Comparisons and suppression: the contrast principle, negativity, and scarcity effects

On May 2,2006, Apple Inc. launched its meticulously engineered Get a Mac advertising campaign, which showcased two actors personifying rival Mac and PC computers.1 The Mac was represented as being young, confident, and resourceful by Justin Long, who appeared fashionable in casual clothes with hands composedly tucked into his trouser pockets. Conversely, the part of the PC was played by John Hodgman, who was made to look older and dull in an unremarkable suit, while he acted frustrated and even manifestly deceptive.2 These commercials were explicitly designed to be comparative, and they emphasized the advantages of Macintosh computers while accenting the apparent drawbacks of PC hardware and software. The chief message of the campaign was that in contrast with Macs, PCs are boring, staid machines, whose operating system causes grief with its instability and malware vulnerabilities. Similar messages have been transmitted across Apple’s now legendary suite of advertising operations, going back to the company’s 1984 famed “Orwell” commercial, described by some as the “greatest ad of all time.”3 Yet the Get a Mac campaign most clearly typifies the comparative genre of advertising, which involves juxtaposing a vended product with the competition’s merchandise in order to distinguish the former as a superior option. Indeed, with their underlining contrast and the denigration of competing wares, Apple’s famed Mac-versus-PC commercials match up with the persuasive apparatus collectively identified within this chapter as the Contrast Principle and Negativity Effect.

Comparing, negativity and censorship

The contrast principle

Comparative advertising has remained a common marketing strategy that involves directly or indirectly mentioning a competitor. The intent is to contrast attributes between the advertised product and the rival alternative. In various research conditions, this tactic has been said to make ads far more operative than non-comparative promotions at garnering audience attention and alertness, while heightening message recall, increasing purchase intentions, and cultivating buying behaviors.4 Comparative advertising has been found to be most effective in the United States, with varying persuasion effects recorded across different cultural contexts, though the approach has yielded compelling results in numerous other countries.5 The rationale underlying this practice is the Contrast Principle, which indicates that when two items or ideas are presented side by side, the differences between the two are accentuated for persuasion purposes. With respect to such contrast influences, Cialdini has noted succinctly that when we “lift a light object first and then lift a heavy object, we will estimate the second object to be heavier than if we had lifted it without first lifting the light one.”6 This same psychological tendency can be used to sway audiences toward a product or concept more successfully than if no comparison had been made at all. Such contrast is not only persuasive, but it has been described as “virtually undetectable.”7 Consequently, contrast effects can notably color choices and influence persuasion when there is low-to-mid message elaboration likelihood.8 Contrast may be unfairly structured to favor a particular product or concept, and include ridicule and biased caricatures of a competitor.’ For this reason, direct comparative advertising has occasionally been prohibited and is often legally regulated.10

The negativity effect

Contrast that is antagonistic toward an opponent, and emphasizes the negative attributes of a competitor’s ideas or products is associated with what has been described as the Negativity Effect. With regard to comparative advertising, studies indicate that comparisons which denigrate a rival product tend to be more effective.11 Associatively, it has been demonstrated that “negative information is often more powerful in creating attitudes (i.e., it is weighted more heavily) than is positive information of equal extremity.”12 As a consequence, negative messages in opposition to a particular product or idea have stronger, relatively automatic persuasion effects in comparison to positive information that supports goods or concepts.13 In political election campaigns, for instance, negative information and opinions regarding what voters disagree with prove to be more influential than positive information in agreement with what the electorate actually support. Furthermore, attitudes that are expressed as being against something prove to be more resilient than those that are articulated as being for a position. In this way negative information that deliberately opposes an idea acts as a type of peripheral cue toward the contrary position.14

Contrast is identified here as any comparison that is made within the same article between an advocated product, concept, individual, or group, versus those supported by a potential competitor. Due to the potency of negative information and deprecating comparisons, attention will be paid to attacking statements and contrast claims that invoke the Negativity Effect. This can include defamatory assaults on the character of an opponent, as well as

Recurrence Rates of the Contrast Principle and Negativity Effect

Figure 5.1 Recurrence Rates of the Contrast Principle and Negativity Effect

the derision of a rival’s ideas. The frequency rates of the Contrast Principle and Negativity Effect are presented in Figure 5.1. It is also of note that one routine derogatory motif occurring in some Darwin-skeptic materials is the accusation that evolutionists are fretfully censoring data that contradicts evolutionary theory. Such allegations are associated with the conspiracist narratives touched upon in the previous chapter. Not only do they criticize opponents, but they do so while engendering aspects of a persuasive strategy known as the Scarcity Principle.

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