By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist

The weight of scientific authority has long been a persuasive tool in marketing strategies. As an extremely social species, humans care a great deal about categorical authority, and in the modern world there are few more revered sources of authority than those affiliated with the theoretical concept of science. Although the public’s trust in various types of authority can wax and wane, trust in the institution of “science” tends to remain quite high (averaging 81% over the last six years). However, it turns out that invoking the authority of science is not always the most persuasive tactic. In fact, it may even backfire at times.

A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that there are clear winners and losers when the idea of science is used to promote a product or service to consumers. Across ten different studies, researchers found that using the word “science” in the promotion of utilitarian positioned products, resulted in consumers viewing the product more favorably than the same item as it was promoted in the other study conditions (i.e., those with no mention of science). However, when the word “science” was used in the promotion of hedonically positioned products, that positive consumer sentiment was reversed. In those cases, hedonic products were actually viewed with less favor than the same item promoted in the alternative study conditions (again, the ones with no mentions of science).

In follow-up analyses, researchers found that these inverse differences in appeal were due to consumers’ lay beliefs that science is cold, competent, and efficient. As such, in the consumer’s mind, the idea of science pairs well with products and services that are higher in utilitarian attributes and purpose. Or in other words, the appeal of science is maximized when the highest considerations are the mechanical and systematic function of the product, as well as its capability in achieving its desired instrumental outcome (e.g., body wash marketed as being highly effective at removing odor-causing bacteria).

In contrast, consumers value hedonically positioned products according to the degree of “warmth” attributed to the items. These perceptions of warmth tend to be derived from the intangible sensory and emotional satisfaction provided by imagining or experiencing the products or services (e.g., indulgent chocolate chip cookies or a relaxing vacation). The anticipated warmth of hedonically positioned products is cognitively at odds with the cold and calculating nature of science. Thus, both consumer preference and intention to buy are significantly reduced when the cold nature of science and the anticipated warmth of hedonic products are conceptually related to each other in promotional messaging.

While this pattern appears to be the case for the average consumer, the researchers found that the effect was moderated by one’s level of familiarity with scientific method. Individuals who worked in scientific fields (e.g., STEM), or expressed above average interests in science, did not experience the same reduction in appeal when science was used to promote hedonistically positioned products. Another disruption to this pattern occurs when the product messages explicitly demonstrated a real need for scientific rigor to achieve indulgent luxury. In these cases, the conceptual discrepancy between the coldness of science and the anticipated warmth of hedonic products disappeared.

In general, research shows that science appeals provide the consumer with a cold yet competent framework with which to view the product and its application. This is very effective when promoting products that are more utilitarian in nature, but these positive trends reverse when science is paired with hedonistic products.

That’s it for this week’s blog! To better understand consumer psychology and to learn when and how to include science-based messaging in your advertising, be sure to give us a call at 833-579-1905 or email us at

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