The Danger of Assertive Advertising


Researchers find that ads that tell consumers what to do often end up turning them off instead

Some advertisers like to tell consumers what to do. Buy this. Do this. Don’t do this.

But marketers should beware of being too assertive.

That’s because consumers don’t like being told what to do, especially by brands they love, says Yael Zemack-Rugar, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Central Florida and one of three authors of a paper about assertive ads forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

“We have this innate need to feel like we are making our own choices,” she says. “That’s a huge problem for marketers who tend to tell consumers what to do.”

Assertive ads can be especially damaging to companies’ relationships with their most valued customers, says Dr. Zemack-Rugar. “This effect is much worse for the consumers that tend to be the most loyal,” she says. “That kind of loyalty can backfire, because they get more annoyed than anyone if you tell them what to do.”

Spending is affected

The researchers showed magazine advertisements to a total of more than 1,000 participants in a series of seven studies; 72% of the advertisements used assertive language. Responses measured how much people enjoyed the ads, their opinion of the brand and their spending intentions. The participants included consumers who felt committed to liking particular brands and others who didn’t.

In one experiment, participants were asked how much of a $25 gift card they would spend on a brand in one of the ads. Those who saw an assertive ad chose to allocate $7 of the gift card to the brand on average, compared with $14 for those who saw a nonassertive ad.

The best purchasing results came from ads that were “informative and hint at action” by the consumer, Dr. Zemack-Rugar says. The results were consistent across consumer categories, including snack bars, personal hygiene and clothing.

Sensitivity is high

It doesn’t take anything extreme to alienate consumers, Dr. Zemack-Rugar says. “We’re not talking about smack-you-in-your-face aggressive language,” she says. For example, “buy now” may not seem overly assertive but still has the negative effect associated with telling consumers what to do, she says. On the other hand, “now is a good time to buy”—a simple tweak—mitigates the effect, she says.

Some companies try to soften their messages with politeness, using language like “please buy now,” but the researchers found that this didn’t help, Dr. Zemack-Rugar says.

For companies, this can mean rethinking how they present their messages not only in advertisements but also in email communications, on their websites and even in face-to-face pitches by salespeople, she says.

Much assertive messaging is so commonly used—for example, “Like us on Facebook”—that companies mistakenly assume that consumers are no longer paying attention to it, Dr. Zemack-Rugar says. The study found that a “Like us on Facebook” tagline increased the pressure that consumers felt to comply with the ad and as a result diminished how much they liked the ad.

“We’re not immune” to assertive messages just because they’re common, Dr. Zemack-Rugar says. “They still evoke a reaction.”


This article first appeared in

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Alina Dizik

Ms. Dizik is a writer in Chicago.

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