Advertising deals with people's feelings and emotions. It includes understanding of the psychology of the buyer, his motives, attitudes, as well as the influences on him such as his family and reference groups, social class and culture. In order to increase the advertisements persuasiveness, advertisers use many types of extensions of behaviour al sciences to marketing and buying behaviour. One such extension is the theory of cognitive dissonance. The purpose of advertising can be to create a cognitive dissonance to generate a favourable response from the buyer toward a product or a concept. First of all, I will talk about the purpose of advertising and its mechanism and I will look at how it can be related to the theory of cognitive dissonance.

In addition to that, I will examine the effects of fear appeals on consumers, which are a direct application of the theory of cognitive dissonance. I will try to provide concrete examples of fear appeals and I will take into consideration the ethical aspect of fear appeals. In last part, I will give some examples, where advertisements are used to reduce the cognitive dissonance. The purpose of advertising is simply to sell a product or a service. In social contexts ads have many other applications such as reducing accidents, increasing voting and reducing smoking which must be assessed instead of profit. However people do not automatically buy a product after they are exposed to an ad.

First, they have thoughts or feelings about a product, and then they buy it. Advertising and other types of marketing communications directly affect consumer's mental processes. Advertising can be thought of as stimulus that produces a response or an effect. Moreover, the main objective of advertisements is to convince consumers that the alternative offered by the product provides the best chance to attain the goal. The attitude toward the advertisement is defined "as a predisposition to respond in favourable or unfavourable manner to a particular advertising stimulus during a particular exposure occasion". The range of feelings generated by advertisements is broad and spreads from contentment to repulsion.

Those feelings can have a direct impact on brand attitudes. It is really important for advertisers to generate a feeling that will modify the buyer's attitude toward a product. One of the strategies used by advertisers is to create a cognitive dissonance in people's mind. Leon Festinger elaborated the theory of cognitive dissonance in 1957. His ideas were tested intensively in the 1960's and 1970's and this led to modifications in both the form of the theory and in its perception. The theory states that in a point in time, there exist several bits of relevant cognition's which may not be consistent with one another.

Dissonance produces a psychological discomfort. This condition led people to change their thoughts, feelings or actions in order to reach a state of 'consonance' or harmony. Dissonance could arise from logical inconsistency, from cultural mores, because of past experiences and because of one specific opinion, sometimes included by definition, in a more general opinion. Another facet of the theory is that a person, after a purchase decision, seems to be under pressure by the fact of his or her choice and looks for more information concerning the reserved option. Two factors mainly affect the strength of the dissonance: the number of dissonant beliefs, and the importance attached to each belief.

According to the theory, there are three ways to eliminate the dissonance. The first one consists in reducing the importance of the dissonant beliefs, the second one in adding more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs and the last one in changing beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent. The last option seems to be the most interesting for advertisers, because it gives them the opportunity to make a change in people's beliefs by creating a dissonance. This change could result in a modification of their attitudes and trigger a purchase decision, which is exactly the purpose of advertising. Advertising uses many different types of appeal and a number of media to achieve a variety of goals. One of the applications of the theory of cognitive dissonance is the fear appeal.

Despite the controversy on the subject, fear is an effective advertising appeal often used in marketing communications (15 per cent of all television ads) because consumers seem to better remember ads, which use fear appeals than those using no emotional appeal. Advertisers thought a few years ago that the more the fear was important; the more the desire to fight this fear was important, which led them to the conclusion that the effectiveness of the advertising message was proportional to the level of fear aroused. But some researchers have found that strong fear appeals tend to be less effective than moderate messages. Apparently, the relation between the fear and the effectiveness of the advertisement resembles an inverted U-shaped curve.

If the level of fear is too important, it can provoke in the consumer mind a defence mechanism. This process can lead to avoid the advertising message, to deny the threat, to choose or distort the message, to consider the proposed solution without the danger of reaching the consistency between their beliefs. Consumer's attitude toward an ad are important to advertisers because people who dislike an ad are likely to resist its effort to increase the favor ability of their attitudes toward the product itself. If the consumer thinks a specific advertising practice is unethical or immoral, a number of unwanted outcomes can appeared in the consumer's mind, ranging from consumer indifference toward the advertising product to more serious actions such as boycotts or demands for government regulation.

A famous example of this behaviour was the response of consumers after Reebok broadcast ed an advertisement on Bungee-jumping, in which a bungee jumper plunged into his death because he wore Nike athletic shoes instead of Reebok Pumps. Reebok attempts to suggest the superiority of the Pump athletic shoes using a joke about violent death. This ad stayed only a few times before being pulled by Reebok because of the number of consumer complaints. Therefore, advertisers should be aware and concerned about the ethical aspect of advertisements. It is necessary to take into account ethical consequences because a particular ad may deter long term objectives and create various and involuntary negative reactions to the ad and the brand. On the other hand, strong fear appeals concerning high relevant topic cause the individual to also experience cognitive dissonance, which is resolved either by rejecting the practice or by rejecting the unwelcome information.

Advertisers employ graphic and emotional advertising messages such as those used by insurance companies, healthcare institutions, drug and alcohol abuse, exploiting consumers' fear of cancer and cardiac diseases. For example, fear appeal is used in many anti-smoking campaigns. By showing people dying from diseases caused by the cigarettes or, like in a recent anti-smoking campaign in France, lungs from a heavy smoker, advertisers create a state of dissonance among the smokers: "I smoke cigarettes but I know that it could kill me". People concerned are going to try to reduce the dissonance in many various ways. One can think: "But it really helps me relax, and it keeps me gaining a lot of weight" or "Well, those studies could be wrong. Science is learning new things everyday".

In this case, the advertisement fails but sometimes the answer to such a campaign could be: "I am going to quit smoking" in which case the result is successful. It is difficult to know how the majority of people are going to react to that kind of campaign but apparently fear appeals appear to be the most effective when the consumer is already afraid of the problem discussed in the ad and when the source credibility is high. The type of message depends also on the segment targeted. For instance, young men are normally not concerned about death; therefore the trend nowadays is to say that cigarettes make them impotent. One of the famous examples is the ten meters high statue of the "Marlboro Man" on one the biggest Los Angeles boulevard, which has a broken cigarette pointing the ground at the level of its pubis. Furthermore a counter at his feet incremented every minute, displays the number of deaths related to smoking in the current year.

In some cases, the purpose of an advertisement is not to create a cognitive dissonance. For instance, when consumers have made a commitment to buy a product, particularly an expensive one. Inconstancy or dissonance exists between the facts that the two brands are equally attractive and that on brand chosen, the buyer lose out on the good qualities of the one not chosen. People tend to convince themselves after the fact that the choice they made was the right one by finding additional reasons to support the alternative they chose.

This phenomenon is called post purchase dissonance. Perhaps the best-known application of dissonance theory in the context of consumer behaviour concerns the post-decision al doubt expressed by purchasers of new cars. The customers have a tendency to seek for further information about the model just bought despite having previously considered several alternatives. It seems that the dissonance may result only from price factors.

Recent car buyers may well need reassurance that their decisions were sound and this can be achieved through advertising messages aimed specifically at them. Indeed, without such follow-up they may be more likely to select different brands in future or even trade in their recent purchase early. In this case, the use of advertisement is to reduce the cognitive dissonance. By advertising after the purchase, the consumer feels better after its purchase and feels more confident on the brand he chose. This will probably increase the brand loyalty and carry weight in a future purchase. In a conclusion, I do agree that in some cases, the purpose of advertising is to create cognitive dissonance.

By creating cognitive dissonance among consumers, advertisers create a state propitious to a change of their beliefs. The danger of this technique is that the consumer will try to avoid the message because of the discomfort generated. The beliefs are diverse between all the different segments and people will not react the same way to a given advertisement. We must accept that different ads may work in different ways and that individuals may respond variously to the same ad. In some other cases, it is necessary to advertise in order to reduce the dissonance especially after a high-involvement purchase to reassure the consumer that he has made the right choice. This will also increase the brand loyalty.

Cognitive dissonance has to do with how people feel. It is highly unlikely that this concept will ever recede completely into the background, or fade out from books, journals and articles. Some other concepts, such the attribution theory and diffusion of innovation, are closely related to cognitive dissonance. It is important for advertisers to be familiar with those concepts and to understand their implications. 1872 words


SOLOMON M, Consumer behaviour: a European perspective, 1999, Prentice Hall EAST R.
Consumer Behaviour: Advances and applications in marketing, 1997, Prentice Hall.
FOX ALL G.R. and GOLDSMITH R.E., 1995, Consumer Psychology for Marketing, Routledge.
FILL C., 1995, Marketing Communications, Prentice Hall.
SCHIFFMAN L., 1994, Consumer Behaviour, Prentice Hall.
SHIP T.A., 1993, Promotion management and marketing communications, 3rd edition, The Dryden Press.
SC HUDSON M., 1993, Advertising, the uneasy persuasion.
It's dubious impact on American society, Routledge. ASSAIL H., 1987, Consumer Behaviour and Marketing Action, 3rd edition, PWS-Kent Publishing Company.
WILLIAMSON J., 1978, Decoding advertisements: ideology and meaning in advertising, Boyars.
FESTINGER L., 1957, A theory of cognitive dissonance, Evanston.