It’s like one of those things Alanis Morissette sang about in that song: There’s rain on your wedding day, there’s good advice that you don’t take, and there’s that moment when you’re at the drugstore buying something embarrassing — like, I don’t know, constipation medicine — and you end up with the hot cashier. Yes, I know, not ironic, but still pretty terrible. In fact, in a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers from the Chinese University of Hong Kong found that having a good-looking salesperson around can actually dissuade shoppers from buying embarrassing products.
The finding is an exception to the rule, borne out in a handful of other studies, that attractive employees can actually help a store’s business. In a 1996 study in the International Journal of Research in Marketing, for example, participants watched a series of TV advertisements and then rated how likely they were to buy whatever was being sold in each one. Overall, the more attractive the salesperson in the ad, the more people said they’d be interested in buying the product or service. And a separate study, from 2008, found that people perceive an item as more desirable if they’ve seen an attractive person touch it.
In one experiment for this latest paper, the researchers worked with a medical-supply company to set up two booths for similarly priced products in a Hong Kong hospital: one selling a benign product (a shoe insole to relieve foot pain), the other an embarrassing one (a thermal belt that purportedly helped the wearer lose weight). The researchers also recruited one attractive and one average-looking man to staff the booths, having them switch places each hour throughout the day. More people stopped at the insole booth when the attractive seller was staffing it, and more people stopped at the belt booth during the unattractive seller’s shifts.
In a separate experiment, participants were taken to an informational booth about the thermal belt and told the manufacturer wanted feedback on the product. Half of the group saw promotional materials advertising the belt as a weight-loss tool, while the other half were made to believe it was a treatment for back pain. Each group interacted with the same salesman, but in some cases, he was spiffed up to look extra attractive (well-groomed, nice shirt, etc.), and in others he underwent a makeunder (messy hair, ill-fitting T-shirt). When he was attractive, participants were more likely to say they’d buy the non-embarrassing product, and less likely to say they’d buy the embarrassing one, than when the salesman was a schlub.
The pattern, the study authors argued, was driven by the combination of impression motivation, or the desire to make sure others see you in a positive light, and impression construction, the strategies you’d use to make that happen. “Embarrassing consumption is likely to endanger the positive self-image one is motivated to convey in social situations,” the study authors wrote, “and this may be particularly true when others in the situation are attractive and thus are people one wants to impress.” Like Alanis said, it’s like meeting the guy of your dreams, and then handing him some cash to pay for that weird weight-loss belt. Or something like that, anyway.