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The Backfire Effect – When Marketing Persuasion Backfires

Marketing campaigns and sales pitches designed to persuade can result in a 39% drop in intent to do business with you.

That’s the finding of a new study in the medical journal Vaccine. The study looked at a campaign from the CDC (Centers for Disease) in the US to persuade people to get vaccinated for seasonal influenza (responsible for thousands of deaths and billions of healthcare dollars).

The persuasive campaign focused on by debunking some of the myths around the vaccination (especially that the flu vaccine can give you a mild bout of the flu).  However the campaign backfired; exposure to the campaign led to a drop in intention to get vaccinated from 46% to 28%.

This ‘backfire effect’ of persuasion attempts that seek to correct myths is well-known. Research has shown that people assess marketing subjectively and not objectively, based on whether the campaign appears coherent and is compatible with their worldview, mental models of what they already believe and whether they judge the source to be credible (authoritative). If it doesn’t fit, or the source is doubted, the information can get rejected. Moreover, the persuasive message may actually bring to mind (prime) misconceptions, rendering them more influential – and result in the backfire effect. Finally, this backfire effect can be amplified by ‘psychological reactance‘ – our tendency to react negatively to direct attempts to influence or force us to do things.

So think twice before you use persuasion in your next marketing campaign, especially if you need to correct any myths about your product or service. Such a campaign could backfire. Remember persuasion is just one of the three types of marketing influence – so consider your other options…

The Three Types of Marketing Influence

  • Persuasion – Use of Argument to Influence (Buy this because…)
  • Suggestion – Use of Example to Influence (Buy what they’re buying)
  • Coercion – Use of Force to Influence (Buy this or else…) (e.g. use of incentives)
Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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  • When a business develops, Internet marketing constantly faces new challenges. We launched a new product, took on new customers – all this poses new challenges for the marketer

Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.