advertising claims believability


To substantiate product performance claims (and to enhance consumers’ perceived believability of these claims), advertisers have begun utilizing research results information more and more frequently (e.g., “four out of five doctors recommend”).

Five characteristics of research which potentially impact advertising believability can be identified from existing relevant research. These include the size of the sample (e.g., “10 experts agreed” vs. “100 experts agreed”), the nature of the sample (e.g., “consumers just like you” vs. “experts in the field”), documentation as to who conducted the research (e.g., “in a recent study conducted by the Consumer Product Safety Commission” vs. the absence of any such documentation), the quantitative versus qualitative nature of the results (e.g., “9 out of 10 prefer” vs. “most prefer”), and the magnitude of the claim difference (e.g., “6 out of 10” vs. “7 out of 10” vs. “8 out of 10” vs. “9 out of 10” vs. “10 out of 10”).


A number of companies have reported research results in their advertisements in an effort to show their products as preferred and hopefully increase sales. PepsiCo has alluded to taste test results which show Pepsi as preferred over Coca Cola by soft drink consumers. Doctors have been shown to prefer Bayer Aspirin over other competitive pain killers.


Implementing research results in advertising necessitates several stages. First, a believability scale is needed to reliably and validly measure the construct of advertising believability. As with most applied measurement situations, this stage involves a pretest and analysis.

Once the scale is available, a second stage involves testing the empirical variables for assessment (e.g., magnitude of the claim difference) and levels of each for manipulation (e.g., “6 out of 10” and so forth). Additional pretesting is, therefore, required to refine the variables to be included in the final investigation.

Finally, the third stage of this process involves an empirical assessment under representative field conditions, including all the relevant variables.


The results of this series of investigations suggest that consumers perceive research results information based upon smaller samples as significantly more believable than those based upon larger samples.

However, it does not seem to matter whether the information is based upon a sample of experts versus a sample of consumers. Similarly, no significant differences in perceived believability were found to derive from information documented as having been conducted by an independent testing agency versus information presented without such documentation.

Consumers were found to perceive advertisements containing qualitatively oriented research results information as significantly more believable than those containing quantitatively oriented results. This finding was consistent when controlling sample size (both across sample sizes and within each sample size were manipulated).

Finally, it appears that a threshold effect significantly impacts the magnitude of claim difference, such that perceived believability increases to a point of diminishing returns (“7 out of 10”), after which perceived believability declines.


Basically, these results suggest that consumers are not researchers. They seem to perceive the input of a smaller sample of peers as more believable than that of a larger group of potential strangers. While these results undoubtedly reflect uncertainty over experts’ specific qualifications, traditional reliance on information from one’s peer group was also evident.

This finding was also evident in consumers’ perceptions toward independent testing organizations. Finally, it seems consumers attribute more believability to qualitative shorthand (e.g., “most”) than to quantitative results, which may be regarded as an overutilized creative technique by advertisers.

Applications to Small Business

These results seem to indicate that advertisers should utilize caution in deciding whether or not to present research results information in their advertising, whether or not the information is in fact reliable.

While this caution seems directed primarily at large advertisers with sizable research budgets, the same point can be applied to small advertisers, who often become so involved in day-to-day operations that they resort to emulating creative techniques of their larger counterparts.

It is insufficient to conduct research to substantiate product performance claims, or even to obtain positive results. What is necessary is to pretest advertisements containing such information intended to enhance their believability, and this holds true of large and small advertisers alike.



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