People Will Buy Bad Products If They Are Reviewed Negatively But Politely

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Online commentary seems to bring out the worst in people. It’s the place were trolls live and civility goes to die. Get rid of the trolls hiding under your virtual bridges, however, and you might make a whole lot more money. 

A study published in the June Journal of Consumer Research suggests that negative consumer reviews written with a touch of politeness can actually help sell an item, and even convince consumers to pay more for it. Such civility also increases the likelihood that readers will like and trust the writers themselves, the study found.

“Our research raises the intriguing possibility that brands might benefit when polite customers write reviews of their products — even when those reviews include negative opinions,” write the authors, researchers Ryan Hamilton, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Ann L. McGill.

Retailers have struggled for years with the dilemma posed by opening their websites up to user reviews. Critical comments are hard for marketers to stomach, but removing them usually makes things worse, eliciting cries of censorship that only amplify the negativity. This study hints at a promising third alternative — cultivate civility, and consumers will feel good about your products, even if some reviewers, politely, have bad things to say.

Reviewers themselves can benefit from this logic. It's often hard to say not-so-nice things and remain likable, but the researchers found that prefacing negative assessments of products with dispreferred markers, like “I’ll be honest” or “Bless its heart,” seemed to do did the trick, increasing study participants’ ratings of both the likability and credibility scores of the writer by roughly 20 percent.

The lesson for critics: Put a little honey in with the vinegar when you are trying to catch some bees.

It could even lead to consumers being willing to pay more for a product. The researchers also showed consumers a luxury watch and then exposed them to one of two reviews — a balanced review or a negative one preceded by the phrase "I don't want to be mean …" They then asked what the subjects would pay for the watch. Consumers who read the negative but polite view said they'd pay an average of $135.58, while the others said they'd pay only $94.67. 

Why would people pay more for something just because a critic is a bit more demure? Hamilton, a marketing professor at EmoryUniversity and the study’s lead author, speculated to Science of Us that a so-called “misattribution phenomenon” is at play. When potential buyers feel better about the reviewer, those good feelings spill over to the product, too. It's also possible, he said, that readers could interpret the dispreferred marker as suggesting a reluctance to say a negative thing because, on a deeper level, the writer truly liked a product — the way a wife might joke about a negative trait in a husband she otherwise loves ("You know Bob, he's always late...").

Hamilton thought the biggest implication in the study was that companies should rethink the now-popular notion of "firing" customers – nudging out consumers who are less profitable or deemed more trouble than they are worth. There's nothing wrong with honest critics, he said. It's the rude ones you want to avoid.

"Companies now talk about acquiring customers who are consistent with their brand image,” he said. “Perhaps they need to focus on attracting polite customers.”

Bob Sullivan is an independent technology and consumer journalist at BobSullivan.net. He's written four books, including New York Times best sellers Stop Getting Ripped Off and Gotcha Capitalism.