A group of chocolate cupcakes with tempting frosting, an example of a guilty pleasure that many consumers fall for. From desserts to vacations, today’s marketers are experts at engaging the public with products, places and pastimes that they enjoy – and feel guilty about afterwards. Cal State Fullerton marketing Professors Matthew Lancellotti and Sunil Thomas look at how men and women respond to advertising messages in their co-authored study, “Men hate it, women love it: guilty pleasure advertising messages,” published in the Journal of Business Research.

That chocolate cake in the window at 85° bakery may be tempting, but you’re trying to cut down on sweets. If you ultimately indulge but feel bad about it afterwards, you are one of the millions of consumers who might be successfully targeted with guilty pleasure advertising messages, a common and often engaging strategy employed by Madison Avenue and small businesses alike in promoting their products and services.

Professors Matthew Lancellotti and Sunil Thomas looked at the differences and similarities in the effectiveness of this type of advertising on men and women in their recent study “Men hate it, women love it: guilty pleasure advertising messages,” published in the April 2018 edition of the Journal of Business Research.

Asking hundreds of participants to review relevant advertisements and report the personal impact, the researchers examined the resonance across student and general populations and among multiple age groups and both genders. Participants in different groups reviewed the fictitious ZBX from Amalfi motors, a youth-oriented Italian sports car to be imported to the U.S.; the Mac’N Cheese Anytime You Please! dinner; and a resort vacation in Baja California.

“In this research, we found that, generally speaking, women respond positively to marketers’ attempts to frame their product as a guilty pleasure, whereas men respond negatively,” says Lancellotti. “Simply put, seeing a product as a guilty pleasure leads women to like that product more, and men to like it less.”

The study discovered that men are less drawn to products described as a guilty pleasure, whether it is traditionally male-centric, such as a sports car, or gender-neutral, such as a vacation. Highlighting confidence and fulfillment is suggested as a more effective approach in reaching male audiences.

The Makings of a Marketing Professor: A Look at Lancellotti’s Journey
Cal State Fullerton Mihaylo College Marketing Professor Matt Lancellotti I’ve been interested in how people respond to the world around them, and in particular the role the media plays in that process, at least since high school. I studied social psychology at UC Santa Cruz, and after graduating, worked in advertising and digital media in the publishing industry.

That helped me focus my interests on how firms reach out to different groups of consumers to help them understand the positive role their products and services can play in their lives. It even showed me how people might personally identify with those brands and products.

When I went back to get my MBA at USC, I focused on product marketing. I realized then that I loved academics – both the learning/research side and the teaching side, so I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in marketing at USC to focus on the subjects I was interested in, particularly the academic vs. industry side of the equation.

The Guilty Pleasure Business: The Impact for Marketers

Lancellotti notes a number of companies have conducted recent advertising and marketing campaigns focused on the guilty pleasure component of their products.

“Kraft did a whole campaign a few years back in which they ran a series of ads labeling their mac N cheese dinners as guilty pleasures,” he says. “Popchips has also used the concept to promote their chips over competing brands. CBS has advertised its hit show ‘Big Brother’ as a guilty pleasure for years, and cable television’s Food Network has an entire multi-season show called ‘Guilty Pleasures.’”

The Take-Away

With the results of the study, Lancellotti encourages marketers to keep in mind that gender is a significant variable in how consumers respond to advertising messages, even when the product or service in question is not typically viewed as gender-specific.

“Our research highlights the importance of having a diverse range of people in advertisements, ideally communicating and thinking about the products in ways that different types of customers can identify with,” he says. “More specifically, it helps marketers understand the types of messages that women respond positively to as compared with men.”

The paper provides another context for helping marketers understand differences in the way men and women process information – agentically or independent and self-assertive, in the case of men, and communally or focused on the larger social unit, in the case of women – which should allow them to more precisely tailor their messages to both.”

Lancellotti’s and Thomas’s goal is that their research will serve as the basis for future studies, with the hopes of determining if certain advertisement formats, such as endorsements, might lead to different results and to examine the broader impacts of masculinity and femininity on attitudes and connections with promoted products.

For More on Marketing

Learn more about the Mihaylo College marketing concentration at Cal State Fullerton at the official college website.

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