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17 February 2022 Corina Härning, Stabsstelle Kommunikation und Marketing, University of Augsburg

Marketing professionals know that a smile goes a long way. As a result, salesclerks with a beaming smile generally achieve higher sales. However, that is only true if their cheerfulness does not come across as fake. An obviously fake smiles can have exactly the opposite effect. Sometimes, however, the question of "real or fake" does not seem to matter, as a study by the University of Augsburg, Germany and Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Australia has now shown. The results were published in the journal Psychology & Marketing.

Numerous studies have shown that a smile perceived as “genuine” has a positive effect on customers’ willingness to buy. However, the findings are less consistent when the positive mood is faked. "Some studies show that fake cheerfulness has a negative effect – possibly because customers suspect a lack of interest on the part of the salesclerk," says Dr. Andreas Lechner, a researcher at the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Augsburg. “However, there are also studies that do not find this effect. There are obviously other factors that determine the effect of a fake smile.”

Together with colleagues from QUT in Brisbane, Australia, Lechner analyzed what these could be. The researchers investigated the effect of feigned cheerfulness in three experiments. They used professional actresses as “salesclerks”. On the one hand, they were photographed while smiling in a natural way (i.e., involving the eye muscles, for example), whilst in comparison photos their cheerfulness was obviously feigned.

In one experiment, about 500 participants were asked to put together a meal kit, a package of ingredients for a recipe, online. The actress, whose photo was shown above the chat, served as their virtual advisor – for some participants with a genuine smile, for others a fake smile. The research team now looked at how often a purchase was made in each case. As an additional variable, the researchers varied the number of choices that the customers had. Some of them only had one meal kit to choose from, while others could choose between four meal kits.

The result was clear. If the smile was genuine, customers bought significantly more often. However, this only applied to those who could choose between four meal kits. If there was only one, on the other hand, the fake smile did not have a negative effect on sales. But why is that? “If there is a large selection, customers focus on their own unique needs,” explains Lechner. “They have a choice and they want to make that choice in such a way that they are satisfied with it. And the demeanor of the sales staff plays a role in this satisfaction.”

Freedom of choice thus makes people egocentric to a certain extent. However, if choice is limited, customers no longer put themselves first, but rather see themselves as connected to others. In this situation, they are more benevolent towards those around them – so it is not that important to them whether the smile was genuine or not.

To date, research on the effects of feigned cheerfulness has mainly focused on concomitant factors on the part of customers or sales staff. Experimental studies show, for example, that a fake smile has a particularly negative effect if customers and employees are not in frequent contact, that is, there is no strong relationship. "With freedom of choice, on the other hand, we are concentrating on a factor that has hardly been examined in this context to date," emphasizes Lechner.

Some recommendations for management can also be derived from the results. Whenever choice is small, the mood (or the acting performance) of the staff plays a less important role in purchase decisions and customer satisfaction. Companies could make use of this, for example, by deliberately restricting the choices available to their customers. If, for example, the employees of an ice cream parlor find it difficult to smile at the end of a hot summer's day, the owner could reduce the number of offered flavors and put some variety in the freezer for the next day.

"Managers can also develop marketing communications that appeal to customers' sense of community," explains Lechner. What these might look like and what effect they have is something the researchers want to investigate in greater detail in the future.

Contact for scientific information:

Dr. Andreas Lechner
Faculty of Business and Economics

Telefon: +49 821 598-4247

Original publication:

Thuy Pham, Andreas T. Lechner & Frank Mathmann (2022). Fake Smiles. Customer Reactions to Employees' Display Inauthenticity and Choice Restrictions. Psychology & Marketing; DOI: 10.1002/mar.21643

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