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To sell more, smile less?

Category: Blog & News

How big should your smile be? That was the subject of some interesting research that looked at how the intensity of a smile in an ad impacted perceptions of that business.

How big should you smile?

Imagine you are a small law firm and you are designing an ad to attract more clients.  You are mindful that people can feel intimidated by lawyers so decide that your ad will include your friendly photo. You’ve been primped and polished and the photographer is ready to take your close up. They ask you to smile.

Illustrative examples of ads with smiles

Are you better to smile like Option A below, or stifle your exuberance like Option B?

Researchers from the University of Kansas discovered that smile intensity impacts consumer perceptions of a business. In essence, a smile prompts consumers to assess the person in the ad on two attributes: warmth and competence.

The broader the smile, the greater the perceived warmth but the lower the perceived competence.  Think of it like a teeth-to-competence ratio.

Graph of smiles by attribute

Getting your smile right by business type

Taking it further, the researchers delved into whether the type of service promoted by the ad made a difference. Their hypothesis was that when consumers were seeking a product or service to protect them or reduce their risk – a so called ‘prevention focus’ - competence would be more important than warmth and therefore a slight rather than broad smile would be better.

On the other hand, for consumers looking to gain or grow – a ‘promotion focus’ – warmth would be more important and a broader smile the best option.

To test this they mocked up an ad for a nutritionist and varied two things; her smile (slight or broad) and how risky her advice was perceived (low or high). In the high risk condition the ad carried the line “misleading advice…could lead to serious health-related issues”, where this line was deleted in the low risk condition.

Sure enough, when the nutritionist was seen as higher risk, a broader smile reduced her perceived competence, reduced purchase likelihood and reduced sign-ups to receive a free trial.  When the risk was low, the nutritionist with a broad smile was seen as warmer, there was noimpact on her competence, respondents expressed a higher purchase intent and signed-up more often.

How you smile depends on how risky consumers perceive your service

These smile-intensity findings suggest we have to be careful about what message we are sending. If you need to convince people of your expertise and competence (e.g. doctors, lawyers and financial planners), it seems you are better stifling your smile. In the image above, you are better to go with Option B than A. For those in lower risk businesses (like retail fashion or gadgets), a broader smile may be more appropriate :)

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

Ref: Ze Wang, Huifang Mao, Yexin Jessica Li, Fan Liu. Smile Big or Not? Effects of Smile Intensity on Perceptions of Warmth and CompetenceJournal of Consumer Research, 2016


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