When is an Ad not an Ad?

The online landscape is a complex one, and consumers must increasingly interpret messages from multiple sources - including, of course, social media and user-generated content.

But how do shoppers interpret text differently when it is presented in a different format - for example, when the same wording is used in an advertisement or in a supposedly user-generated review?

A study in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research reveals that rhetoric, wordplay and metaphors might not have their place in user reviews, but are generally welcomed in ad text.

Ann Kronrod of Michigan State University and Shai Danziger of Tel Aviv University looked at how user reviews of indulgent products are interpreted differently from those of directly functional products - for example, soap used for blowing bubbles versus that used for cleaning clothes.

They found that metaphors and wordplay are not welcomed in user reviews of practical products, but have a positive impact in reviews of hedonistic products; in contrast, the same wording, when portrayed as an advertisement, had a positive impact across the board.

Understanding Word of Mouth

The findings are intriguing, in that they seem to indicate a specific set of circumstances under which deliberately promotional advertisements are more broadly acceptable to consumers than more 'honest' user-generated reviews of the same product.

"Consumer word of mouth is one of the most important sources of influence on decisions," the authors write. "Figuratively speaking, this research is a flashlight, focused on the deep waters of user-generated content that reveals complex forms of underwater life."

While the researchers may have been being playful in throwing in some figurative language of their own, the research has useful indications for webmasters when it comes to writing product descriptions and reviews.

In particular, if you are publishing your product descriptions so that they clearly appear as marketing content - rather than attempting to have them masquerade as user-generated content - you could actually be more likely to achieve a positive outcome among a general readership.

For a PDF of the full press release for this study, click here.