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  • Nikki Johnson

Syntax Hacks


The topic of grammar might seem dull, but what if we told you a minor grammatical adjustment to your advertising could bring you substantial results?


This week Shadûf dove deep into the February 2022 edition of The Journal of Consumer Research, specifically the research performed by Massimiliano Ostinelli and David Luna. Ostinelli and Luna argue that by altering the subject of a sentence in an advertising claim to a user subject versus a product subject, companies will experience much greater ad-performance results. This is because a customer is far more likely to commit to a purchase when they feel the product is the right “fit” for them, and this small grammatical shift can help create this perception of “fit” in the minds of potential customers.


What does this look like in a real-world advertisement? This means shifting the focus away from your product and onto your customers by making customers the subjects of your claims. Instead of saying “our brand succeeds for customers” (product subject, e.g. our brand succeeds), a company would say “customers succeed with our brand” (user subject, e.g. customers succeed).

The authors tested this theory by creating two versions of an advertisement for an online dating website. For the product focused claim the ad stated “[Brand Name] succeeds for 87% of clients.” In contrast, the user-focused ad read, “87% of clients succeed with [Brand Name].” Results showed that the user-focused ad increased the click-through rate by a full 47%!


Another study the authors performed was by using an ad for a loyalty program. Participants were randomly shown an ad that either had: a user-focused claim (“consumers who accumulate $1,500 of purchases receive a $150 cash bonus”), a product-focused claim (“this program requires you to accumulate $1,500 of purchases to receive a $150 cash bonus”), or no claim at all (“requirement: $1500 of purchases at the department store; bonus: $150 cash”). Participants from the user-focused claim greatly outperformed the other two groups. Participants in this group were more likely to join the loyalty program, perceived more of a “fit” with the loyalty program, and believed that less effort was required to redeem the program, than both the product-focused claim and control group.


Why did this happen? It is none other than social comparison. Here at Shadûf we frequently discuss social comparison and how it impacts purchasing behavior (make sure to check out our blog post “Sell Them on Renting”). We were excited to see that once again, social comparison is a huge driving force toward higher sales. This is because when the users are the subjects of a claim, potential consumers hold those users responsible for any chance of product failure (as opposed to the product itself). For example, if over 80% of users on a dating website succeed, the 20% who fail are because of something those users did wrong (as opposed to the dating site failing 20% of the time).


Although it is important to have user-focused claims, businesses have to be careful about who the users are in their claims. These studies found that user-focused claims that used “expert” users actually scared away potential consumers as they view their own skills as inferior. In contrast, when using average users, potential consumers feel they are on “an even playing field” and are much more confident in their skill levels.

Simple shifts in sentence structure matter and can have significant results for your business. Make sure to subscribe for more data-driven business hacks!


Source: Ostinelli, M., & Luna, D. (2022). Syntax and the Illusion of Fit: How Grammatical Subject Influences Persuasion. Journal of Consumer Research, 48(5), 885-903.

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