Gender matters in negative word-of-mouth advertising

Whether shoppers share anecdotes about bad experiences depends on their gender and a couple of other factors, according to a new study from Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“Consumers are almost twice as likely to engage in negative word-of-mouth, and it can be one of the most persuasive forms of communication among a company’s consumer base,” said Vikas Mittal, the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at Rice and a co-author of the study.

“Whether or not you engage in this type of behavior depends on whether you are a male or a female, whether the person you are talking to is a close friend or just an acquaintance and whether you are concerned about impairing your image — that is, admitting you are not a smart consumer,” the authors wrote. Their study will be published in the April 2014 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

In their experiments, the researchers asked 415 men and women to recall dissatisfying retail experiences and indicate whether they told others about them. The researchers noted whether consumers relayed the negative word of mouth to close friends or casual acquaintances and measured how concerned the consumers were about what other people thought of them.

Results from one study showed that men were sensitive to impairing their image but their complaining behavior did not differ for close friends or acquaintances. If they had high concern about their image among others, men were less likely to complain overall. In contrast, women showed a remarkably different pattern. Only when they had a high concern about their image among others were they less likely to complain to fellow shoppers they didn’t know. Otherwise, women had a higher likelihood of complaining to close friends. In other words, women’s complaints, especially to strangers, are more sensitive and decrease when they are among strangers; among those with whom they have strong ties, women are equally likely to complain regardless of any concern for image impairment.

“Prior research has assumed that negative word-of-mouth transmission is largely a function of product performance,” Mittal said. “Our research, in contrast, shows that social factors — particularly those related to a person’s gender and closeness to whom the complaint is made — can crucially affect whether or not people will complain. These results occur because women are more concerned about others’ welfare than males are, especially if the other is a close friend.”

The authors concluded: “There may be some product categories (fashion goods, for example) where people may be more concerned about their image and less likely to admit when something went wrong.”

“Companies need to understand that when consumers are unhappy with their products and services, they — especially women — are more likely to complain to other customers with whom they have strong ties. Because of their focus on close friends, women may use negative word of mouth as a way to let their close friends and associates know about negative consumption experiences,” Mittal said. “Companies interested in organic sales growth through word of mouth need to ensure that occasions for customer complaining are minimized.”

Mittal’s co-authors were Yinlong Zhang, associate professor of marketing at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Lawrence Feick, senior director of international programs, director of the University Center for International Studies and professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh.

For a copy of the study, “How Males and Females Differ in Their Likelihood of Transmitting Negative Word of Mouth,” e-mail

— Jeff Falk, Rice News