Analysis of 50 Accounts of Consumer Embarrassment
Embarrassment can be defined as a negative emotional response that occurs when an individual feels threatened by another person or a situation (Mizerski and White 1986, p.57).
This report examines the accounts of 55 consumer stories of embarrassment, and identifies two themes which were found to be common amongst all the consumers. The underlying reasons for these commonalities, and their possible marketing implications, are then discussed.
Two themes were found to be common amongst the consumer embarrassment stories, these were; 1) public display and 2) concern for peers. We shall now provide a brief overview of these themes and then explore each in greater depth.
All of the consumer embarrassment stories took place in a public setting that involved more than two individuals, with the large majority of these accounts (89%) occurring outside of the home.
Consumers who had expected a favourable post-purchase outcome (41%) expressed excitement, pride and a strong desire to display themselves and their product.
“I couldn’t wait to wear them at school.”
“I was beaming with pride when I walked into the classroom wearing that sweatshirt.”
“I paraded my new watch, as I thought I looked really cool.”
When a negative post-purchase outcome was experienced however, 62% of consumers reported a negative emotion accompanied by a desire to hide themselves or their product.
“I felt awful, wanting to hide my head.”
“I had a continuous feeling of embarrassment and constantly shied away from interaction.”
“Couldn’t work out how I’d manage to get my football shirt off without showing it to everyone in the class.”
72% of the consumer embarrassment stories also made reference to being mocked as a result of their product or used service, with the consumer’s friends providing the largest source of this mocking (50%).
“She suggested I was ‘a tinker and being a country girl couldn’t afford proper clothes from the city’.”
“I was the laughing stock of my year for a couple of weeks.”
“He started laughing and he made fun of me.”
Concern for peers
75% of consumers expressed some concern regarding the reaction of peers to their purchase. 62% of these consumers had a concern before using or purchasing their product which related to a desire to win the approval of their peers or to attract attention to themselves.
“You want to make a good impression on your friends.”
“I could look cool and impress the girls.”
“You want to fit in and have everything that is deemed ‘cool’ at the time.”
Of the consumers expressing a concern for their peers, almost all (98%) expressed a post-purchase concern related to receiving social disapproval or unwanted attention.
“My jumper naturally causing me to be the centre of attention, but for all the wrong reasons!”
“I felt so embarrassed at my choice…and felt I had lost my respect as a DJ from everyone there.”
“I knew if I wore that to school I would be a laughing stock.”
All of the consumers with post-purchase concerns also regretted making their purchase or vowed never to buy the same product/service again.
“Needless to say I also never returned to Hair Design.”
“Never, ever again will I even consider buying another tub of Brylcreem.”
“From that moment forward I never wore a dress again.”
In summary, two common themes were found from the consumer embarrassment stories: 1) embarrassment occurred in a public setting, and 2) consumers expressed concern for how their peers would react. We shall now explore each of these themes in more detail to discover the possible underlying reasons for why these commonalities may have occurred.
Underlying Reasons for Observed Commonalities
As 100% of the consumer embarrassment stories occurred in a public setting, this suggests that embarrassment is a social phenomenon and so is therefore most likely to occur when other individuals are present.
Tangney and Miller (1996, p.1256) however, suggest that embarrassment may also occur in private (i.e., solitary embarrassment) as a result of a person imagining how other people would react if they were present. Our data does provide some examples to support this claim:
“The humiliation would be unreal and we would be laughing stalks.”
“I knew that I was now something to be ridiculed.”
“Thoughts were already swirling in my head about what they would say when they saw me.”
As shown by these examples, the consumers became embarrassed as a result of imagining a possible future scenario that was largely negative in nature. This may have occurred as a result of the human tendency to act in a way that is consistent with what is expected to happen (Oliver 1974, p.243).
Therefore, the consumers who imagined a negative scenario may have done so due to experiencing or observing a similar scenario in the past, and then using that event to predict the future thoughts and actions of others. In effect, the consumer may have been primed by a past event to expect a future outcome, as the following examples suggest.
“I considered my conundrum, if a social lesser arrived in this pantomime outfit my cohort and I would no doubt ensure they had a ‘bad day’- how would my peers react would this ensue some form of Twelfth Night power reversal?”
“I just looked like an overgrown 4-year old.”
“Wearing the wrong colours in town can lead you to be attacked.”
Imagining a negative scenario however, was relatively uncommon, with just 9% of consumers describing such an event. In contrast, 41% of consumers had expectations of a positive outcome. T
his may have been because more examples (i.e., exemplars) of positive outcomes were available to the consumer thereby creating an availability bias (Carroll 1978, p.88).
Possible sources of these examples may have come from aspirational reference groups (i.e., celebrities), the media or as a result of the image that a particular brand conveyed.
“Spice Girls had been very popular…I believe that the band was one of the great influences on young girls.”
“I had reviewed magazine after magazine and had come to the impulsive decision a change in hair colour was a good idea.”
“Every ‘cool’ boy had to wear astro-turf trainers…there was no debate about the issue.”
Such sources may have influenced the consumer’s usage of a product by acting as a form of risk reduction, whereby an expert endorsement (i.e., expert power) was perceived as a sign of social approval for the product, and therefore, also as a sign of a reduced risk of receiving social disapproval.
“The clothes from ‘Adidas’ were extremely popular at that time and every kid wanted to own an item of clothing with the famous logo.”
“My favourite singer was Britney Spears…For me, she was a perfect woman, so beautiful, with a beautiful boyfriend.”
“The fact that it was a British Home Stores jumper, not the most popular of shops, was bad enough.”
These types of value-expressive influences may therefore have led the consumer to believe that using a particular product would enhance how they were perceived by others, as a result of how those others perceive the person or image associated with that product (i.e., referent power) (Park and Lessig 1977, pp.102).
Positive post-purchase expectations
For those that had positive post-purchase expectations, the consumer expressed a strong desire to display themselves and their product. This was most evident with branded products.
“The logo on the front was dark blue-it was pretty big-everyone could see it.”
“I was so happy and proud because I had the latest model and everybody noticed.”
“I had come into school feeling so proud of my new purchase.”
The obvious inference to make from these findings is that the consumers are associating a product with themselves. Essentially, the perceived positive characteristics of the product (e.g., exclusivity, recognition, status) are being absorbed by the user which then results in an increased desire to become publicly visible.
One could compare this to the sexual ornamentation behaviors of animals, such as a peacock who displays his feathers to a peahen in order to attract and gain a partner to mate with (Reid 2007, p.1395).
Purchased products may therefore also be acting as ornaments, and by displaying those ornaments, the user is made to feel-as a result of their perceptions of the product-more desired and accepted by others which then enhances their sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
Interestingly, some studies have shown that when a brand is criticised by others the user of that brand experiences a reduced sense of self-esteem. This suggests that brands, or products in general, are somehow compensating for a perceived inadequacy that the user believes they possess (Cheng, White and Chaplin 2011, p.284).
The source of these feelings of inadequacy may in fact have come from the marketers of the product which the user had purchased (Wilcox and Laird 2000, p.278).
“I felt alone and my self-esteem was below zero.”
“After the incident I was very depressed.”
“Undoubtedly had an impact on my confidence.”
Negative post-purchase experiences
Out of all the accounts of negative post-purchase experiences, 62% of consumers described a desire to hide themselves or their product.
“I couldn’t stop this situation and I had nowhere to hide.”
“I didn’t know what to do, and I just wanted to hide these boots.”
“I felt so embarrassed and wanted to find a place to hide myself.”
These examples suggest that whilst a product may confer positive attributions to its user, choosing the wrong product can have the opposite effect and cause a person to withdraw from public display.
As a result, by displaying the wrong ornament, the consumer is made to feel less desired and accepted by others which then decreases their sense of self-worth and self-esteem (Grant 2009, p.218).
One could argue therefore, that the reason the consumer became embarrassed was not because of the product itself, but rather, because the product highlighted or exposed an existing feeling of inadequacy that the consumer desired to repress.
“They didn’t stop talking about my shoes. And I felt like the ugliest person on earth.”
“I was crazy for picking such an ugly mobile phone.”
“I still didn’t have any jeans to wear. I was terrified of what the other kids…would think and say when I turned up to school wearing no denim.”
By choosing the “right” product however, the consumer is provided with a mask with which they are able to conceal or disguise the things that they do not like about themselves.
This may then reduce the perceived risk of receiving social disapproval, and so with these inhibitions out of the way, the consumer’s confidence is increased which then also increases their desire to be seen.
“I thought it would be a great idea to go with my best friend to get a fake tan….the pressure to look gorgeous was on every girls mind.”
“The new trainers would make me look ‘cool’.”
“Lots of girls in my class started becoming interested…about purchasing various brands of gorgeous clothes and luxurious cosmetics in order to show their beauty.”
When the wrong product is chosen however, existing feelings of inadequacy are brought to light or new feelings of inadequacy are created. At a subconscious level, perhaps even a conscious one also, the consumer may therefore be made to feel vulnerable, naked and exposed, with no veneer to shield them from the judgements and evaluations of their peers.
This in turn may increase the fragility of the consumer’s confidence, which could explain why a negative emotion was reported by 89% of all consumers. Those who did not report a negative emotion may have had a higher base level of self-worth and self-esteem that made them more resistant to the comments of their peers. Alternatively, they may not have been placed in a situation in which their insecurities were exposed.
“My dad starts making the odd joke about them, nothing serious, just the normal playful banter, nothing I can’t handle.”
“I was a popular kid! And further more a marginal bully, athletic, handsome, funny and cruel. I possessed all of the necessary traits to thrive in this environment.”
Concern for peers
75% of consumers expressed a concern for the reaction of their peers regarding their product choice or use. This suggests that consumers take into consideration the thoughts and opinions of others when making purchasing decisions.
One possible explanation for why consumers appear to be concerned with peer reactions, could be related to a desire to reduce the perceived social and psychological risks of using a product, as 72% of consumers reported being mocked by their peers for using their product.
Interestingly, the level of control that the consumer experienced regarding their purchasing decision appeared to have affected the level of risk that they perceived.
When the consumer had complete control over the product they used for example, 82% reported having expectations of a positive outcome such as being accepted or approved of by their peers.
“I was going to have the chance to be one of the coolest kids in school, wearing my Smiley Snails t-shirt and shorts combo.”
“We were full of joy and happiness that we were going to change our hair colour from natural brown to blond.”
“My friend group believe they know a lot about cars so I was very much set on buying something that would impress them.”
When a consumer was forced to use a product however, 100% reported having expectations of a negative outcome such as being rejected or mocked by their peers.
Interestingly, these concerns occurred when the consumer believed that they would be violating a norm of what was considered to be socially acceptable (Edelmann 1985, pp. 195).
“I can’t wear this to school Mam – everyone will pick on me and be nasty.”
“He did not have to endure the social suicide of wearing one wrong item of clothing and never living it down.”
“I knew before I’d even opened the bag that it was going to be something that I would not like and I was already starting to feel the sense of dread sweep through me.”
These examples suggest that the amount of control which a consumer experiences is directly related to the amount of acceptance that they expect to receive from their peer group. When control is high, expectations of acceptance are high. When control is low, expectations of acceptance are low.
One could argue therefore, that the desire to be accepted by others ultimately leads to a motivation to conform. As by conforming to what the peer group considers acceptable (i.e., “cool” or “fashionable”), the consumer is able to absorb that acceptance onto themselves by becoming part of the “in” group (i.e., reward power).
When a consumer displays negative conformity however, such as by using a product that a younger or older generation would consider “cool”, they risk losing acceptance from their peers and gaining humiliation and embarrassment instead (i.e., coercive power). As shown by the following examples, consumers appear to be well aware of who and what they should be conforming to and why.
“Brylcreem is the thing they used for their hair in the movie Grease. It sort of looked cool then, in the 1950s setting, but in the 21st Century, it is easy to see why it never caught on with the young crowd.”
“In front of me was a Dennis the Menace skateboard. Although I liked him when I was younger, this was when I was 8 or 9 years old. This would not be considered cool amongst my friends.”
“As I opened the box, I could not have prepared myself for what was inside. A rainbow coloured forever friends helmet. “I’m 10 Dad, not 4!!” I remember screaming at my dad, before bursting into tears, I knew if I wore that to school I would be a laughing stock.”
The loss of acceptance from one’s peer group frequently manifests itself in the form of mocking, as this was reported by 72% of all consumers, 60% of whom, reported being laughed at. Mocking may therefore help us to better understand why an individual chooses to conform to others.
Consumers appear to experience embarrassment when they stand out from their peer group as a result of differing from the socially accepted norm.
“The front older kids at the back started laughing and talking between themselves…I felt very embarrassed that I was the only person on the bus who wasn’t wearing a pair of jeans.”
“The mobile phone my parents bought me wasn’t even a proper brand for a mobile phone like Nokia, Samsung or Motorola.”
“The only other girl in the class who had hair as short as mine was a tom-toy. I did not want to be thought of like her.”
Embarrassment frequently occurs as a result of being laughed at or made fun of.
“I was embarrassed like never before. I had been never laughed at like this before.”
“I got just despising looks, some kids were pointing fingers at me and laughing.”
“I realized that he had in fact started to laugh at what I was wearing.”
Laughter, or mocking in general, appears to be communicating a very specific message to the consumer. It signals to them that they are different, and because they are different, they are no longer accepted by the dominant group which could then be interpreted as sign of lower status.
This lack of external acceptance then leads to a lack of self-acceptance which becomes evident in the body language and behavior of the consumer.
“As I walked over to the desk, I was humiliated. I was fighting back the tears, and succeeding – but only just. It wasn’t the teasing as such, but the fact that it was the whole class and the teacher who did it.”
“I kept my head down and kept moving to get to my next class as quickly as possible.”
“I nearly cried knowing we would have to face the whole of our year at the ball looking like tangerines this evening.”
As shown by these examples, when the consumer is made to feel rejected they are also made to feel alone, and because the dominant group holds a particular belief, the consumer assumes that the majority opinion must be correct (i.e., group think) (Abrams, Wetherell, Cochrane, Hogg and Turner 1990, pp. 97).
As a result, this subsequently leads to a rejection of one’s desire to express individuality and a strengthening of one’s desire to conform. In some cases, the majority opinion even led to the consumer changing how they perceived a product.
In the following accounts for example, the consumer first expressed a favourable view of their product, but after they were mocked by their peers, they then expressed an unfavourable view of the very same product which they had previously liked.
“I was so happy when I got it…It was an ‘Adidas’ sweatshirt, it belonged to me- and it was all that mattered.”
“It was unbelievable how embarrassed I felt and how quickly my feeling and perceptions changed. From the most treasured piece of cloth, the sweatshirt turned into source of hatred.”
“When I returned to school after the holidays I paraded my new watch, as I thought I looked really cool…I loved wearing my new purchase around school.”
“I hated the fact I was embarrassed to wear what I had actually thought was really original and cool. I had been so proud of my watch, but after comments from only a few other children I was disappointed and upset that I now did not ‘fit in’”.
“The new P.E kit picked out by my mum was surprisingly cool – I thought at the time.”
“But when I realized that he had in fact started to laugh at what I was wearing, I suddenly felt a deep and horrible sense of embarrassment wash over me.”
“The package came and I was thrilled and happy. The shoes were even quite comfortable…I couldn’t wait to wear them at school.”
“My mother started to notice that this was not just a bad mood, but that those shoes really got me into trouble. I asked her every day if we could just throw those shoes away.”
As shown by these examples, to alleviate the cognitive dissonance caused by holding conflicting views (i.e., consumer like vs. peer dislike), the consumer chose to conform to the dominant group by rejecting their once favoured product in order to reduce the risk of receiving further social disapproval.
It may be the case however, that a consumer becomes less willing to conform as they advance through different life stages such as childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age.
Perhaps by a certain age for example, the consumer’s level of self-acceptance reaches a point where they become less susceptible to the conforming effects of external disapproval.
As a result, they may then become more confident to express their “true” self which consequently leads to them becoming less aware of what is “in” and what is “out” (i.e., trends and fashions).
(Male 39 – age 8)
“As my dad entered the house, he told me that I was going to love my new trainers…the second I opened the box my heart sank.”
(Male 26 – age 10)
“I was happy as nearly all of my current clothes I had bought myself so I had managed to keep the mockery to a minimum.”
(Female 53 – age 14)
“I try to make sure as much as possible that my mother is not on the other side of the counter when it comes to buying any sort of clothing for me, as she lacks any understanding of style fashion and size.”
(Female 48 – age 11)
“I was around 11 years old when my mother discovered that Asda’s George clothing was a lot cheaper than the trendy and mature Tammy Girl where me and my friends, and almost every other 11 year old girl, liked to shop. She tried to persuade me that there was nothing wrong with wearing George clothing and it didn’t matter how much they cost, as long as I liked them.”
As shown by the Asch (1951) conformity experiments however, the desire to conform to others does not appear to dissipate entirely with advancing age. From an evolutionary perspective, one could argue therefore, that conformity is an inbuilt survival mechanism which human beings have a natural tendency to act upon.
By conforming to the dominant group, and thus being accepted by that group, a person may then be able to fulfil their unfilled needs such as physiological needs (e.g., sex), safety needs (i.e., strength in numbers), their needs for love and belonging (e.g., friendship) and their need for esteem (e.g., the respect of others) (Maslow 1943, p.370).
The following account shows that even from an early age, individuals are well aware of how conforming to others can help to fulfil their needs.
“I did understand at that age  the importance of conforming to certain groups as that granted you access to what you would call friends.”
When viewed from this perspective, conformity could be said to encourage one to become a more social being, something which research suggests may even lead to better health and a longer life.
“The idea that a lack of social relationships is a risk factor for death is still not widely recognized by health organizations and the public.”
(Lunstad, Smith and Layton 2010, p. 1).
As embarrassment is associated with strong negative emotions, it can therefore act as a powerful motivator towards conformity and away from individuality. This in turn may then affect subsequent consumer purchase decisions as a result of being conditioned by an embarrassing situation that the consumer does not wish to experience again (i.e., attitude change via operant conditioning).
The following consumers for example, who experienced negative peer reactions, appear to have been conditioned towards future conformity.
(Female 54 – mobile phone)
“I feel that from this my consumer behavior has changed, as I like to have the latest gadgets in phones, technologies. I think I tend to go into shops and pick the latest up-to-date technologies instead of actually picking the best products.”
(Female 1 – shoes)
“What had happened still haunted me from time to time and in the future I tried to buy more things that my classmates would wear as well in order to avoid such kind of embarrassment in further life.”
(Female 16 – “Forever Friends” helmet)
“My friends still remind me of this day, and I am now a lot more cautious about what I buy and wear.”
(Female 20 – trainers)
“Since the incident… I buy “safer” products which are less ostentatious or unusual – I find this quite sad that I avoid buying products which I like for fear of embarrassment.”
In some cases however, where the consumer experienced an unexpectedly positive reaction from their peers, the desire to conform appears to have diminished thereby suggesting that level of conformity which one obeys can indeed fluctuate throughout a person’s life.
(Female 48 – clothing )
“I believe I learned a lesson from this childhood experience: that you don’t need to have expensive or designer clothing to fit in or be liked.”
(Male 39 – clothing)
“This experience taught me that I can be different in the way I dress and not worry about what people thought.”
(Female 32 – watch)
“I learned from this experience that what is important is having something that you enjoy and makes you happy, and it really does not matter what others think.”
These accounts differ noticeably from the consumers who were conditioned towards conformity, as they show how the consumer became less concerned with the opinions of others-thereby suggesting an increased level of self acceptance-and more confident in expressing their true wants and desires.
Those who were conditioned to conform however, displayed the exact opposite type of mentality: an increased concern for the thoughts and opinions of others, accompanied by a decrease in self expression. A point that was vividly demonstrated by female 20:
“I find this quite sad that I avoid buying products which I like for fear of embarrassment.”
In this report we have provided examples of two common themes that were found amongst the consumer embarrassment stories.
The first theme relates to embarrassment occurring in a public setting; consumers who expected a favourable post-purchase outcome expressed a desire to display themselves and their product, but when a negative post-purchase outcome was experienced, there was a tendency to withdraw from public display.
The second common theme that was identified related to a concern for peers, a concern which was expressed both before and after a product or service was used. These findings have several practical implications for marketers which we shall now discuss.
Practical Implications for Marketing
As consumers appear to be concerned with the reactions of their peers to the use of a particular product, marketers may wish to stress the positive consequences of using their product whilst also highlighting the negative consequences of not using their product.
For example, the use of a product could be associated with the theme of receiving social approval from others. This could be demonstrated in many ways, such as the product user having a lot of friends, being admired by others or even being made to appear more attractive to the opposite sex.
The negative consequences of not using the product could be highlighted by associating it with the theme of social disapproval, such as being alone, being rejected or being mocked by others.
These themes could be further extended by portraying consumers of the advertised product as being proud of displaying their purchase to others, similar to how a medal or trophy would be displayed.
To create a contrast effect, marketers may also wish to portray competing products in a less desirable light, such as a consumer who appears embarrassed of their purchase and so tries to hide it from others for fear of ridicule.
In some cases however, the user of a product may be different from the purchaser, in which case, a marketer may need to adopt an alternative advertising strategy. For example, with products where the user does not normally make the purchase (i.e., products targeted at children), the user could be marketed to by associating the product with a popular celebrity or current fashion/trend (i.e., an aspirational reference group).
Doing so is likely to cause the potential user to “stimulate” a purchase action by the purchaser (e.g., a parent), as shown in the following examples of consumers who persistently asked their parent for a product until they received it.
“It took a lot of time to convince my mum to buy them for me.”
“I kept on asking my mum to buy me one.”
“It was what you were meant to beg your parents to buy you in order to be a “cool kid”.”
“I was desperate to get one myself… I would attempt to persuade my parents over and over again.”
It is important however, for the right purchase action to be stimulated (i.e., purchase of the product that the user wants). In some cases for example, consumers reported receiving an alternative product to the one they had wanted which subsequently caused them feel disappointment and embarrassment.
“I tore open the present to unveil my new toy. But instead of joy, my immediate reaction was horror. Instead of a cool design, in front of me was a Dennis the Menace skateboard.”
“I was embarrassed before I’d even looked at it properly. It was a flouncy, velvet, monstrosity of a dress… I was completely mortified at the sight of it.”
“My father came home and said he had a surprise. The surprise in question, however, was not my dream sledge, but a more basic version of it.”
Marketers could therefore appeal to parents by highlighting the financial risk of wasting money on something that their child will not use, such as by showing a child throwing away a product which they did not originally want.
It may also be beneficial to highlight the functional risk of not purchasing the product, such as by displaying a child who is happy with product A and unhappy with product B which they received as a present for their birthday.
Consumers are motivated towards the use or avoidance of products by the reactions of their peers. When peer reactions towards a particular product are perceived in a favourable light, consumers are likely to strongly desire the product and may even feel an obligation to purchase it as a result of the perceived social approval that it will bring.
When negative peer reactions are expected however, consumers can become strongly motivated away from a product and may even change their perceptions of it. The attitudes that the consumer displays towards certain products can therefore be influenced and altered by the experiences which they have with them.
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