Got bad reviews for your product? They may just help you, but only if you’re not already famous

Prithwiraj Mukherjee March 23, 2017 4 min

Story Highlights

  • Reviews and word of mouth, whether positive or negative, go a long way in increasing consumer awareness
  • Market research proves that sales of well-known authors were hurt by negative publicity, but unknown authors actually benefited from bad reviews

Gunda — a film directed by Kanti Shah, and featuring Mithun Chakraborty, Mukesh Rishi, Harish Patel, and thespian baddie Shakti Kapoor — along with Plan 9 from Outer Space, Jaani Dushman and Glen or Glenda are all movies in a league of their own. They are so bad, they’re good — their lack of quality, low production values, idiosyncratic storylines and bad acting have accorded them the status of cult classics.

Literary societies even have awards for the worst opening lines and bad sex scenes in literature, and many of us have secretly chuckled at Rebecca Black’s terrible single Friday.

So, why do some atrocious offerings become so popular while other lamentable products die a quiet death? In this week’s column, we will try to make sense of bad reviews and how they affect products.

Why do some atrocious offerings become so popular while other lamentable products die a quiet death?

Let’s first look at the extant theory of how consumers make choices. One popular theory states that there are five stages in this process — problem recognition, information search, evaluation of alternatives, purchase decision, and finally post-purchase behaviour. Most consumption decisions are driven by a need, or a problem.

For example, you may be bored, and to alleviate this problem, you begin searching for alternatives. You have many categories to alleviate your boredom — movies, TV, plays, books, going to restaurants or checking out your what your long-lost classmates are doing on Facebook. At this stage, seemingly unrelated options are competing for your attention. So, what are your alternatives — only those that you are aware of. Keep this thought in mind, as it will be an important consideration later on.

Anything that you haven’t heard of from anyone or anywhere, by definition, is out of your awareness set, and depending on the depth of your information search, your set will be formed here.

This is where the advertiser comes in. One of the purposes of advertising is to increase your awareness of the advertiser’s offering. Remember the pug in the Vodafone ads which seems to convey no information about Vodafone’s offerings? Such ads are just aimed at making you aware that a brand called Vodafone exists. Not just advertising, word of mouth also plays an important role in driving awareness. Remember a previous Anchors and Prospects piece on how piracy increases awareness of the original product? Similarly, reviews and word of mouth, whether positive or negative, go a long way in increasing consumer awareness. Thus, even a book with poor reviews has more awareness than a book simply ignored by critics and consumers.

Reviews and word of mouth, whether positive or negative, go a long way in increasing consumer awareness  

The next stage is evaluation of alternatives. You now narrow down your alternatives here, and first select a category, and then a narrow range of comparable alternatives. If you have selected books, for example, you may narrow down your list to critically acclaimed offerings by authors like P G Wodehouse, Chetan Bhagat or Amish Tripathi.

Here is where it gets interesting. Marketing researchers Jonah Berger, Alan Sorensen and Scott Rasmussen studied New York Times reviews (a very popular source of critiques in the US) for 244 books, and their subsequent sales, to find that sales of well-known authors were hurt by negative publicity, but unknown authors actually benefited from bad reviews. Thus, a popular writer’s sales would suffer in the face of bad reviews, but if you or I were to write a similar novel, we would actually benefit from being panned by critics rather than being ignored by them.

Thus, a popular writer’s sales would suffer in the face of bad reviews, but if you or I were to write a similar novel, we would actually benefit from being panned by critics rather than being ignored by them  

Once you evaluate comparable alternatives, you choose your final purchase and in the post-purchase phase, you could either keep quiet or spread positive or negative word of mouth information about it. The conditions for these are studied extensively too, and factors other than satisfaction often drive these decisions (for example, extreme love or hate for a product need not always solely drive word of mouth, but your mood, product category, etc can drive your decision). All of these stages are extremely important for marketers, and different ads are often designed to appeal to different stages in the decision-making process.

So, if you’re a relatively unknown producer of movies or videos, or a small restaurateur or singer, do not worry if a popular critic has panned you — you may just benefit from the accidental awareness that such a review has triggered. However, if you are a famous person, this may be cause to worry, and you may need to buck up!

Read other Anchors and Prospects stories here.


Lead visual: Angela Anthony Pereira This column is intended to showcase interesting academic research in marketing. The technically oriented reader is encouraged to read the original research articles cited in the column. Prithwiraj Mukherjee is Assistant Professor of Marketing, IIM Bangalore. Views are personal.