Insincere Flattery Actually Works: A Dual Attitudes Perspective

Elaine Chan and Jaideep Sengupta
Journal of Marketing Research (JMR)
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Executive Summary
Flattery—the art of offering pleasing compliments—is one of the oldest and most commonly used of persuasion tactics. Instances of flattery also abound in the marketing context because making consumers feel good about themselves can often lead them to evaluate the flatterer positively. However, when prospective consumers are fully aware of a clear ulterior motive underlying the compliment, both prior research and intuition suggest that recipients will discount the flattering comments and correct their otherwise favorable reactions. In contrast, this research uses a dual attitudes perspective to show that even after consumers consciously discount a blatantly insincere compliment from the marketer, the original positive reaction (the implicit attitude) toward the marketer coexists with, rather than being replaced by, the discounted evaluation (the explicit attitude). Subsequently, the implicit reaction is manifested when cognitive capacity at the time of measurement is significantly constrained, while the explicit judgment is reported under unconstrained conditions.

In addition to showing that flattery can produce two coexisting attitudes, this article also establishes that these two attitudes produce different effects, thus making a contribution to the theoretical literature on dual attitudes. The implicit attitude is more resistant to negative information about the marketer and is also a better predictor of delayed behavior (e.g., making a later purchase from the marketer) than is the explicit attitude. Thus, even when targets correct for insincere flattery, it may continue to exert subtle, insidious effects. Finally, this research identifies a boundary condition for the posited divergence between the implicit and the explicit attitudes produced by flattery. Specifically, the positive influence of flattery on implicit attitudes disappears when target consumers’ self-esteem is bolstered before being flattered, supporting the premise that their initial positive reaction is due to a basic need for self-enhancement.

In addition to their theoretical value, these findings possess practical applicability. From the marketer’s perspective, the results suggest that insincere flattery can exercise a persuasive influence on consumers’ automatic reactions even when they correct for the underlying ulterior motive in their deliberative judgments. In addition, this implicit reaction may actually be more influential in some ways than the corrected judgment—both with regard to delayed effects and in terms of withstanding an attack—thus offering further room for optimism to marketing agents interested in using flattery as a persuasion device (while simultaneously being a cause for concern from the consumers’ viewpoint). The former result carries particular significance given that marketers are often concerned with the long-term effects of any persuasion tactic. Finally, the boundary condition identified for the discrepancy between flattery-induced implicit and explicit attitudes offers insights into how the insidious influence of this persuasion tactic might be diminished. In particular, prior self-enhancement can greatly reduce the impact of flattery. Viewed in this light, the results offer useful implications both for those interested in combating the effects of flattery and for those interested in using it as an ingratiation tactic.

Elaine Chan is Visiting Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). She holds a bachelor’s degree in Commerce from the University of Birmingham. Her research interests include persuasion and attitude strength, optimism and goal-directed behavior, and time and decisions. Elaine was HKUST’s representative to the American Marketing Association/Sheth Doctoral Consortium held at Arizona State University in 2007. She has also presented her research at several conferences, including Association for Consumer Research and Marketing Science.

Jaideep Sengupta is Professor in Marketing at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He received a PhD in Management from the University of California, Los Angeles, a BTech from IIT (Madras), and an MBA from IIM (Calcutta). His research employs psychological principles to obtain a deeper understanding of diverse aspects of consumer behavior, with a particular focus on topics related to communication and persuasion. His work has been published in several leading marketing journals, including Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, and Journal of Consumer Psychology. Professor Sengupta has been recognized by the Marketing Science Institute as one of the leaders of scholarly thought in his cohort of marketing academics. He serves on the editorial board for Journal of Consumer Research and Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Journal of Marketing Research, Volume 47, Number 1, February 2010
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Elaine Chan and Jaideep Sengupta
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