If you had to choose between a vodka that was 'award-winning, refreshing, satisfying, vinegary and weak' or one that was 'weak, vinegary, satisfying, refreshing and award-winning', which would you pick?
If you're like most people you'd prefer the first. Consumers give undue prominence to the information they encounter first. To prove this wasn't just conjecture we told 500 consumers about a new brand, Black Sheep Vodka, supposedly about to launch in the UK. Half were given a description which began with the positive attributes, and half with the negatives. When consumers heard the positives first they rated the vodka 11% higher.
Our work was based on an experiment by the legendary psychologist, Solomon Asch. Asch circulated descriptions of people, such as the one below, and asked respondents to rate the person on a scale of 1-6.
a) Tom is intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn and envious.
b) Tom is envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious and intelligent.
Despite the sentences containing the same information respondents were twice as likely to give Tom the highest rating if his positives came first. Asch christened this the "primacy effect".
There are competing explanations for primacy. One theory is that our limited cognitive capacity means the amount of attention we give to later information is compromised. The alternative explanation, known as confirmation bias, is that the first words create an image through which subsequent information is filtered.
These explanations are interesting as, dependent on which one you believe, there are different applications. If you accept the limited attention argument then there's a rationale to be single-minded in your communications. If your ads contain multiple messages then you risk the consumer's finite memory being taken up with the least compelling argument.
However, if confirmation bias is the correct explanation then the recommendations change. For example, the importance of a launch grows significantly. Once first impressions have been made they're remarkably hard to over-turn as subsequent impressions are interpreted through them.
This explanation also suggests that if you have consumers who dislike your brand then communicating directly with them is a futile task. Anything you communicate will be interpreted through a lens of negativity. Better to get a neutral third party to win them over - whether that be recommendations from friends or family or independent editorial.
So which is likeliest explanation? Well, if the limited cognitive capacity theory is correct you'd have already given up reading already...
I guess confirmation bias it is then...