Can I Ask You a Question?

We have learned to be skeptical of claims in advertisements. But according to Yale SOM marketing scholar Nathan Novemsky, advertisers can evade our defenses by eschewing assertions and instead asking us questions. Novemsky talked with Yale Insights about the approach and about how behavioral economics is shaping marketing.

By Dylan Walsh

Advertisers want us to believe—believe that the snack is delicious and the drink is refreshing and the vacation is precisely the relief that we need. But people are reflexively skeptical of advertisements. We often recognize when we’re targets of a sales pitch. “It’s a persuasion defense,” said Nathan Novemsky, professor of marketing at Yale SOM, in an interview with Yale Insights.

This complicates the work of marketers: if attempts to convince consumers harden those consumers against convincing, what to do? Novemsky’s suggestion: try asking a question. “When you ask people questions, you come in under the radar of those defense systems.”

Consider a bottle of merlot. Rather than flatly claiming the wine is smooth, marketers might instead ask consumers whether they consider the wine to be smooth after sampling it. “People won’t ask themselves the question ‘Well, just how smooth is it?’” explained Novemsky. “They would instead start to test the hypothesis, ‘This wine is smooth,’ and they would recruit evidence to support that hypothesis.” By considering whether a wine is smooth, consumers will start to persuade themselves that it is.

Confirmation bias, a well-established psychological effect, accounts for this peculiar effect. According to this theory, we don’t test ideas in a neutral way. From the outset, rather, we favor one conclusion over others. So when we are asked a question, we search for evidence in support of a specific answer. If asked whether a wine is smooth, we try to think of reasons why it is smooth; we don’t consider, with equal force, reasons why the wine is not smooth.

“What you end up doing by asking people these positive questions is you get them to recruit evidence in their own head in a way that can move their impression of your product or service,” said Novemsky. “And they don’t know this is happening, so they don’t defend against it.”

Interestingly, using stronger positive words can generate stronger positive feelings in a deep and lasting way. If asked whether a wine is “velvety,” as opposed to just “smooth,” research has found, consumers will like the wine more, have a better memory of it, recommend it more highly to friends, and even pay more for it. Simply by asking the appropriate question, marketers can change the entire consumer experience.

Novemsky, who is jointly appointed in Yale’s Department of Psychology, observed that this experiential malleability demonstrates the critical importance of behavioral economics. “Standard economics would assume that you have a certain value for a product or service based on its attributes,” he said. “Behavioral economics says that you have a certain value for a product or service based on how you think about that product or service and the context in which you’re thinking about it.” And a marketer who is asking the right questions, he noted, can be a critical part of that context.

Professor of Marketing