Marketers beware: using envy in advertising may push consumers to a competitor brand

New research finds using envy as a marketing tactic could backfire

Using envy as a marketing tactic could backfire, according to new research from The Business School (formerly Cass).

The research, co-authored by PhD candidate Kirla Ferreira, warns marketers that envy in advertising may elicit negative brand associations in consumers when not used carefully, and could drive them to competitor brands.

International brands such as Revlon, Estée Lauder, BMW and Calvin Klein have widely used envy in their advertising campaigns to make their products seem more desirable. Envy is used as a tactic to inspire consumers to achieve personal goals – such as beauty, wealth or status – by buying products.

The researchers carried out three studies in three distinct competitive settings – a job selection process, a promotional competition and an academic exchange programme – to examine the impact of deservingness and controllability on malicious envy and to discern whether disliking a peer affects the type of envy a consumer feels. The researchers surveyed nearly 2000 participants in Brazil.

Malicious envy arises when a consumer views a competitor as undeserving of the product they covet. For example, a student will experience malicious envy when seeing a classmate that they perceive as lazy being accepted into a prestigious university they both applied for. Malicious envy can create hostile feelings towards a brand, damaging a consumer’s relationship with a company.

“The key to successfully using envy in marketing and advertising campaigns is to understand whether the campaign will elicit benign envy or malicious envy."

“Whether or not a peer is liked or perceived as deserving of success impacts the type of envy we feel," Ms Ferreira continued.

Ms Ferreira explained that whether or not a person is perceived as deserving of winning a competition, gaining a promotion or owning a luxury item depends on how much control they have over their circumstances.

Applicants waiting for an interview

“Maliciously envious people perceive their competitor as having an unfair advantage. They might say, ‘they were lucky’ or ‘they deceived others’ in order to be successful,” Ms Ferreira said.

“Controllable factors, such as not working hard, makes a competitor seem more undeserving of their successes, causing more intense feelings of malicious envy.

"Uncontrollable factors, such as a competitor having innate talent or being the only person interviewed for a job role will cause a less intense form of malicious envy, as we are able to justify why we haven’t achieved the same goals.”

When a consumer believes their competitor deserves a product, their envious feelings are benign. Benign envy positively impacts a consumer’s associations with a brand. However, the research revealed that when a consumer dislikes their competitor, they will experience malicious envy and reject a brand even if they perceive their competitor as deserving of the product.

In order to avoid malicious envy, Ms Ferreira suggested that marketers should make sure they use a likeable person in their advertising campaigns.

"Marketers should steer clear of controversial celebrities and make sure the process for winning a competition is clear and fair. In advertising campaigns, they should ensure it seems like the winner worked hard to deserve their successes.”

The paper, ‘(Un)deservingness distinctions impact envy subtypes implications’, is published in the Journal of Business Research. It is co-authored by Kirla Ferreira, and Professor Delane Botelho, Fundação Getulio Vargas’ São Paulo School of Business Administration.

Byline: Eve Lacroix, Postgraduate Marketing Officer, The Business School (formerly Cass).