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Associate Professor Derek D. Rucker

Sandy & Morton Goldman Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies in Marketing Derek Rucker

Fatigue and consumer certainty

Research by Associate Professor Derek D. Rucker suggests that tired consumers are more receptive to advertising and likelier to buy


8/19/2009 - Advertisers grapple with reaching consumers with the right brand messages at the right time, even when economic times are good. Delivering effective advertising becomes even more critical during an economic downturn, when the impact of marketing dollars must be maximized.

While conventional wisdom might suggest that advertisers should try to reach consumers when they have their full faculties available — and not when they are tired and fatigued — new research in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Marketing Research suggests this might not be the case. In particular, during times of the day when consumers are tired or worn out, exposure to advertising can strengthen the confidence consumers have about their attitudes about an advertised brand — and those with positive feelings might be more inclined to make a purchase.

The research was conducted by Derek D. Rucker, associate professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, in conjunction with Echo Wen Wan, assistant professor of marketing at the School of Business, University of Hong Kong; Zakary L. Tormala, associate professor of marketing at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University; and Joshua J. Clarkson, post-doctoral fellow at the University of Florida.

According to the researchers, the state of feeling tired or run down when exposed to advertising messages is called “regulatory depletion.” In this new research, Rucker and his co-authors explored whether a state of being depleted might have an effect on the amount of certainty or confidence consumers have in their attitudes toward a particular ad or product.

“Consumers often need to exert substantial psychological resources to manage work-related stress, control impulsive spending, and handle financial anxiety,” said Rucker. “Undoubtedly, this tires them out. Prior research has suggested that this state of depletion can make a consumer easier to persuade by advertising. In this new research, however, we tested the idea that when people are depleted but are able to process information anyway, the depletion leads them to feel as if they have been more thorough. We found that consumers indeed feel as if they are more thoughtful in their processing when depleted and, as a result, become more firm and confident in their beliefs – positive or negative. Furthermore, this greater confidence can have a direct impact on their likelihood to make a purchase.”

To test their theory, the authors conducted three experiments in which research participants were first put into depleted or non-depleted states, and then asked to carefully attend to advertisements about a cracker snack and toothpaste. Participants noted their attitude and their attitude certainty toward the advertised product, and indicated their decision of whether or not they would buy the product. The researchers found a surprising and previously unknown effect of feeling depleted. While both groups came to similar opinions about an advertised product, the depleted consumers were more certain about their attitudes. Furthermore, those with positive outlooks had an increased desire to buy a product as a result of this increased certainty.

“This indicates that consumers might have the perception of having engaged in deeper processing of advertising messages when they are feeling depleted. This has important implications for marketers, as attitude certainty is an important measure of advertising effectiveness,” said Rucker.

Rucker said this research can be a springboard for real-life marketing practice. For example, marketers with highly engaging messages can benefit from targeting consumers at times of the day when they are likely to feel depleted, such as in the evening or after work, he noted.

“At such times, if consumers are motivated to process a strong, interesting brand message, they are likely to be more certain of their favorable attitudes and may take the next step and purchase a product,” said Rucker. “Thus, rather than hit them when they are fresh, there might be an advantage of hitting them when they are a bit fatigued, but still capable of processing the advertisement.”

However, Rucker noted that depleted consumers are likewise more certain of their negative attitudes toward a product if they are unimpressed with the advertising.
“For marketers, this means that an ad with weaker positioning can actually backfire by directly turning consumers away from a purchase,” he concluded.

Media inquiries can be directed to Meg Washburn, director of media relations, at m-washburn@kellogg.northwestern.edu.