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Consumers have a multitude of product options available to them—so many that they might lose track of some of the details. Shopping used to be a simpler process: one type of toothpaste, one brand of jeans, Cheerios, and one or two beer options. Now there are 300 breakfast cereals on the market—and 11 types of Cheerios alone. In turn, shoppers often make decisions based on random impressions, inaccurate heuristics, or out-of-date recommendations, rather than by determining which particular product features are superior in a certain offering.

Marketing tactics in particular can provide an emotional feeling that encourages purchase. A recent Cornell University study asked students to get into cars. Once inside, the “feeling focus group” was encouraged to describe how they felt in the car, whereas the “detail focus group” was instructed to describe the attributes of the car. When there were only a few features evident in the car, the detail focus group made better decisions about which car to purchase. But when the list of features climbed above 12, the overload of information moved these respondents to change their decisions—for the worse.

Furthermore, the feeling focus group made better decisions 70 percent of the time. Even though this group just expressed their feelings about the car, and few of its members could explain the car’s features, they produced a better result than the detail focus group.

The lesson for marketers may be that even when they try to communicate features, they may not be providing the best information to ensure a successful purchase choice. For truly complex decisions, it is virtually impossible for human minds to weigh all the options fully. Ultimately, it comes down to how the buyer feels about the product for sale.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What did the comparison of the feeling focus group with the detail focus group prove?
  2. What do these findings suggest about ethical marketing?

Jonah Lehrer, “Attention, Shoppers: Go With Your Gut,” The Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2011.