Do consumers prefer ambiguous names?

Today we have crayons called "Inch Worm," "Jazzberry Jam," "Tropical Rain Forest," "Manatee," "Bittersweet" and "Razzmatazz."  Or have you noticed you can’t understand half of the ice cream flavors these days?

Miller and Kahn discovered that there’s method — and perhaps even profit — to this maddening name game. In one test, 100 students taking part in an unrelated study were told that after they had finished the research task they should select jelly beans from six containers as a reward for their participation. They were told that each container held a different flavor of jelly bean. Half the students saw containers labeled with ambiguous names ("white Ireland," "moody blue"), while the other half saw those same containers with more specific descriptive names ("marshmallow white," "blueberry blue"). As the researchers had hypothesized, students took nearly three times as many jelly beans on average from a container that bore a vague name as from one that carried a specific name. In another study involving 60 students, participants were told to pretend they were ordering sweaters from a catalogue. The sweaters in question came in various colors, and these shades were described either ambiguously or using common descriptive names. Again, the students clearly preferred the vague names when making their buying choices. A third test turned up similar results.

Why does ambiguity seem to sell? Miller and Kahn theorize that, without real information, consumers try to understand why the product has such a jazzy name and fill in the blanks with imagined desirable qualities.

Here is the full story.  Here is another summary.  Here is the paper.  Here is one researcher’s home page.


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