When is controversy (not) good for building product buzz?

Aug 20, 2013

A little bit of controversy can be intriguing, but too much turns consumers off, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

"Controversial topics can make uncomfortable (since they worry about offending others) and therefore less likely to discuss them. Whether or not consumers are willing to discuss a controversial topic depends on a combination of their level of interest and comfort (or discomfort)," write authors Zoey Chen (Georgia Institute of Technology) and Jonah Berger (Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania).

Conventional wisdom has it that controversy generates more buzz, but the authors found that consumers are less likely to discuss controversial topics or brands. And some topics or brands are more controversial than others. For example, brands like Quaker Oats and Hallmark are less controversial than Marlboro and Walmart. And topics like exercise or the weather are less controversial than abortion or same-sex marriage.

The authors analyzed more than 200 articles from a news website (Topix.com) to measure how the controversy level of an article corresponded to the number of comments it received. They found that moderately controversial articles received more comments than articles that were either less or more controversial.

Then, in a series of lab experiments, the authors found that context—such as whether or not people disclose identity and whether they are talking to strangers or friends—affects comfort levels. "When is less of a concern (when people are communicating anonymously), or less threatened by the discussion of controversial topics (when communicating with friends), the importance of the discomfort factor is reduced," the authors explain.

Even though consumers may touch on controversial topics with friends (or when they're posting anonymously), companies' attempts to evoke anything more than a moderate level of controversy can backfire and end up generating less buzz.

"While negative attention can sometimes make consumers more interested in a topic, you should avoid evoking more than a moderate level of if you want to generate more word-of-mouth," the authors conclude.

Explore further: Less privileged kids shine at university, according to study

More information: Zoey Chen and Jonah Berger. "When, Why, and How Controversy Causes Conversation." Journal of Consumer Research: October 2013.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

When will a message of social responsibility backfire?

Jul 14, 2011

Consumers don't react positively to all messages of corporate social responsibility, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research. The message needs to line up with consumers' mindsets and understanding of the ...

Recommended for you

Why are UK teenagers skipping school?

Dec 18, 2014

Analysis of the results of a large-scale survey reveals the extent of truancy in English secondary schools and sheds light on the mental health of the country's teens.

Fewer lectures, more group work

Dec 18, 2014

Professor Cees van der Vleuten from Maastricht University is a Visiting Professor at Wits University who believes that learning should be student centred.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.