Red-Faced at the Laptop


New research from Michigan Ross examines people’s feelings when buying potentially embarrassing products online.

Online shopping has been seen as a remedy for people buying products that might be embarrassing to purchase at the store. Does it take care of the problem?

New research by Michigan Ross Professor Aradhna Krishna suggests that alone may not. That’s because people feel embarrassed even in private when they buy things online such as incontinence products or impotence drugs.


“We usually think of embarrassment as a social emotion — that there has to be somebody present to feel it,” says Krishna, Dwight F. Benton Professor of Marketing. “But we find that even in private, people can appraise their own behavior and find that their self-concept is violated. People can feel the same kind of embarrassment in private.”

Krishna and co-authors — Nilufer Aydinoglu, PhD ʼ07, of Koc University in Istanbul and Kelly Herd of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business — ran a series of studies that revealed feelings of embarrassment when buying online.

The authors demonstrate that embarrassment is an emotion which can also be experienced in private, without the presence of others, and by self-judgment. Such private embarrassment can occur, for instance, when one wets the bed as an adult or overeats in the privacy of one’s own kitchen. Even if not observed by others, the transgressions are still self-observed and appraised.

Their paper, “Wetting the Bed at Twenty-One: Embarrassment as a Private Emotion,” will be published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

In one of their studies, they recorded the feelings of people buying Viagra for two different reasons — one group for enhanced performance, the other for impotence. They found that if people purchased Viagra in a physical store, both groups felt embarrassed equally — the act of buying the Viagra with people looking on was embarrassing. But if people bought Viagra online, the group buying for impotence felt a much higher level of embarrassment.

This suggests private embarrassment depends more heavily on the buyer’s purpose — self-concept was affected more when the purchase was for impotence than for performance.

The results show that sellers of sensitive products need to make the consumer feel comfortable purchasing the sensitive product, even when buying online.

“Promoting home testing kits for STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) online, for instance, is perhaps not the most effective way to encourage consumers to seek help and reduce spreading of the disease,” Krishna says. “Instead, marketers and public policy makers could focus on trying to reshape consumers’ own self-concepts as well as cultural norms related to STDs and other potentially embarrassing purchase situations.”


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