Punishing Politeness: The Role of Language in Promoting Brand Trust

Abstract

Morality is an abstract consideration, and language is an important regulator of abstract thought. In instances of moral ambiguity (e.g., ethically ambiguous business practices), individuals may pay particular attention to matters of interactional justice (i.e., how consumers are treated with politeness and dignity by the brand in question). Politeness in language has been linked to greater perceptions of social distance, which we contend is instrumental in regulating attitudes toward a brand. We posit that politeness in a brand’s advertising will impact consumers who are attuned to violations of interactional justice [i.e., those with low belief in a just world (BJW)]. In three studies, we demonstrate that the politeness used in advertising as well as consumers’ individual differences in BJW affect judgments and attitudes toward brands. Specifically, individuals with a low just world belief are more likely to harbor negative attitudes towards a brand with ethically ambiguous business practices if the language used in advertising is impersonal (politer) than when the language used in advertising is personal (less polite). Importantly, for individuals with a low BJW, lowered trust due to the advertisement’s language mediated the relationship between politeness and attitudes toward the brand. Theoretical and managerial implications of this research are discussed.

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Correspondence to Aparna Sundar.

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Appendices

Appendix A: Communication Tactics for Aviator’s Insurance Brand

Tagline for Aviator’s Insurance Ad Politeness rating Communication tactic
1. Do you need some insurance, sir? M = 5.81
SD = 1.52
Impersonal tactic: “give deference” vs. Personal tactic: “use in-group identity markers”
2. Do you need some insurance, dude? M = 3.50
SD = 1.65
3. Are you going to buy insurance? M = 5.40
SD = 1.38
Personal tactic: “use in-group identify markers”
4. Gonna buy insurance? M = 4.19
SD = 1.87
5. We all need insurance M = 5.44
SD = 1.28
Personal tactic: “presuppose/raise/assert common ground”
6. You know how we all need insurance M = 4.63
SD = 1.54
7. Ask us about our insurance to get a great deal M = 5.15
SD = 1.40
Personal: tactic: “assume or assert reciprocity”
8. Ask us about our insurance and we’ll make sure you get a great deal M = 5.58
SD = 1.23
9. You know, this insurance is the best in the world M = 4.92
SD = 1.38
Impersonal tactic: “hedge,” “be pessimistic” vs. Personal tactic: “assert or presuppose concern for hearer’s wants”
10. You might say, this insurance is the best in the world M = 5.04
SD = 1.13
11. The law requires you to get insurance M = 4.23
SD = 1.79
Impersonal tactic: “state the face-threating-act as a general rule”
12. You need to get insurance M = 4.27
SD = 1.93
13. Would you like a new insurance policy? M = 5.96
SD = 0.93
Impersonal tactic: “hedge,” “be pessimistic”
14. Do you want a new insurance policy? M = 5.20
SD = 1.22
15. Would you like insurance? M = 5.64
SD = 1.18
Impersonal tactic: “hedge,” “be pessimistic” vs. Personal tactic: “seek agreement,” assert or presuppose concern for hearer’s wants,” give or ask for reasons”
16. Wouldn’t you like insurance? M = 4.92
SD = 1.46

Appendix B: Ads Used in Study 1

Appendix C: Pre-test of Ethical Ratings of Aviator’s Practices

Statements of aviator’s business practices (adapted from consumer blog sites, Twitter and Better Business Bureau) Ethical ratings
1. This company hires women who work in cooperatives, however these women are sometimes homeless who don’t pay their taxes M = 4.28; SD = 1.73
2. This company compensates people according to the policy that they have. However, there is no guarantee the company will cover all accidents M = 3.26; SD = 1.87
3. This company is endorsed by celebrities that have been caught for indecent behavior M = 3.17; SD = 1.65
4. This company uses a gecko as it’s mascot but does nothing to protect the gecko in the natural environment M = 3.28; SD = 1.65
5. This company tweets about tips for pet parents, yet they do not allow pets in their corporate offices M = 4.86; SD = 1.16
6. This company uses a caveman in some of its commercials which can be offensive to a caveman M = 5.30; SD = 1.53
7. When a consumer adds a child to their customer’s policy, this company changes the premium on every car that the customer has insured through this company, because the risk is higher for younger drivers M = 4.75; SD = 1.86
8. This company adds customers’ kids, who are eligible to get a permit, to their customer’s policy, without the customer’s consent. This is since there is a high likelihood that the kids will drive the customer’s car M = 3.17; SD = 1.90
9. When a customer was involved in a car crash caused by his apartment complex’s security gate, this company told the customer that they could not help defending the customer against the apartment complex M = 2.34; SD = 1.56
10. This company charges a premium to customers who note that a roommate uses their vehicle from time to time M = 3.70; SD = 2.01

Appendix D: Communication Tactics for Jaunt’s Coffee Brand

Tagline for Jaunt’s coffee ad Politeness rating Communication tactic
1. Do you want some coffee, sir? M = 6.00
SD = 1.02
Impersonal tactic: “give deference” vs. Personal tactic: “use in-group identity markers”
2. Do you want some coffee, dude? M = 3.45
SD = 1.40
3. Are you going to have a cup of coffee? M = 5.29
SD = 1.30
Personal tactic: “use in-group identify markers”
4. Gonna have a cup of coffee? M = 4.50
SD = 1.14
5. I want to ask you to have this coffee M = 5.17
SD = 1.11
Impersonal tactic: “hedge”, minimize the size of imposition on hearer”
6. I just want to ask you to have this coffee M = 4.57
SD = 0.99
7. I don’t suppose you mind trying this coffee M = 4.33
SD = 1.71
Impersonal tactic: “hedge,” “be pessimistic,” “minimize the size of imposition on hearer” vs. Personal tactic: “assert or presuppose concern for hearer’s wants”
8. I’m sure you won’t mind trying this coffee M = 4.36
SD = 1.56
9. You know, this coffee is the best in the world M = 4.83
SD = 1.07
Impersonal tactic: “hedge,” “be pessimistic” vs. Personal tactic: “assert or presuppose concern for hearer’s wants”
10. You might say, this coffee is the best in the world M = 5.25
SD = 1.26
11. It would be appreciated if you tried this coffee M = 4.30
SD = 1.76
Impersonal tactic: “impersonalize speaker and hearer avoiding pronouns “I” and “you”
12. I would appreciate it if you tried some coffee M = 4.50
SD = 1.56
13. Would you like a cup of coffee? M = 5.92
SD = 1.58
Impersonal tactic: “hedge,” “be pessimistic”
14. Do you want a cup of coffee? M = 5.54
SD = 1.31
15. Would you like a cup of coffee? M = 6.50
SD = 0.59
Impersonal tactic: “hedge,” “be pessimistic” vs. Personal tactic: “seek agreement,” assert or presuppose concern for hearer’s wants,” give or ask for reasons”
16. Wouldn’t you like a cup of coffee? M = 4.88
SD = 1.70

Appendix E: Ads Used in Study 2

Appendix F: Pre-test of Ethical Ratings of Jaunt’s Practices

Statements of Jaunt’s business practices Ethical ratings
1. Jaunt teaches local farmers new innovative technology and data platforms, but they do not implement these technologies locally M = 4.09; SD = 1.56
2. Jaunt donates coffee trees to local farmers, but they do not ensure that the trees are disease-resistant M = 3.74; SD = 1.87
3. Jaunt pays their employees fairly, but they have been accused of tax evasion M = 3.21; SD = 1.83
4. Jaunt collaborates with local farmers who promote gender equality, but some of the women employed by these farmers are under age M = 3.12; SD = 1.53
5. Jaunt collaborates with local farmers in Peru, but they do not contribute to infrastructure improvement in Peru M = 4.00; SD = 1.67
6. Jaunt uses environmentally-friendly natural pesticides, but they have lower quality coffee by clearing all native trees to plant as many coffee trees as possible M = 3.38; SD = 1.94
7. Jaunt coffee beans are hand-picked which ensure the best quality, but they do not check whether the farmers compensate their workers fairly M = 2.79; SD = 1.40
8. Jaunt is committed to fair trade practices, but they do not disclose the price of their green coffee beans M = 4.28; SD = 1.42
9. Jaunt increases the price of coffee based on the tariffs of international imports instead of purchasing local coffee M = 3.97; SD = 1.61
10. The mobile app of Jaunt offers coupons that are not applicable in store M = 4.88; SD = 2.11

Appendix G: Communication Tactics for CJ’s Apparel Brand

Tagline for CJ’s apparel ad Politeness rating Communication tactic
1. Do you want some clothes, sir? M = 5.21
SD = 1.79
Impersonal tactic: “give deference” vs. Personal tactic: “use in-group identity markers”
2. Do you want some clothes, dude? M = 4.56
SD = 1.63
3. Are you going to buy some clothes? M = 4.20
SD = 1.75
Personal tactic: “use in-group identify markers”
4. Gonna buy some clothes? M = 4.35
SD = 1.41
5. You need some new clothes M = 4.58
SD = 1.60
Personal tactic: “Give gifts to hearer (e.g., goods, sympathy, understanding, cooperation)”
6. You look like you could use some new clothes M = 3.58
SD = 1.41
7. Try on our clothes to look great M = 4.42
SD = 1.47
Personal tactic: “assume or assert reciprocity”
8. Try on our clothes and we’ll make sure you look great M = 5.16
SD = 1.57
9. You know, these clothes are the best in the world M = 4.60
SD = 1.32
Impersonal tactic: “hedge,” “be pessimistic” vs. Personal tactic: “assert or presuppose concern for hearer’s wants”
10. You might say, these clothes are the best in the world M = 4.44
SD = 1.22
11. It would be appreciated if you tried on these clothes M = 5.81
SD = 0.89
Impersonal tactic: “impersonalize speaker and hearer avoiding pronouns “I” and “you”
12. I would appreciate it if you tried on our clothes M = 5.50
SD = 1.28
13. Would you like some clothes? M = 5.27
SD = 1.15
Impersonal tactic: “hedge,” “be pessimistic”
14. Do you want some clothes? M = 4.42
SD = 1.30
15. Would you like some clothes? M = 4.92
SD = 1.31
Impersonal tactic: “hedge,” “be pessimistic” vs. Personal tactic: “seek agreement,” assert or presuppose concern for hearer’s wants,” give or ask for reasons”
16. Wouldn’t you like some clothes? M = 4.73
SD = 1.51

Appendix H: Ads Used in Study 3

Appendix I: Pre-test of Ethical Ratings of CJ’s Practices

Statements of CJ’s business practices Ethical ratings
1. CJ purchases clothes from manufacturers that do not use child labor, however the manufactures do not provide health care benefits to their employees M = 3.93; SD = 1.34
2. CJ pays men and women employees equally; however, they have more men in managerial positions than women M = 4.41; SD = 1.41
3. CJ manufactures regular clothes and clothes for oversized people, however their oversized clothing is expensive due to the extra fabric used M = 5.00; SD = 1.50
4. CJ hires women who work in cooperatives, however these women are sometimes criminals who don’t pay their taxes M = 2.77; SD = 1.17
5. CJ collaborates with local farmers in Peru, but they do not contribute to infrastructure improvement in Peru M = 3.64; SD = 1.51
6. CJ uses low impact dyes, but the colors fade in clothing and is not durable M = 4.25; SD = 1.54
7. CJ helps disadvantaged communities, but the help is only through volunteer service and not monetary in nature M = 5.16; SD = 1.41
8. CJ uses recycled plastic in its product line, but they do not use rubber or metal which have been proven to be safe to use in recycled fabrics M = 4.83; SD = 1.34
9. CJ is inspired by authentic culture in designing garments, but their fashion is seen as dated M = 4.84; SD = 0.91
10. CJ offers long term relief for victims of sexual exploitation, yet they have not tried to influence policy measures to ban such exploitation M = 4.53; SD = 1.65

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Sundar, A., Cao, E.S. Punishing Politeness: The Role of Language in Promoting Brand Trust. J Bus Ethics 164, 39–60 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-018-4060-6

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Keywords

  • Politeness theory
  • Interactional justice
  • Belief in a just world