We get what we deserve — or do we? Researchers study the impact of ‘deserving’ ads

There’s a photo on Carolyn Hafer’s computer of a muscular hand raising a beer bottle to a bearded face. The caption reads, “For a hard earned thirst.”

“This is a popular beer ad in Australia,” explains the Brock University Psychology professor. “The ad shows guys enjoying a beer after working really hard.”

Hafer researches how and why people need to believe in a ‘just world,’ or a world in which people get what they deserve — either rewards or punishments. So campaigns like Victoria Bitter’s beer in Australia, L’Oreal’s ‘I’m Worth It’ and McDonald’s ‘You deserve a break today’ caught her eye.

“I actually started noticing that there were a lot of ads that mentioned the word ‘deservingness’. That was intriguing to me because I usually look at deservingness in a totally different context than consumer behaviour.”

To explore whether or not people respond to deservingness-based advertising, Hafer teamed up with Antonia Mantonakis, associate professor in the Goodman School of Business, Health Sciences professor Tony Bogaert and MBA student Regan Fitzgerald, who helped conduct the work while she was still an undergraduate student.

Their study, The Effectiveness of Deservingness-Based Advertising Messages: The Role of Product Knowledge and Belief in a Just World, was published last month in the Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences.

The researchers carried out two experiments. In the first, they showed 204 participants three different ads for a fictional wine called Escarpment Vineyards. One ad stressed the wine’s positive health benefits, another touted the wine’s “velvety texture and bountiful aroma” while the third enticed consumers to buy the product because “you deserve the best wine and we’ve made it for you.”

“We measured how much they liked the product, how likely they were to buy the product and how much effort they would put into going out and buying this product,” says Hafer.

In the second experiment, the researchers repeated a similar exercise with a bottled water product, but gave participants the option of buying a water sample at the end of the session. This was designed to measure participants’ actual purchasing behaviour.

During both experiments, participants also filled out “Belief in a Just World” scales that measured their perceptions of how fair they think the world is.

The researchers found that the deservingness-based ads overall were at least as effective as the other two types of ads, which contained utilitarian (useful) or hedonic (appealing to the senses) messaging.

Participants who scored highly on the “just world” scale — those who believe people get what they deserve in life — responded the best to the deservingness-based ads.

But deservingness-based ads were least effective among those who were most familiar with the product, the researchers found.

Hafer says these ads are less effective on people who have a lot of knowledge about the product, like wine connoisseurs.

“Which makes total sense, because a wine connoisseur doesn’t care about being told whether they deserve it or not. They care about the aroma, the bouquet, all these intrinsic features.”

Although people may vary in the degree to which they think the world is a just place, the belief in a just world is fairly universal, says Hafer.

“There’s probably an underlying motive in everyone to some extent to want to see the world as a place where people get what they deserve, or else it would be hard to make it through your day.”

People who are religious tend to score higher on scales that measure “just world” beliefs, she says.

Those who believe they deserve good things because of their accomplishments, character, behaviours such as hard work or any other attributes tend to have high self-esteem, with narcissists in the extreme, she says.

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