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Why do we punish the brands we hate?

All of a sudden you get wind that your favourite brand of PJs is involved in some dodgy sweatshop practice. What do you do? Do you take your pyjama love elsewhere, reprimanding and banishing the offending brand to the corner to have a good, hard look at themselves? Or do you turn a blind eye?

Even when you’re not directly affected by what a brand has done, it’s common to become a saboteur. This is backed up by Deakin University business marketing lecturer Dr Jeffrey Rotman’s research – he’s found that people are more likely to act unethically towards a brand, even if they just perceive it to be harmful.

Dr Rotman’s studies found that consumers were prepared to ‘punish’ brands through illegal and unethical behaviours such as stealing, lying or fraud. In fact, they even felt their actions were justified. So why do we love getting on our moral high horses to bring brands down? Dr Rotman has a few insights.

Bombing a brand

When a brand doesn’t know when to say sorry, puts consumers at risk or has a hashtag go viral for all the wrong reasons – oops #QantasLuxury – PR disasters are on the cards. Add to that the impact of our negative behaviour and the accessibility of social media and it’s an absolute recipe for disaster for some brands.

‘Whether it be their impact on the environment, on people’s health and wellbeing, or even the perception of unfair policies, people can perceive brands as being harmful,’ Dr Rotman says. ‘There’s a growing distrust among the public of certain ways businesses behave.’

Born to be belligerent 

Dr Rotman’s research looks at the underlying processes, where the desire to punish disgraced brands is both innate and ubiquitous. ‘People don’t like to think of themselves as unethical and we’re very good at rationalising our behaviour so that we seem good,’ Dr Rotman explains. ‘Ultimately, we tend to re-evaluate the unethical behaviour as serving a good and not actually being unethical.’

The analogy he often uses is to consider the difference between a mosquito and a butterfly landing on your arm. ‘In the mosquito case, you might not just feel “not bad” about squishing it, but actually feel “good” (got ‘em!). But if you squished a butterfly on your arm, you and everyone around you would likely think you were evil.’

'Whether it be their impact on the environment, on people’s health and wellbeing, or even the perception of unfair policies, people can perceive brands as being harmful.'

Dr Jeffrey Rotman,
Lecturer, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

Out for revenge (and free stuff)

We may not be aware of it at the time but, subliminally, when we make a consumer transaction, we expect that brand or product to keep its end of the bargain. If they don’t, shoppers can be like lovers spurned – hurt and, sometimes, out for revenge.

‘Consumers seeking retribution against harmful brands is no exception. That is, when consumers perceive a brand to be harmful, they see them as having violated an implicit social contract and thus deserve punishment,’ Dr Rotman says.

The more traditional explanation for unethical behaviour towards brands is self-interest. ‘People may act unethically because it benefits them,’ Dr Rotman adds. ‘For example, if a consumer steals something from a store, they get the item without having to pay for it.’

Consumer judge and jury

According to Dr Rotman, when seeking to punish someone, unethical acts can be re-evaluated as morally good. ‘Locking someone up in an enclosed space is generally considered unethical, but if/when we as a society do it to punish criminals, we see it as a moral good. The same goes with consumers. Lying may be seen as unethical, but if lying helps to punish a harmful brand, we see it as a moral good.’

In one of Dr Rotman’s study scenarios, participants were told that a report on internet speeds had found that due to ISPs capping speeds at 20% lower, speeds were, on average, consistently below those advertised. It was found that those who did not have a problem with their internet speeds still signed the letter and felt morally justified in doing so because ‘the company was cheating customers’.


Wondering how brands keep consumers happy or deal with #epicfail public relation disasters? Find out what it’s really like to be a PR manager.

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Dr Jeffrey Rotman
Dr Jeffrey Rotman

Lecturer, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

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