How emotions affect public acceptance of products and markets - evidence from the US fertility industry

AI, vaccines, or genetically modified food: why do some markets remain controversial and struggle to attain a stable degree of legitimacy? How do emotions and moral judgements shape the legitimation of health technology markets?

In a recently published Journal of Consumer Research study, Dr Laetitia Mimoun, Dr Lez Trujillo- Torres, and Dr Francesca Sobande examine the U.S. fertility technology market to theorise the important role of emotions as a legitimating force in the market. In other words, they explore the relationship between different feelings, fears, and the establishment of the fertility tech market.

Their findings, which resulted from nearly five years of study, can benefit other scholars, policy makers, marketing practitioners, and healthcare professionals. Such research is particularly timely as it addresses pressing questions about the legitimation of health technology markets which are relevant to current media, public, and political commentary concerning COVID-19 vaccines.

Past works on market legitimation, defined as the process through which a market becomes consensually accepted as appropriate and desirable, have tended to focus on the cognitive and systemic processes that underly public opinion. Yet, in the words of Dr. Laetitia Mimoun, Dr. Lez Trujillo Torres, and Dr. Francesca Sobande:

"We know that public opinion and individual judgments can be distinctly shaped by emotions, which can renew legitimacy judgments toward an entity. For example, the new COVID-19 vaccines have been perceived as threatening by some and associated with a generalised fear that limits their acceptability and adoption."

This work by Dr. Laetitia Mimoun, Dr. Lez Trujillo Torres, and Dr. Francesca Sobande is based on an examination of 30 years (1987-2017) of media data about the U.S. fertility technology market. They said:

"We often think that once something is accepted by regulators, marketers, and consumers, it’s a done deal. Yet, from this data, we observed that the legitimation of a market does not progress in a uniform and gradual manner. Rather, we find that it varies over time, product categories, consumer segments, and even geographies. Our study shows that sudden events such as scandals and product innovations can destabilise even a well-established product because of their emotional power. This explains why the legitimacy of some products, such as GMO or vaccines, remains endurably weak.

To explain these patterns, we need to understand emotions not just as individual reactions but as shaped by cultural and social norms, which are called feeling rules. Sudden events can alter the position of what feeling rules we follow, which in turn impacts what emotions are expressed toward markets (e.g. fertility), consumers (e.g. LGBTQ+, octomom, parents of multiples), and technologies (e.g. stem cells). We delineate three legitimation mechanisms through which emotions work: polarising which creates emotional extremes that encourage action, reifying which reiterates existing feeling rules, and transforming which bring new feeling rules to the table.

Counter-intuitively, we find that negative emotions and controversies are not always a barrier to the acceptance of a new technology. Sometimes, controversies can help make things more acceptable by making people reflect about how they feel about an issue."

Our work is of interest to policy makers and health campaigners who seek to tackle misinformation/disinformation and reassure people about health-related technological innovations while also being sensitive to their emotions.

It is also of interest to companies launching new high tech and health tech products. When launching new products, and in particular disruptive innovations, it is crucial to monitor feeling rules to see which comes to dominate in public opinion. In case of problems, such as with the rise of a disgust or deviance feeling rule, marketing campaigns can be focused on transforming feeling rules in favour of more positive associations. This will be fundamental to increase the acceptance of the new product.

The paper Social Emotions and the Legitimation of the Fertility Technology Market has been published in Journal of Consumer Research. The final version of the paper is available using this link.