Cascading contamination and product reviews – judging brands by the company they keep

Posted on: January 13, 2012

“Reviews containing spelling and grammatical errors consistently result in suboptimal outcomes, like lower sales or lower response rates… the effect is very systematic.”

Panagiotis Ipeirotis

In a recent study of Amazon product reviews – Panagiotis Ipeirotis (Associate Professor of  New York University’s Stern School of Business) analysed how different language affects web users’ perceptions of products. He found that poor language and wording of reviews resulted in less sales of a product, but that the exact reason is not yet known.


This finding took me back to Levi and Kurzban’s theory of cascading benefits in social networks:

Essentially ‘cascading benefits’ works like this:

  • If I behave in a way beneficial to someone else, this will in turn benefit their connections
  • I unconsciously know this, which means I am more inclined to make friends with people who are friends with my friends
  • These ‘tertiary benefits’ I receive by benefiting my connections come to me more consistently if I am part of a dense network
  • The two factors above lead to clustering in social networks

A potential connection between the Amazon review data and the theory of cascading benefits seems to me to be this – Amazon reviewers look to readers like socially connected ‘friends’ of products. If these social connections have poor writing skills, even in delivering positive reviews, we may believe that buying the product brings us into the same social circle, or product/consumer cluster. We avoid this, as we fear the cluster, and product at its centre, to be socially undesirable – and that undesirable social effects will cascade towards us as a result.

The anthropological backdrop to ‘cascading benefits’ theory is that our innate instinct as species living in close-knit communities leads us to believe a favour done to a friend will eventually benefit us. Let’s reverse Levi and Kurzban’s theory and see if it fits- substituting ‘benefits’ for ‘contamination’:

So ‘cascading contamination’ works like this:

  • If I behave in a socially undesirable way which contaminates someone else by association, this will in turn contaminate their connections
  • I unconsciously know this, which means I am less inclined make friends with those I can see are being contaminated by social undesirables
  • The ‘tertiary damage’ I might receive by having a new, ‘contaminated’ social connection would come to me more consistently if I am part of a dense network
  • The factors above lead to my avoiding what I perceive (consciously or unconsciously) to be socially contaminated people or products – even given other indicators of high quality for them

Thus the way in which a product is talked about affects peoples’ attitude towards it – however positive the sentiment expressed.

This is worth considering in multiple social media marketing scenarios – for example running a Facebook page promotion bringing in floods of new fans who have a different socio-cultural use of language to existing fans / your target customer. In this case, securing hundreds of thousands of active (but off-putting) ‘fans’ is the last thing the brand needs to actually engender trust and purchases.

Facebook image from Pacific54

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