Public Release: 

Can consumers be confused into buying? Yes -- and more easily than you think

University of Chicago Press Journals

An important article from the October issue of the Journal of Consumer Research examines the effectiveness of a new confusion-based sales technique called "disrupt-then-reframe." The researchers found that by presenting a confusing sales pitch to consumers and then restating the pitch in a more familiar way, they were able to increase sales of a candy bar in a supermarket, increase students' willingness to pay to join a student interest group, and increase students' acceptance of a tuition increase.

"Although encounters between commercial sales representatives and consumers are one of the more common types of interpersonal interactions found in everyday life, relatively little research has been conducted on interpersonal influence attempts applied to commercial settings," write Frank R. Kardes (University of Cincinnati), Bob M. Fennis (University of Twente, the Netherlands), Edward R. Hirt, Zakary L. Tormala, and Brian Bullington (all of the University of Indiana).

Consumers in the study were confused with an unusual monetary request (e.g., 100 cents for a candy bar, 300 cents to join a student interest group, or 7500 cents for a tuition increase). However, the researchers found that a confusing sales pitch alone - such as one utilizing technical jargon, confusing terminology, or large and confusing product assortments - does not lead to greater consumer interest. Rather, it increases the "need for cognitive closure"; consumers will grasp for easy-to-process or unambiguous information that has direct and obvious implications for judgment and behavior.

Furthermore, the researchers found that this need for cognitive closure will cause particularly susceptible consumers to "freeze" their judgments, that is, hold them with a high degree of confidence and refrain from considering additional evidence that could potentially threaten closure.

"Most of the prior research that has been conducted on sales pitches has focused on alpha strategies, or strategies for increasing persuasion," the researchers explain. "Our research suggests that more research should focus on omega strategies, or strategies for reducing resistance to persuasion."

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Frank R. Kardes, Bob M. Fennis, Edward R. Hirt, Zakary L. Tormala, and Brian Bullington, "The Role of the Need for Cognitive Closure in the Effectiveness of the Disrupt-the-Reframe Influence Technique." Journal of Consumer Research: October 2007.

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