Watch enough late-night TV, and you’re likely to see any number of infomercials advertising “miracle”products that can save consumers from the drudgery of a cluttered closet, a sagging figure or a dead-end job. But new research by Wharton marketing professor Keisha Cutright suggests that not all consumers are looking for a hero —instead, they’re seeking a helper that will put in the hard work alongside them to achieve a particular goal. 

In “Doing It the Hard Way: How Low Control Drives Preferences for High-Effort Products and Services,”Cutright and co-author Adriana Samper, a marketing professor at Arizona State University, find that when people feel a lack of control over their lives, they will seek out products that require them to put in some effort —and in turn, reignite their belief in being able to achieve a positive outcome. The paper was published in the Journal of Consumer Research.  

In this interview with Knowledge at Wharton, Cutright discusses her findings and their implications for consumers and marketers. 

An edited version of the transcript appears below.

On the question of hero vs. helper:

My colleague and I have been interested in understanding what types of products people like to buy when they’re pursuing different goals. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, you want to get fit or you have different professional goals. In particular, we want to know: Do you want the product that tells you, “Hey, we’ll do it all for you. We’ll make this very easy for you?” Or, do you want the product that says, “We’ll help you down this path, but you have to work really hard, as well.” Which do you want, the hero, or the helper? 

We think that one important determinant of this is your feeling of control over outcomes in your lifethe extent to which you feel as if you can make positive things happen and avoid negative things in your life. We find when people feel low control over different aspects of their lives, they actually want the brand that is more of the helper, not the hero. They want the brand that says, “You have to work hard, and we’ll be here to help you, but we’re not going to do all of the hard work for you.” They would rather Nike come in and say, “You put on our shoes, and if you work really hard, we’ll help you toward this goal of losing weight or getting fit.” They don’t want Nike to come in and say, “Put on our shoes and they will do all of the work for you.” People want to feel as if they have to put in the work, because this gives them a sense of empowerment, it makes them feel as if eventually, they can actually control outcomes in their lives again. And so, that’s what we’ve studied over the course of several studies and have found this same effect very reliably.

“We find when people feel low control over different aspects of their lives, they actually want the brand that is more of the helper, not the hero.”

On the key takeaways of the research: 

We focus on two different groups, consumers and marketers. For consumers, the one thing we want people to take away is the idea that you may not want the product with all of the bells and whistles or the product that says it will make things as easy for you as possible; you may, actually, be more satisfied by picking up the product that you believe you have to put in a little more of the effort to see the same outcome.

For marketers, it’s a similar idea; it’s that your consumers may not want you to tell them that your product is so fantastic that it will do everything for them, and that they don’t have to put in so much work. You may not want to emphasize the ease in using your product, or getting the benefit from your product as much. You may want to, instead, focus on the idea that consumers have to put in a little bit of work as they use your product, and then they will get the desired outcome.

For example, you have a Swiffer. Instead of focusing on how easy it is to clean with a Swiffer, for your low control consumer, you may want to say, “This is a very effective product, but it needs you. If you put in the hard work, our product is there to help you along the way, to make sure you gain these fantastic cleaning outcomes in your home.”In both cases, you’re talking about the product being great and [resulting in] a quality outcome, but in one situation, you’re focusing more on the value of the consumer. You’re saying that the consumer has a role in delivering this outcome that they’re looking for. 

On identifying target customers:  

As marketers, we already do a lot of psychographic research; and so, to your point, we can understand who our targets are in general, and we can start by throwing in questions about personal control — very basic questions to see how much control our target consumer feels over their outcomes in life. That will give you a general sense, a place to start when you’re focusing on your particular target consumer. 

We also know that there are different demographic trends that predict feelings of control. For example, the lower you are in income, oftentimes the lower your feelings of control. Or the more elderly in our population often have lower feelings of control. There are others who don’t have as much control over their health or just physical abilities and mobility, in general — they also often have lower feelings of control. Some of those trends can give you cues and clues as to whether or not you may be dealing with consumers that have low feelings of control, but it does require more targeted …research to really understand your particular consumer, and to see if this is important for them.

Over several different experiments, we focus largely on manipulating people’s feelings of control. I have people write about a time when they had low control to make them feel this sense of low control. I also looked at intramural basketball players, and I would recruit people after they won or after they lost, and I’d get a sense of control based on [the outcome of the game]. In all of these cases, I’m making people feel low or high control, or using natural environments to test this. But we know that there are lots of situations where people just chronically feel low or high control, and I think our research is particularly applicable to those groups. I think for those groups who have these chronic issues with control, issues with feeling as if they can’t really alter things in their environment, I think for those groups, it’s particularly important to think about the types of products that they want and how you can be more empowering in your products for them.

“[There] are different demographic trends that predict feelings of control. For example, the lower you are in income, oftentimes the lower your feelings of control.”

On people’s shifting sense of control:

For people who always have a very high sense of control, we find that they don’t really care how you talk to them about their products. We didn’t see much of a difference in their reactions as to whether or not the product was empowering for them or not. Whether [the product was marketed as if] it required a lot of effort or not …really mattered to consumers when they experienced low control. But it could be a consumer who typically feels high control, but they just had a very bad day and then, for example, turned on the news and read about violence in their neighborhood — that would be enough to trigger a feeling of low control over their lives in that moment. Or, maybe it’s the recession that is making them feel lower control than they might normally feel. So, even those high control people, if you can find moments in which they feel low control, that’s the place in which you can try to target them, or you can try to manipulate your communication with them to remind people that you may not have as much control over your life as you’d like. 

On how the research relates to current events:

There are a lot of interesting tidbits and buzz about high-intensity workouts nowadaysCrossFit programs or P90x, Insanity, you see lots of people who love to work out to the point where they might puke, right? It’s very hard for many of us to understand this, but, I think that our research suggests in some ways that working so hard, this high-intensity type of training, gives people a sense of control. It’s the one part of their day or part of their lives where even if nothing else is going right, even if they have no control over anything else that happens, when they step into the gym or when they turn on their video to work out, this is the one thing they have control over, this is the one thing that they say, “You know, I can make my body do what I need it to do.”I think that in a lot of ways, these are examples of people trying to reassert control through their effort.

On how the research dispels misperceptions: 

On one hand, I hope that it allows people to see that we all try to reassert control in different ways, ways that we may not expect and ways that don’t necessarily always seem logical or rational to others. But, it’s our way of establishing control in life. I think, also, there are sometime stereotypes about folks who typically have lower controlpeople with lower incomes or physical disabilities. We tend to think that they want us to make things very easy for them, and that may not be the case. They want to be able to exert some levels of effort, so that they can empower themselves and achieve outcomes. And so, hopefully, this research will help to shed a bit of light on that.

On how the findings relate to prior research:  

There has been research done for a long time looking at low feelings of control, and a lot of the research suggests that low feelings of control leads people to give up more quickly. So, if I give you a puzzle and you have low feelings of control, you won’t spend as much time on it. Or, if I put you under a certain amount of pain, you will be less likely to be able to deal with that pain or to endure. 

“When they step into the gym or when they turn on their video to work out, this is the one thing they have control over, this is the one thing that they say, ‘You know, I can make my body do what I need it to do.’”

What our research is suggesting is that if you give people a tool or a prop — like brands — that gives them the sense that there is someone here, something here, to help you, that you can spur low control people to actually want to put in the effort, because now, this is their chance. They’ve got Nike by their side, right? Now they have a chance to say, “Let me put in this hard work; I know I can do it. I have support here, and now I can feel empowered.” So, they’re not as likely to give up as what we’ve seen in prior research.

On what’s next:

We’ve been thinking a bit about this idea of effort, and we’re wondering how feelings of control may impact things like cheating, for example — in an academic context, but also in a more business-related context. It could be cheating on taxes; it could be stealing. If low control folks are more interested in effort, when they feel as if they can engage in effort, how does this impact cheating? Might we see differences between low and high control? We think that would be interesting. 

We’re also interested in learning more about what aspects of our environment — particularly, our shopping environments — influence people’s feelings of control. So, what is it about, say, going into a Target or a Walmart that might inspire low feelings of control or high feelings of control?