Marketing’s Least Loved: Reactance bias

In her regular column for Mumbrella, VMLY&R chief strategy officer Alison Tilling looks at potatoes, phosphate, planes and the power of reactance.

Reactance bias is thought of as the “F.U. I won’t do what you tell me” bias, but reactance is more nuanced than that. Originally defined by Brehm in 1966, it is “the tendency to do the opposite of what someone wants you to do because you think they are trying to constrain your freedom of choice.” So if the constraint, or perception of constraint is missing, it’s not reactance.  

The degree of reactance varies with the importance of the freedom that is perceived to be being constrained, and with the size and type of threat to that freedom.  

Reactance is fascinating because, while it sounds negative, it can be extremely powerful if harnessed well – and can veer into manipulation if it isn’t. Reactance developed as an important motivational state, encouraging us to act to regain the freedom we see as constrained. The psychological reason for this is reward. We get more reward from a chosen behaviour when there were more choices about how to behave. Protecting choices matters to us, and reactance is a way to motivate ourselves to do it. 

Reactance and reverse psychology: potatoes in Prussia 

Take the apocryphal tale of Frederick the Great of Prussia introducing potatoes to the masses. Frederick needed people to start growing potatoes, because this staple could keep them fed and lower the price of bread, which was so high it was causing social unrest. However, his order to grow and eat potatoes didn’t do the trick. His people didn’t know what potatoes were, didn’t really like the look of them, and perceived their freedom to decide what to grow being constrained. Instead of tightening the regulations to beat reactance, Frederick worked some reverse psychology. He had fields of potatoes planted, built walls around them and ordered his army to pretend to guard them. This overcame reactance by setting the potato up as hugely desirable, and so the knobbly nuggets took off. 

Reactance and consumer choices: phosphates in Florida 

Reactance matters to marketing and advertising because it affects how people make choices. Choice is hard, and often our work is about lessening the cognitive load. Beware going too far, though. When choices are artificially limited, or even worse, eliminated when they were previously available, there are behavioural impacts. A 1973 field experiment compared opinions of residents in Miami, where phosphate detergents were banned, and those in Tampa, where they weren’t banned. Miami residents favoured the phosphate detergents more than Tampa residents (or more likely, didn’t care but wanted to have their freedom to choose reinstated), and their buying behaviour was affected. 

Reactance and activist brands: COVID-19 

Public health orders during COVID-19 led to reactance effects, though these were mitigated by the goals that the orders were helping to achieve. Different stages of the pandemic and conditions in different countries have highlighted some real-life learning on overcoming or harnessing reactance. 

First, authenticity matters when brands are engaging in activist messaging. “Authenticity” is over-used, but it is powerful and has the potential to overcome reactance. A 2020 study (Shoenberger et al, Advertising during COVID-19: Exploring Perceived Brand Message Authenticity and Potential Psychological Reactance, Journal of Advertising, June 2021), showed the reactance effect produced by constraint messaging like Uber’s “No Mask, No Ride” and Heineken’s “Socialize Responsibly to Keep Bars Open”. Results suggested that perceived authenticity of both the brand’s stance on the topic and the ad message had two strong mitigating effects. First, it led to more positive attitudes towards the brand and ad, but more importantly, stronger perceived authenticity made the prosocial behaviour – in this case, mask-wearing – more likely. A principle or a purpose really lives when it involves a sacrifice, and consumers are more likely to make the sacrifice or behaviour change brands are asking for, if they believe a brand has been authentic in the same way. 

Closer to home, the recent QANTAS “Fly Away” ad played off reactance to lockdown regulations by focusing on future freedoms. The motivation produced by reactance was channelled into motivation to get vaccinated, and several brands since have taken more of this positive approach. “Fly Away” also helps disentangle social norming from reactance, because the two can seem contradictory. The difference is that social norming and social proofing work as suggestions, making it seem safe or desirable to engage in a particular behaviour. They aren’t perceived as constraining freedom of choice. This ad does both, motivating us through the promise of future freedoms and normalising the behaviour by showing a range of people doing it. 

Reactance has an element of F.U., sure, but it is a powerful bias that creates motivation in people, something that brands can find hard to do. As more brands try to work as activists, the importance of authenticity and harnessing reactance to affect change becomes clearer. Making sacrifices to prove brand beliefs, coupled with use of social norming, can properly harness reactance to behaviour change campaigns, and make the desired behaviour more likely. 

 Alison Tilling is the chief strategy officer at VMLY&R. Marketing’s Least Loved is a regular Mumbrella column.


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