luxury item shopping

A look at how political identity influences purchase preferences

New research found that conservatives are more likely to think that uglier produce might taste better or that appliances that are less technologically advanced may last longer.

By Jenn Woolson

As election season ramps up, political conversations often heat up. And this year, the discourse is as intense as ever. It's a trend that Monika Lisjak, assistant professor of marketing, finds fascinating. "People's political identities are at the forefront of the discourse in society nowadays," she says. "The fact that we are becoming politically polarized is becoming central. So I'm interested in studying how political identities influence behaviors, including consumption."

One of those behaviors documented in the research literature is that conservatives, in general, prefer products that are superior when compared to liberals' preferences. But Lisjak and her fellow researcher Nailya Ordabayeva, an associate professor of business administration at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College, wondered whether the effect occurs broadly or in specific situations. They noticed that conservatives' preferences for superior products are typically studied in product categories that signal status, such as luxury cars, watches, and handbags. But what if a product category does not signal status?

"We had this intuition that the effect may reverse," Lisjak says. "Specifically, we had the intuition that conservatives tend to think that things, including products, are in balance, whereby positives offset negatives." If that's the case — if they always think things are balanced — how does that translate to their consumption preferences?

Suppose a product seems inferior based on observable characteristics, such as less aesthetically appealing produce or an appliance that is less technologically advanced. In this case, they might think that based on this natural balance, the product is more likely to be superior in some unobservable dimension. For example, Lisjak and Ordabayeva found that conservatives are more likely to think that uglier produce might taste better or that appliances that are less technologically advanced may last longer.

Testing their theory

To test their theory, the researchers conducted studies collected in the field and the laboratory. The first was a field study at a farmers market in Boston. Produce prices from stall to stall were essentially the same, which meant purchase preferences were less likely to be based on price. A research assistant stopped shoppers and asked if she could take pictures of their baskets. She also gave them a short survey to measure political identity. "We found that more conservative shoppers were more likely to have produce in their basket that was a bit less aesthetically pleasing, suggesting that they're more open to observably inferior produce."

The second study looked at online shopping behavior at the state level based on what kind of Google searches people made for brands in the appliances, electronics, health, home garden, and money categories. They focused on those brands Consumer Reports rated as "poor" or "fair." They found that searches for brands rated as inferior were higher in states where individuals were more likely to self-identify as conservatives. The effect was significant even when controlling for the state's annual GDP, income per capita, population density, and other factors. Lisjak says this finding gave the team confidence that when the category does not involve signaling status, conservatives are more open to inferior products than liberals.

The researchers conducted additional laboratory studies where they gave people two products, such as similarly priced BBQ grills, but one was observably superior. They asked participants which one they would be more interested in buying and their thoughts about the two products. Although most people preferred the superior product, conservatives were more open toward the inferior options, saying that because the two were priced equally, the "inferior" product must have some unobservable benefits that made it superior.

Inferiority-based marketing could lead to superior results

These findings have several real-world implications, especially for marketers. Producers of an observably inferior product could find success targeting a conservative audience, either by focusing marketing efforts in states that lean conservative or by using media that caters to a conservative audience, such as FOX News. If those companies want to market the same products to liberals, Lisjak suggests they highlight that it has pluses and minuses. "For example, you want to tell them that this ugly produce might be ugly, but it's also tastier or cooler, or it has more personality."

She also hypothesizes that liberals may be enticed to buy observably inferior products if they tie to a cause. At a farmers market, for example, if it's clear that the inferior option would be more sustainable or environmentally friendly, liberals would be more likely to choose it.

Lisjak plans to continue looking into how political identity influences our behaviors. Currently, she has a study investigating whether it affects our willingness to participate in risky health behavior. She finds that conservatives are less likely than liberals to wear a seatbelt or helmet, or even to take a concussion seriously. "We wondered why that is the case. And again, we see that status is the driver. You could achieve status and high social spending by using luxury products. But conservatives like doing the risky thing because it signals that they're more brave, more courageous, and more dominant individuals."

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