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Chemical Reaction: Cognitive Dissonance

By: Steve Herman
Posted: October 10, 2008, from the January 2006 issue of GCI Magazine.

“Consumer preference and motivation is far less influenced by the tangible attributes of product and service than the subconscious sensory and emotional elements derived by the total experience.” —Gerald Zaltman

Most products are what they claim to be and do what they claim they do—shampoos are shampoos and clean hair; lotions are lotions and moisturize skin. However, a few brand owners employ a manipulative marketing strategy called cognitive dissonance. In this realm, a product is not used for its intended purpose, and that disconnect becomes the key to its success. The consumer is in on a secret, a vital key to the product’s appeal. Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon that refers to the discomfort felt at a discrepancy between what is already known or believed and new information or interpretation. The theory, proposed by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1956, holds that the presence of irreconcilable ideas creates a motivating force that leads to the adjustment of one’s beliefs to fit one’s behavior instead of changing one’s behavior to express one’s beliefs.

The use of Preparation H as an eye cream is a classic example of cognitive dissonance. The product has contained two natural ingredients for decades—live yeast cell derivative (LYCD) and shark liver oil. The live yeast cell derivative has been used to combat wrinkles for many years. However, the original formulation no longer is used in the United States but still is available in Canada, creating a black market for the Canadian product. Although it doesn’t have fancy packaging, exotic fragrance or premium pricing, it attracts consumers. The attraction is that it is not marketed for eye care, and makes the consumer a beauty insider.

Another example of dissonance is the use of New Generation Shampoo to combat baldness. The magic ingredient is polysorbate 60. The company Web site is full of information and testimonials, but this disclaimer is buried in the hype: