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Consumer Affective Responses to Direct Mail Messages: The effect of gratitude and obligation

By Natalia Kolyesnikova, Sara Sullivan Dodd, Coy Callison

Direct Mail


"Communicating through gratitude, and even neutral, messages was found to be more persuasive than those messages conveying obligation.”

Source: Consumer Affective Responses to Direct Mail Messages: The effect of gratitude and obligation; Natalia Kolyesnikova, Sara Sullivan Dodd, Coy Callison; Journal of Marketing Communications; Dec. 2011, Vol. 17 Issue 5, p337-353.

Activity Tested: This direct mail study considers the capacity of gratitude marketing messages and obligation marketing messages to act as separate affective influences upon consumer purchase intent and attitudes. 



Hypothesis 1: Gratitude-inducing messages will have a stronger effect on consumer purchase intent than will obligation-inducing messages.

Hypothesis 2: Gratitude-inducing messages will be associated with more positive, favorable overall perception of the company, while obligation-inducing messages will be associated with more negative, unfavorable perception of the company.

Method: The authors used a scenario of a small winery sending direct mail (follow-up postcards) to tasting room visitors. Wine was chosen because its consumers are frequently described as having "emotional attachment and relatively high product involvement."

A total of 6 postcards were used (i.e. two gratitude inducing, two obligation-inducing, and two neutral controls). All six postcards looked identical, varying only in the text message. 

Measures: The study included two main dependent measures: purchase intent and attitude toward the company. After viewing each marketing postcard, the participants responded to the key measures of interest.
Sample: A total of 124 subjects were recruited to participate in the two-session study. The first group consisted of 64 former and current students of a continuing education wine appreciation class offered through a large public university. The second group consisted of 60 undergraduate students (seniors) enrolled in a hospitality management class at the same university. The researchers used these two groups of subjects helped to ensure the respondents’ interest and involvement in the topic. Out of the 124 questionnaires collected four were discarded as incomplete, yielding a final sample size of 120 participants.

Of the 120 participants, 51% were female and 49% were male. The average age of the participants in the first group was 45 years old; more than 40% of the participants reported their annual household income to exceed $80,000; one-fourth of the group did not hold a college degree. Participants in the second group were between ages 19 and 27; more than one-third (34.6%) of the participants in this group reported their annual income to be lower than $20,000; and 91.2% in this group had a level of college education, but no degree.

Top-Line Results:

Hypothesis 1 predicted that gratitude marketing messages would have a stronger influence on customer purchase intent than would obligation marketing messages.

Hypothesis 2 predicted that gratitude-inducing marketing messages would affect consumers’ perceptions of the company as more favorable than would obligation-inducing marketing messages.



Examining demographic characteristics for both hypotheses, the effect of the gratitude messages was stronger on older consumers. In contrast, the effect of obligation was stronger on younger consumers. The effect of gender and age was also tested; no significant main or interaction effects were found.



From the authors: "Because feelings of gratitude appear to exert a significant positive influence on buying intentions and attitudes toward the company, the incorporation of gratitude inducing messages into direct mail interactions with customers deserves serious consideration. Moreover, any use of obligation-inducing messages should be carefully scrutinized. Although creating a sense of obligation may have a short-term impact on sales, obligation may also create customer resistance to a long-term relationship with the company. Where the message deviates from gratitude or other positive affective response, it would be better for messages to err on the side of neutrality than to cross over to obligation."


"The use of control messages in this study revealed another important insight into the value of targeted messages. Conventional marketing wisdom posits that a negative message is more effective than a neutral message; the theory being that to leave consumers with a negative impression is better than leaving no impression at all (Brown, Homer, Inman, 1998). Contrary to this position, our findings suggest that neutrally worded messages in fact have the capacity to generate higher levels of purchase intent and more positive attitudes toward the company than messages that pressure the consumer."

Complexity rating of original source: 2  (Complex statistical analysis scale:  1= easy, 2= moderate, 3 = difficult)

Link to Consumer Affective Responses to Direct Mail Messages: The effect of gratitude and obligation