Science is only now catching up with the late 1970s wisdom of Herbert “Herb” Ruggles Tarlek, Jr.
During one episode, Herb, the outrageously dressed salesthingy on the awesome television series, WKRP in Cincinnati, proclaims that tasteless sells. That’s why he’s so good at advertising.
USA Today reports a five-year study to be released Tuesday by Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business found that, again and again, advertisements that try to simply "scare" consumers into actions — such as buying protective sunscreens or avoiding dangerous drugs — are far less effective than ads that also "disgust" consumers into taking the action. The best way to elicit disgust: Display totally gross images (see our infosheets).
"If you really want to get people to act, disgust is much more powerful than fear," says Andrea Morales, an associate marketing professor at Arizona State University who oversaw the study to be published in the June issue of the Journal of Marketing Research. "It may seem counterintuitive, but it works."
Perhaps that’s why consumers have seen a recent slew of commercials with high gross-out factors.
A TV spot from the New York City Department of Health featured images of a soft drink turning into gobs of fat as a guy gulps it down. (Department officials say sugar-rich beverage consumption dropped 12% after the campaign.) A recent Febreze TV spot shows blindfolded volunteers sitting in an ultra-filthy room — but fooled into thinking that they smell something pleasant, thanks to the household odor killer. And a commercial for Colgate Total toothpaste shows a mouthful of icky-looking germs.
From 2006 to 2011, Morales and her colleagues oversaw five different studies. In each case, ads with the highest gross-out factor elicited far more cases of viewer willingness to take action than those without.
In one study, 155 undergraduate students viewed an anti-methamphetamine print ad showing a young man whose face is covered with open sores. It scored far more consumer interest than an ad with the same written copy, but which replaced the photo of the pock-marked young man with one of a coffin.
While consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow agrees with the premise — disgust attracts attention — she’s not sure it always works. "Disgust is a hard-wired self-preservation emotion designed to keep us from doing things like eating spoiled food," she says. But, she asks, "Will our protective reaction against assaults of any kind cause us to avoid paying any attention to the ad?"