«of the AM’s Brand, Corporate Identity and Reputation SIG INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE SESSIONS Sessions chairs The main function of a session chair is to ...»
Eisingerich et al., 2011, Kim, 2013, Vanhamme et al., 2014). In this respect, a good deal of research suggests that a positive image for CSR may give rise to a ‘buffering effect’, whereby a CSR ‘halo’ (Fombrun, 1996, Coombs and Holladay, 2006) or ‘moral credit’ (Merritt and Effron, 2010, Effron and Monin, 2010) diminishes the impact of a crisis on consumer perceptions of the company (Dawar and Pillutla, 2000, Klein and Dawar, 2004, Kim and Yang, 2009, Fombrun et al., 2000). This is most often explained with regard to cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger 1957), whereby people are believed to discount inconsistent information about an organisation, absolve of it of responsibility for wrongdoing, and even excuse a transgression when such information contradicts existing positive perceptions about the company’s morality (Balzer and Sulsky, 1992, Effron and Monin, 2010, Merritt, 2000).
On this basis, the current study sets out to test the proposition that audience exposure to CSR advertising will mitigate the impact of subsequent exposure to negative news on company
image. To this end, the following hypotheses are tested:
H1. People who are exposed to CSR advertising ahead of reading negative crisis news will attribute less crisis responsibility to the company than those who read the crisis news without first being exposed to CSR advertising.
H2. People who are exposed to CSR advertising ahead of reading negative crisis news will report a more positive image of the company than those who read the crisis news without first being exposed to CSR advertising.
Method/approach The study was conducted by way of a 2 X 3 between-group experiment, administered online to a total of 672 participants. All participants were British adults, purposively sampled from a large research panel on the basis that they spoke English as a first language and owned a pet.
Participants were randomly divided into six groups to facilitate exposure to different types of CSR advertising and two different crisis news frames, as illustrated in table 1.
All participants were presented with a mock-up front page from an online news website. In each treatment condition, participants were first exposed to two repetitions of a CSR video advertisement for an invented pet food company (Nutriopet). The advertisement focussed on the company’s commitment to working with charities to rescue, rehabilitate and care for mistreated animals. Multiple exposures to the advertisement were facilitated by asking each participant to click on two unrelated video news stories in turn. Each video news story was preceded by the invented Nutriopet advertisement, which the participants were required to watch. This is reflective of the natural online news environment in which it is common for video news stories to be preceded by ‘compulsory’ video advertisements. Participants in the treatment condition were then required to click through to an invented (written) news story about an ecological disaster in which river wildlife had been killed by a chemical spill at one of Nutriopet’s factories. In the control condition, participants were required to watch the two video news stories without any preceding advertisements, and then click through to the negative news story about the company’s chemical spill. Thus the control condition differed from the treatment conditions only by virtue of the fact that the Nutriopet advertisements were not presented to control participants. Following this exposure phase, established scales were employed to measure the following dependent variables: attribution of crisis responsibility, evaluation of company image, affective and cognitive attitudes towards the company, behavioural intentions. Analysis included comparison of the between group comparison of means and a detailed examination of the influence of covariates.
Findings Hypothesis 1 was supported only in the case where the event in question was framed as an accident (rather than a preventable situation) in the CSR advertisement, showing that people exposed to CSR advertising framed in this way ahead of learning about a crisis tended to attribute less responsibility to the company than those who learnt about the crisis without being exposed to CSR advertising. This same result was found to be independent of the two different ad-appeal types (affect-based and information-based advertisements). Hypothesis 2, on the other hand, was supported for all CSR advertising ad-appeal types and for both accidental and preventable frames suggesting that being exposed to CSR advertising could mitigate the negative impact of crisis news on the image of a company. Evidence was provided for the each of the hypotheses which, coupled with additional planned analysis, leads to two main conclusions. First, people who are exposed to CSR advertising appear to give the company ‘the benefit of the doubt’ by crediting them with less responsibility for the crisis if it appears that the event occurred outside of the company’s control. Second, CSR advertising appears to contribute to the establishment of a ‘CSR halo’ or ‘moral credit’ that, in turn, reduces the negative impact of crisis news on company image.
Theoretical implications The findings of this study show that prior exposure to CSR advertising can mitigate both the attribution of crisis responsibility and the negative impact of subsequently encountered crisis news about the company. In this respect, it may be seen to provide empirical support for a cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) account of how positive company image might serve as ‘moral credit’ for an organisation in times of crisis (Effron and Monin, 2010). By contrast, the results of this study would appear to contradict an expectancy disconfirmation theory explanation (Burgoon and Poire, 1993) in that enhancing the corporate image by way of CSR advertising did not appears to result in a ‘boomerang effect’ when negative news was subsequently encountered.
Practical implications Contrary to previous concerns over the efficacy and appropriateness of CSR advertising, this study demonstrates that CSR advertising can be an effective impression management strategy for creating a moral image amongst consumers. When employed on an ongoing basis, it potentially offers protection from the reputational damage of future, unspecified crises. Given that 88% of US consumers think companies should communicate more about their CSR and 93% of them are more likely to trust socially responsible companies (Cone, 2013), the results of this study should thus serve as encouragement to companies considering the use of CSR advertising as part of a long-term communication strategy.
Limitations For the purposes of this study, the effects of historic knowledge, experience and perceptions of the company in question were controlled for by using an unfamiliar organisation. Although participants were not aware that the company, events or advertising were fictitious (until they were debriefed at the end of the experiment), the extent to which existing and long-held beliefs about the organisation might moderate the effects observed in this study remains an issue for future research. Also due to the short period of time between viewing video materials and answering the surveys in this experiment, future research should consider the experiments carried out with larger time periods between exposure to videos and participating in surveys to more accurately reflect real markets situations. However, the findings of this study provide an empirical validation that communicating CSR through advertising channels can benefit companies by establishing a positive image in consumers which can in turn possibly mitigate the negative influence of crisis news on the image of a company. In addition, whilst this study sought to account for different ways in which the events leading up to the crisis might be framed (e.g. as an accident or transgression), negative reporting focussed entirely on company negligence and mismanagement. Further research is necessary to validate the results of this study when illegal or unethical corporate behaviour are at the heart of negative news reports.
Originality/Value This study expands the current state of knowledge on the benefits of pre-emptive CSR advertising by empirically validating, for the first time, its potential to act as a buffer against negative publicity. It thus makes a clear contribution to an important and relatively unexplored area of research.
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