Married consumers make brand choices to spite each other, says study

How to get back at your Pepsi-loving husband? Have a Coke and a smile.

If your husband has once again refused to put his damn Coke can in the recycling bin, you just might express your anger toward him by buying a Pepsi, according to new research.

It's called "oppositional brand choice," and it means that, when provoked, individuals will choose a brand that is exactly what their partners hate, even if they dislike it, too.

"This tendency—to choose brands that are the opposite of what our partner prefers when frustrated with our partners—seems to arise from two conflicting desires of wanting to express frustration, but not wanting to harm our relationship," said Danielle Brick, University of New Hampshire assistant professor of marketing, in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.  

In a series of studies, Brick and her co-author, Duke University marketing and psychology professor Gavan Fitzsimons, tested the effect that feelings toward one's spouse had over brand selection. In the main study, which consisted of 292 online participants, the researchers first asked subjects to name which of two competing brands in six categories their spouse preferred. Then, they sought to evoke feelings about the spouses by having participants write about one of three things: a frustrating experience with the spouse, a happy experience or the spouse's physical appearance. Next, the subjects were asked to choose a brand from the original list. Lastly, the researchers asked the subjects whether they felt they held more or less power in the relationship than their spouse.

The findings suggest that people who are feeling frustrated with their partner and perceive themselves to have less power in the relationship are more likely to choose a brand that competes with the one their spouse prefers.

"Whereas people with higher power in the relationship will simply tell their partner they are frustrated and move on, lower power partners have fewer means to express their frustration," Fitzsimons said. "This is where brand choice comes in."

A followup study not only confirmed those findings, but suggested they operated on a subliminal level. For that study, 127 participants were brought into the lab and "primed" with casual mentions of their spouse's name and, depending on the group they were assigned to, words that suggested frustration, happiness or no emotion. Once again, those subjects who claimed to have less power in the relationship and were primed with negative emotions were more likely to make oppositional brand choices.

"The findings have implications for marketers, who could benefit from understanding how consumers' emotions and interpersonal relationships impact their choices," Brick said. "Marketers assume consumers are making brand choices consciously and deliberatively, when often, factors outside consumers' conscious awareness and control are impacting their decisions."

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