Thursday, September 22, 2005

Spam, framing, and two-sided appeals

Today, I received a spam e-mail offering me a "Rolex watch [which] will look 98% real." Normally, the credibility of spam is, of course, highly questionable, but even if the statement were to be taken at face value, it could be rephrased to state that the watch would actually look "2% fake."

Framing, or mathematically equivalent ways of stating the same fact, represents an interesting issue in psychology. Research has convincingly demonstrated that consumers will tend to evaluate ground beef which is "80% lean" more favorably than when it is labeled as "20% fat." I suppose there is something to be said for optimism, and two percent fake may be better than a glass being half empty.

Why would someone admit to the reality that, realistically speaking, the watch would probably look about two percent fake? Another stream of research in psychology and persuasion has demonstrated the effectiveness of the so-called "two-sided appeal." Here, one would admit something mildly negative about one's case--e.g., that your grocery store charges slightly higher prices than those charged by competing retailers--while emphasizing something positive--e..g., that your store offers a better selection and superior service. The theory--supported by a great deal of research--is that the admission of something negative will make one's claim more credible. Listerine(R) has been running a series of ads admitting that the taste of its product is "a little intense" but that "you can handle it" for a period of thirty seconds while that "germs can't." Two-sided appeals are, however, a somewhat delicate strategy. Under some circumstances--which are typically not readily predictable--the appeals will actually backfire; i.e., the subject will cue onto the negative part without being significantly affected by the positive argument. Would it be a good strategy for some of the spammers offering pharmaceuticals over the Internet to claim that they feature Viagra(R) which is "98% free from harmful contaminants?"