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Gift-Wrapping Effects on Product Attitudes: A Mood-Biasing Explanation

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  • JOURNAL OF CONSUMER PSYCHOLOGY, 1(3), 197-223 Copyright (g) 1992, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

    Gift-Wrapping Effects on Product Attitudes: A Mood-Biasing


    Daniel J. Howard Department of Marketing

    Edwin L. Cox School of Business Southern Methodist University

    In four experiments, I examined the effects of gift wrapping on product attitudes. Two questions were addressed. First, does gift wrapping an item have a favorable influence on attitudes toward owning what is received? Results of all four experi- ments consistently support an affirmative answer to that question. Second, what explains the attitudinal results? I argued that gift wrapping, through repeated pairing with joyous events in people's lives, has utility in cuing a happy mood which, in turn, positively biases attitudes. Results of the last three experiments support this mood biasing position by demonstrating that a happy mood consist- ently mediates gift-wrapping effects on attitudes. The results are consistent with an encoding specificity view of mood retrieval and a mood maintenance explana- tion of attitude formation. The encoding specificity view was supported by find- ing stronger effects of gift wrapping on mood retrieval in conditions arguably present when the relation between gift wrapping and happy mood was estab- lished in the lives of subjects, such as the receipt of a personal gift (Experiment 2), the receipt of a gift wrapped in traditional gift-wrapping paper (Experiment 3), and the receipt of a gift-wrapped present on subjects' birthdays (Experiment 4). The mood maintenance process was supported by finding parallel effects of gift wrapping on mood and attitude and by finding the mediational effects of happy mood on attitude strengthened as subjects felt happier. These results are consistent with the premise that the happier the mood, the more subjects sought to maintain that state through the development of favorable attitudes toward owning the gift they received.

    Salesperson: This is very nice. I 'm sure she'll be happy with it. Take it to the back counter and we'll wrap it up for you.

    Requests for reprints should br sent to Daniel J. Howard, Department of Marketing, Ed- win L. Cox School of Business, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX 75275.

  • "] 98 HOWARD

    Customer: Salesperson: Customer: Salesperson:

    Oh, there's no need for that. Sure there is. You should have it wrapped. Why? Because she'll like it more.

    This conversation is a paraphrased version of a dialogue I happened to over- hear a couple of years ago in a gift shop. It made an impression because of its suggestiveness about the nature of human reactions to a common cultural phenomenon: gift wrapping. Since then, I have conducted a series of informal discussions with people on this issue. Most people concede that when they receive a gift, with the exception of things like flowers and some food items, they prefer to have it wrapped. Equally clear, however, is the opinion that receiving a gift that is wrapped has no influence on how people feel about owning it. When asked why they prefer to have gifts wrapped, many people simply reply, "gifts are supposed to be wrapped." This suggests that perhaps people may simply like the idea of a present that is wrapped, independent of their feelings for what is inside, because gift wrapping is consistent with cultural norms and prior expectations. On the other hand, consistent with the gist of the argument offered by the salesperson, is it possible that gift wrapping may indeed have a favorable influence on evaluations of the object itself?. Further, if such an effect can be demonstrated, what theoretical position best explains the outcome? This investigation reports the results of four experi- ments designed to address these questions.

    The gift-giving process has been examined across a variety of disciplines, encompassing sociological (Gouldner, 1960; Neisser, 1973), anthropological (Belshaw, 1965; Mauss, 1954), economic (Camerer, 1988; Kerton, 1971), psy- chological (Jones, 1964; Schwartz, 1967), and consumer behavior perspectives (Belk, 1976, 1979). However, consideration of gift wrapping as a variable in the gift exchange process has been ignored to date. This is unfortunate given the extensive nature of the practice, especially in Western cultures. Last year Americans spent an estimated $1.3 billion on gift-wrapping paper, bows, and ribbons (Manufacturing USA, 1989). Cialdini (1980) suggested that much can be learned by observing the practices of those who make a living engineering and implementing influence techniques in the marketplace. Through such observations, means of testing those techniques in a controlled manner can be developed, which will allow us a better understanding of the practices. This series of experiments represents an extension of that view: I tested a commonly accepted cultural practice to see whether that practice is persuasive and what accounts for its effectiveness. These experiments should help us understand the dynamics underlying an aspect of our common cultural heritage as gift givers, gift receivers, and consumers. The first experiment was designed to determine whether wrapping a gift has an influence on attitude toward owning the item received.




    Procedure and materials. Subjects were informed that a national, spe- cialty merchandising firm was interested in obtaining evaluations of a variety of new and existing products for use in developing market strategies for the coming year. Subjects were told that the sponsoring firm will award them with a gift upon completion of their tasks to thank them for their time.

    Each subject was individually tested. Subjects were taken to a room contain- ing four different products (a lensatic compass, a giant snow/ice remover, chimes, and a magnifying glass), each in an unsealed box and accompanied by a brief product description. On top of each box was a manila envelope contain- ing a questionnaire. Subjects were told there would be fifth product for them to evaluate, but the sponsor was late in delivering it. However, it was expected that the fifth product would arrive by the time they were through with the first four.

    First, subjects were told to examine each product closely and then answer each respective questionnaire. They were allowed to reexamine the products if they wished when answering the questions and were told their responses will remain anonymous. The first question on each questionnaire asked subjects their attitude toward owning each product. (This question was asked to be consistent with the target object, as discussed later.) Each questionnaire con- tinued with a series of open-ended questions, particular to each product, designed to support the cover story. Subjects were told to contact the experi- menter, who was in an office at the end of the hall, when they finished. This part of the experiment took approximately 60 rain to complete.

    As subjects arrived at the experimenter's office, they were informed that the fifth product still had not arrived. Then subjects were seated as the experi- menter explained that he had to call a contact person in the sponsoring firm to determine the problem. Then the experimenter made a call to an empty office with subjects far enough away to prevent them from detecting that the experimenter was actually holding a conversation with himself. Throughout the conversation, the experimenter was busily writing down information. This action, along with the gist of the experimenter's statements and replies on the phone, was designed to be consistent with the explanation subsequently pro- vided to subjects.

    After the call, the experimenter explained that the contact person, who was a researcher for the firm, was still waiting for one of the product managers to bring the fifth product and questionnaire to him and so he was unable to deliver it. However, to avoid losing valuable consumer input, he asked that subjects evaluate the product being used as a gift, because this product was also manu- factured by the firm. Then the experimenter asked subjects if they would mind

  • 200 HOWARD

    spending the added time, and no one objected. Next, he took a questionnaire for one of the previous products and modified the questions (by hand) to correspond to the gift being awarded. For the critical attitude measure, this modification involved changing only the product name in the question. Throughout this process, the experimenter explained to subjects what he was doing while he was doing it. The modified questionnaire was then placed in a manila envelope. On the basis of pretesting, this experimental procedure was found to be necessary to alleviate subject suspicions about receiving a gift and then being asked to evaluate it. The procedure, therefore, was developed to make it appear as if the evaluation of the target product was unplanned.

    The independent variable manipulation was then introduced. In the wrapped condition, the experimenter went to a drawer and retrieved a box in blue and white gift-wrapping paper with a matching bow and ribbon.~ The box contained a sheepskin seat cover for a bike, which was in a plastic bag provided by the manufacturer.' A brief description (professionally typeset and com- prised of actual promotional copy used by the firm) accompanied the gift and was placed in the plastic bag:

    Sheepskin bike seat cover is comfortable and cool. On a long bike ride, every additional mile makes that seat feel more and more like a rock! I f you had one of these soft, shearing sheepskin covers on that seat, you'd be off and away. . , in total comfort.

    The cover does not retain either heat or cold and does not feel damp from perspiration. A drawstring holds th