of the product have been considered. While a two-sided frame makes it clear that consideration of both aspects has been encouraged, a one-sided frame lacks that emphasis.

Figure 1: Different forms of consumers’ feedback—One-sided frame

Figure 2: Different forms of consumers’ feedback—Two-sided frame

“I started to wonder if consumers were sensitive to the format of the message—if its persuasiveness could be increased by simply changing the way it was structured, without altering the objective information provided,” says Rucker. In particular, if the same substantive information about a product is provided, does it matter whether consumers perceive the message as the result of considering both positive and negative information (two-sided framing), or just one of the two sides (one-sided framing)?

Greater Customer Certainty through Framing

Rucker and his coauthors attempted to answer this question. They conducted a series of five experiments to explore the phenomenon of how a message’s persuasiveness changes as a function of the way it is framed (one-sided vs. two-sided). Moreover, the experiments unraveled the mechanism underlying this phenomenon, as well as an important consequence of framing in terms of consumers’ behavioral intentions.

In several studies, respondents were first provided with a product description (e.g., a cordless telephone, a bike, a new brand of toothpaste, a portable DVD player, or a pain reliever), which was framed as either one-sided or two-sided. Then they were asked to report how much they liked the product (“their attitude toward the product”) and how certain they felt their attitude toward the product was correct (“their attitude certainty”).

The studies consistently showed that message framing did not affect the respondents’ attitude extremity toward the product (whether respondents liked the product more or less) but did significantly influence the respondents’ attitude certainty (how confident respondents were about their judgment). In particular, a two-sided frame led to greater attitude certainty compared with a one-sided frame. That is, participants reported greater certainty in their attitudes when the message showed both the positives and negatives of the product.

Customer Perceptions of Knowledge through Framing

This phenomenon is attributed to consumers’ perception of having more knowledge about the product when they are presented with a two-sided framing, since they are less concerned that negative information might be missing. That is, when a source indicates that a product’s negative aspects have been considered, concern over whether negative information might be missing can be put aside. People will then perceive themselves to be more knowledgeable about the product, and thus feel more certain about their attitudes. When it is clear that a source has considered the negatives as well as the positives, and the negatives presented are either few and inconsequential or absent altogether, consumers tend to infer that there are probably few remaining or unknown negative attributes. Therefore they feel more confident in their positive evaluation of the message’s position. But in the absence of an explicit presentation of a product’s positive and negative aspects, people apparently do not infer that both aspects were considered. On the contrary, they tend to suspect that there might be some unknown negative attributes. They then conclude that their attitude is based on incomplete information about the product, and feel less certain about it.

Furthermore, one of the studies demonstrated that two-sided framing increases attitude-behavior correspondence. That is, participants who viewed the two-sided frame reported a greater willingness to purchase the product than those who viewed the one-sided frame, although once again the extremity of their attitudes did not differ. When individuals hold their judgments with greater certainty, those attitudes are more likely to influence and guide their actual behavior. This finding provides important insights into the role played by attitude certainty in persuasion, suggesting that it could be used to better predict consumers’ behavior.

Persuasive Messages Consider Both Sides

The authors’ research offers intriguing insights. First, it adds to our knowledge about framing effects, showing how the persuasiveness of a message can be increased by simply altering the way it is framed, even without changing the objective information provided. Second, it underlines the importance of distinguishing between attitude extremity and attitude certainty. The study of attitude certainty is a very important domain of inquiry because of the numerous consequences it bears. Attitudes held with firm certainty exert a stronger influence on behavior, are more likely to persist over time, and are more resistant to attempts to change them.

Moreover, the present research offers many practical suggestions. First, as far as the structure of Web sites’ presentation of consumer feedback is concerned, the research indicates that outlining both the positive and negative aspects of a product may help consumers reach decisions held with greater certainty. Increasing consumer certainty is more likely to inspire action, leading to increased sales. Second, it underlines how important it is for marketers to understand not only what consumers think about a product, but also how certain those consumers are in their judgments. Gaining loyal customers may not simply mean fostering positive attitudes toward a brand or product, but also creating attitudes held with high certainty. Finally, it suggests that attitude certainty should be included as a measure of the effectiveness of an ad, as it can be used as an additional measure of the effectiveness of a persuasive message.