I know you – you know me: Persuasion Knowledge
Developing the ideas of Attribution Theory further, Friestad & Wright suggest that commercial persuasion can be understood similar to a game play: Marketers try to “hit” the consumers, while the consumers in turn develop mechanisms to cope. Over time, both the marketers and the consumers develop “Persuasion Knowledge”, either made up of some knowledge about the product (for both sides) – and for the marketers knowing what works to persuade consumers – and for the consumer knowing how to cope with a persuasion episode. In other words: For the marketer (in the terms of the model called “persuasion agent”), persuasion knowledge derives from “topic knowledge” (e.g. product information) and “target knowledge” (e.g. use of celebrities will make target audience buy something) – while for the consumer (the “persuasion target”), persuasion knowledge derives from “agent knowledge” (e.g. this company is usually reliable) and “topic knowledge” (e.g. the product is long-lasting).
Some interesting studies have tried to shed more light on both target and agent knowledge: For example Nyilasy & Reid examined target knowledge and identified two widely held beliefs: “break through and engage”, i.e. cut through the clutter with creative, engaging advertising – and a “mutation of effects”, i.e. consumers will become resistant to advertising over time.
On the other side, being familiar with a product seems to moderate persuasion knowledge in consumers, as does knowledge about the agent itself (e.g. the company or organisation).
Many studies have looked at the effect of activated persuasion knowledge – especially focusing on the negative effects (from the point of view of the marketer). For example, knowledge about sponsored search results resulted in a reduced click through rate for internet searches, and frequently presented product placements resulted in negative brand attitudes if persuasion knowledge was high.
A hotly debated aspect of persuasion knowledge is how (and when) it develops – and how it’s perceived negative effects (and it is not always negative!) can be limited. For example, Mallinckrodt and Mizerski showed that for young children (aged between 5-8) persuasion knowledge had no effect on brand preference, suggesting that very young children have not yet developed coping mechanisms. However, college aged consumers coming from the millennial generation were shown to develop more negative perceptions when persuasion knowledge was high. Looking at advergames, Waiguny, Nelson & Terlutter showed that being very engaged in a advergame (and therefore having relatively little “spare” cognitive capacity) resulted in reduced persuasion knowledge activation.
However, as previously mentioned, persuasion knowledge does not have to be always negative: In an interesting study looking at product placement, Cowley and Barron reported that only people who liked a programme used for the study developed negative brand attitudes – while for people who did not like the programme the inverse was true. Equally, in a charity context, persuasion knowledge may actually increase the intention to donate.
Although there are many studies proving the existence of persuasion knowledge and coping mechanisms, there is a surprising lack of studies addressing exactly how coping mechanisms work (i.e. dismissive of all attempts? Nuanced?). There are, of course, many anecdotal examples – mostly focusing on what happens if consumers find out after the persuasion episode about the commercial nature – and then feel deceived (as for example in the fake Sony PSP blog episode). Similarly, McDonald’s got mocked when using sponsored tweets – resulting also in a “counter-tweet“.
So while on the one side persuasion knowledge (on behalf of the consumers) can be seen as particularly negative point for the marketers if it inhibits persuasion – in other ways it can actually be seen as positive – for example in the case of charity fundraising – or as a way of “shielding” the consumer from unrealistic or overly positive persuasion attempts by marketers. However, there is still a need for more research to understand the role of different aspects of persuasion knowledge – and how and when it develops.