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Healthy Persuasion

Ioannis Kareklas holds his newly released book on the organic food industry amid scholarly journals that his studies have graced, an online campaign he assessed that promotes infant health, and his organic banana tree. (Photo by Mark Schmidt)

ALBANY, N.Y. (August 31, 2017) — An expert in the field of marketing studies the ways that clients can best communicate the advantages of their products to potential customers. Assistant professor Ioannis Kareklas, however, feels best when products successfully marketed make the world a healthier place.

“My research is primarily focused on prosocial behavior,” said Kareklas, a UAlbany alum (2003) and Marketing faculty member since 2015. “I am interested in better understanding how to best promote these behaviors. I have a great interest in public health, as well as other public policy issues.”

Kareklas’s studies have covered a wide range of subject areas — from the influence of people’s automatic color preferences on their evaluations of product, race and spokespeople, to the impact of source credibility in advancing health messaging, to the power of death-and-dying cues in public service announcements (PSAs) for curtailing texting while driving, to the effective use of seemingly casual product placement in movies and TV, and much more.

Each has drawn considerable national attention, including interview with NPR, the NY and LA Times and Washington Post, Forbes and New York Magazine, the online Huffington Post, and NBC, Fox, ABC and CBS television affiliates all over the country.

His texting and driving study, for which he was lead author was named “best article” of 2014 by its publisher, the Journal of Consumer Affairs. He was also lead author on a study of how much consumers are swayed by egoistic and altruistic considerations in purchasing organic foods. It was one of the top three downloaded articles in the Journal of Advertising in 2014.

This topic he, along with co-author Darrel D. Muehling, further explored in a book released this year: Deciphering Organic Foods: A Comprehensive Guide to Organic Food Production, Consumption, and Promotion (Nova press).

“The specific topics I tend to focus on often emerge from current societal and business trends,” he said. “When I become aware of business practices or emerging social norms that may be beneficial or harmful to consumers and society at large, I read the relevant academic literature, trying to better understand what is already known about this topic. Subsequently I try to find ways to extend current knowledge that can contribute to societal welfare.”

Kareklas’s interest in promoting health behaviors arises from his personal interest in public policy and his academic training as a doctoral student (University of Connecticut) in the areas of consumer behavior and advertising. Among his many current projects is one having to do with what he and his co-authors call “Review Fixing Programs;” it describes the many ways in which online retailers manipulate consumer reviews on their websites.

“Large retailers like Amazon often maintain a panel of reviewers who are sent products free-of-charge in exchange for providing reviews of these products on their website,” said Kareklas. This, he said, is a quite different consumer experience from purchasing products. “Consumers expectations tend to increase with the amount they pay, and their level of satisfaction/dissatisfaction is determined by comparing the actual performance of the product against their preexisting expectations.

“Therefore, consumers who pay nothing for a product tend to be highly satisfied with it, and then tend to post highly positive — artificially so — product reviews.” Kareklas’s study also exposes consumer reviews that are hand-picked and edited by online retailers, giving the impression everyone loved the product.

“Our project aims to expose these practices and to illustrate that they are harmful to consumers, and perhaps even to the e-retailers themselves in the long run, as consumers may lose trust in e-retailers engaging in such practices.”

Such areas of study in marketing have expanded along with marketing opportunities in the digital era. “The proliferation of the internet has really empowered both marketers and consumers alike,” said Kareklas. “Marketers can now access consumers all over the world at a fraction of the cost of the pre-digital age. Similarly, consumers now have a wealth of information freely available with a few clicks of their mouse, 24/7.”

This transformation in the way business is done has brought good consumer news, but also new concerns, along with new areas of research. “With the widespread adoption and use of the internet, we are now focusing more of our research attention on electron word-of-mouth communications, specifically, the sharing of information online between consumers about different products and services, or social ideas like vaccination attitudes and intentions, or issues such as racial equality.”

This expands individuals’ opinions well beyond their immediate social circle. “Opinions given online are instantly accessible to others all over the world, presumably forever,” he said. “This has far reaching implications for society and business practices.” He noted clear advantages, such as greater free access to valuable health information, but detrimental aspects, such as information shared to incite riots or to recruit members for terrorist organizations.

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