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If an Amazon review makes you laugh, are you more likely to buy?

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Erin McCarthy | (TNS) The Philadelphia Inquirer

Ever found yourself laughing at your computer or phone screen while reading a review for a rudimentary product on Amazon?

Perhaps for the “Wolf Moon Shirt” that went viral in 2009 or the banana slicer, a product for which there was no demand (“For decades I have been trying to come up with an ideal way to slice a banana,” reads a top review).

Maybe for the lift-a-flap book Where Is Baby’s Belly Button? (One popular review for which is titled “DO NOT buy this book, you can SEE the ending right on the cover!”) Or the sugar-free gummy bears that reviewers said severely upset their stomachs. (“Cheaper than a colonoscopy!” wrote one.)

Temple Fox School of Business professors Sunil Wattal, associate dean of research and doctoral programs, and Susan Mudambi set out to find out what impact these pseudo reviews have on consumers’ online shopping habits. Working with professors from the University of Virginia and the University of New Hampshire, they published their findings in a recent study, “Not Just for Fun: The Effect of Pseudo-Reviews on Consumer Behavior.”

“It was just a fun study to work on because we laughed a lot,” said Mudambi, professor emeritus of marketing. “Researchers usually don’t laugh a lot about our research projects.”

For the study, more than 250 people read real Amazon reviews, which were either pseudo-positive, pseudo-negative, genuine-positive, and genuine-negative, and reported how likely they were to buy the item based on the review. Then, another 180 participants looked at product reviews that were either all genuine or all pseudo.

All participants were recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online service often used in academic research, and compensated for their time. They read reviews for products that had been selected by the researchers based on their popularity, measured by the number of reviews.

The researchers found that pseudo reviews can both increase and decrease sales depending on the context. While a genuine negative review might dissuade you from buying a product, a pseudo negative review could prompt you to purchase for the laughs.

Here’s what the researchers want you to know about pseudo reviews.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: What inspired you to look into reviews?

Mudambi: We started on this almost 10 years ago. There were just thousands of reviews on this silly T-shirt of three wolves baying at the moon. It went viral for a while. It got us thinking: Why are people going to the effort of reviewing something in a humorous fashion?

Wattal: People have been reviewing for a long time now, but the fact is that these were not really reviews. It was just people trying to be funny. They were popular, and they were being read. The fact that the platform even allowed these reviews, we found that aspect fascinating.

Q: What are the motivations behind these exaggerated reviews?

Mudambi: Erin, can I ask you, have you ever written a review on Amazon?

Q: I actually don’t think I have.

Mudambi: And have you ever read reviews on Amazon?

Q: Oh yes, all the time.

Mudambi: I have a class of 40 students and everyone will raise their hand that they have read reviews. Generally, 0 to one have actually written a review. So it’s kind of a bigger question: Who writes these reviews that we rely on? And for funny reviews, it’s a smaller subset, but the motivation might be similar: That they’re trying to make a name for themselves. Or else they just have way too much time on their hands.

Q: Is it always obvious it’s a pseudo review?

Wattal: These kind of reviews are clearly exaggerations. Nobody would really think that you’d get that level of gastric distress on a couple of gummy bears or that you’d get superpowers by drinking milk or getting a T-shirt. There are some gray areas, but for the most part, people will be able to tell these are just somebody being goofy.

Q: How do these reviews impact consumers’ decisions?

Mudambi: We find that a lot of time with the negative pseudo reviews, some people are more likely to buy the product because it’s so funny or controversial. Because once again, a negative funny review isn’t really a negative review in the same way as a genuine review. You’re saying, ‘This T-shirt, I’m giving it one star because every time I go out and wear it I’m attacked by people who want to go out with me or to kiss me.’ Is that really a negative review?

Wattal: The effect of the rating of the review is kind of tempered by the humor. If it’s a positive pseudo review compared to a positive genuine review, the effect is much less.

Q: What are your biggest takeaways for consumers?

Mudambi: Consumers should beware of any review that is too positive or too negative. My other takeaway is if you’re looking for some benign humor, online reviews are a good place to go. But don’t take yourself or the products or the reviews too seriously.

Wattal: Don’t take anything at face value. On the other hand, it’s an opportunity. If you’re looking for a gift for your friend and something is viral with all these fake reviews, you might as well buy that. Chances are it’ll generate a good laugh at a party.

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