June 05, 2024

We are surrounded by marketing every day.

Facebook ads and promotional texts are the most obvious. But there are other, less overt, marketing tactics companies use to motivate consumers, from odd pricing — such as items marked $14.97 at big box stores — to tensile price claims — sales that present a range of price discounts applied to a discounted category.

Hualu Zheng, assistant professor of management & marketing in Susquehanna University’s Sigmund Weis School of Business, studied tensile price claims to see how customers reacted when they discovered they weren’t getting the full discount advertised.

“We wanted to find out how aware customers are of marketing tactics,” Zheng said, “with the goal of improving marketing literacy among consumers and identifying policy implications that could aid in safeguarding consumer rights.”

Zheng conducted her study through a paid search campaign that presented consumers with identical ads that varied the percentage off — up to 10% off or up to 90% off. All search ads were linked to the same landing page on a global apparel website where most items were between 10% and 15% off, and only one item was 90% off.

Zheng tracked customers over 55 days to determine if the high percentage off led to increased clicks and if the detection of deception — discovering that most items were barely discounted — resulted in a purchase or continued web browsing.

She found that the higher the tensile price claim, or advertised discount, the less likely consumers were to purchase, having identified the deception within the marketing claim.

Zheng said her findings could have policy implications in the areas of consumer rights, false advertising and marketing ethics.

“Our findings suggest that once consumers detect deception from a business, they are inclined to move on from that business,” Zheng said. “This tells us that integrity in marketing isn’t just about selling a product, it’s about building trust. It’s the cornerstone upon which lasting relationships between consumer and brand are built.”

Zheng earned two master’s degrees from the Mississippi State University and a doctorate in agricultural and resource economics with a concentration in food marketing from the University of Connecticut. In 2023, Zheng was awarded the university’s Donald D. Housley Teaching Award.