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Ribbon campaigns might be effective at raising awareness for a social cause but not as good at raising money, UBC research shows.

Aijaz Rahi/The Associated Press

The Globe's roundup of research from business schools.

From Movember mustaches to Facebook groups to proud displays of colourful ribbons and wristbands, more and more charities are turning to social media and other highly visible campaigns to raise funds for their causes. But do these campaigns work or are they turning us into a generation of "slacktivists?"

A study conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia came to some sobering conclusions.

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In a series of experiments conducted in the field and the lab, researchers asked participants to show their support for various causes. In one study, one group was given a poppy to commemorate Remembrance Day and asked to put it on immediately. Another group was given a poppy in a sealed envelope to take away with them. A third group, given neither a poppy nor an envelope, acted as a control. Individuals in all three groups were then asked to make a donation to support Canada's war veterans. (The money raised was, in fact, donated.)

Individuals who had accepted the poppy in a sealed envelope donated significantly more than those in the other two groups.

The results were replicated in similar experiments asking participants to sign online petitions, join a Facebook group or wear a pin. "Those who gave public support were no more likely to say yes to the big request [for money] than those who were just asked randomly," says Kirk Kristofferson, a doctoral student at UBC's Sauder School of Business and co-author of the study. "In essence [the public campaign] did nothing."

The reason, he says, is that liking a group's Facebook page or showing other outward displays of support seems to fulfill people's desire to do a good deed and present themselves to others in a positive light. Once that desire is satisfied, "It tends to lower the likelihood of following through [with a donation]," he says.

The findings could have important implications for the many charities and organizations that have come to rely on such tactics. "We're not saying that these campaigns are bad," Mr. Kristofferson explains. If the goal is to raise awareness, these strategies can be effective. But, if the intent is to raise money or encourage people to become more actively engaged, then charities might be better off spending their resources in other ways, he suggests.

In some cases, such campaigns may even be detrimental. The study points to research indicating that the ubiquity of the pink ribbon campaign and its associated products can detract the public's attention from its true aim – raising support for breast cancer research. Mr. Kristofferson says the best way for charitable organizations to counteract this behaviour is by appealing to ties between a donor's personal values and that of the organization.

Mr. Kristofferson co-authored the study with Katherine White, associate professor of marketing at Sauder, and John Peloza, associate professor of marketing at Florida State University's College of Business. Their article was published in the online version of the Journal of Consumer Research in November. It is expected to be published in the print version in April.

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Emoticons can be persuasive :)

Perhaps charities and other organizations should take a lesson from researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University's School of Business and Economics and the University of Toronto-Scarborough.

Hae Joo Kim, assistant professor of marketing at Wilfrid Laurier in Waterloo, Ont., and Pankaj Aggarwal, associate professor of marketing at UTS, found that encouraging people to behave in a socially responsible way could be as easy and cost-effective as painting a smile on a garbage bin.

In one experiment the pair conducted along with Hee-Kyung Ahn, assistant professor at Hanyang University's School of Business in Seoul, participants were asked to evaluate an energy conservation poster.

One group was shown a poster of a light bulb with a face and a message that read: "I'm burning hot, turn me off when you leave!"

A second group was shown a poster of a plain light bulb with a message, "Our bulbs are burning hot, turn the lights off when you leave!"

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Participants in the first group said they would be much more likely to comply with the message. Subsequent experiments found that participants were more likely to compost when shown a poster of a garbage bin with a face and to donate to a tree-planting campaign when shown a poster of a tree with eyes and a mouth saying, "Save me."

The reason, the authors conclude, is that attributing human-like features and emotions to inanimate objects can tug at our heart strings and stir feelings of guilt. Their article appeared in the November issue of Psychological Science.

Predictable prices preferred, even if higher

Consumers like predictability, even if it means paying higher prices, according to new research by Eric Dolansky, assistant professor of marketing at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and Mark Vandenbosch, marketing professor at the University of Western Ontario's Ivey Business School in London, Ont..

In an experiment conducted by the two, participants were offered a choice between two fictional vendors. The prices of the first vendor fluctuated randomly between $4 and $12 while those of the second vendor showed a steady increase but within the same price range. "People overwhelmingly preferred the sequence that moved upwards," says Dr. Dolansky.

When asked to predict the vendors' future prices, participants forecast that the vendor with the steadily rising prices would have prices that were on average 40 per cent higher than the vendor with the randomly assigned prices. Yet they still showed a clear preference for the vendor with the higher, stable prices. "They like the predictability," Dr. Dolansky says. "They like the ability of knowing approximately what the prices are going to be," even though that may not be financially advantageous, he adds.

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The inherent bias might explain why consumers choose fixed-rate mortgages over floating rates even though repeated studies have shown that variable-rate mortgages can save them money.

Any business thinking of employing a fluctuating price system would be well-advised to think twice, Dr. Dolansky warns.

Consumers have come to expect volatile prices when it comes to buying gas or booking airline tickets because it's an industry-wide practice that leaves consumers with little other choice, he says. Sports teams, too, have begun to experiment with variable ticket prices, depending on the popularity of the opposing team. But when given an option, consumers will usually choose the retailer that offers stable, predictable prices, Dr. Dolansky says.

Rosanna Tamburri can reached at

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