Villanova, Daniel, and Ted Matherly, “For Shame! Socially Unacceptable Brand Mentions on Social Media Motivate Consumer Disengagement,” forthcoming at Journal of Marketing. (Preprint) / (Replication package).
Brands invest tremendous resources into building engagement with their customers on social media, but considerably less focus is placed on addressing disengagement, when users actively choose to distance themselves from the brand, through reduced posting or even unfollowing. This is important because social media disengagement is driven by a different process from engagement. We find that the same brand relationships that lead individuals to defensively protect the brand due to its integration into their self-concept, can also lead them to experience shame vicariously when others mention the brand in socially unacceptable ways, such as using profanity. This experience motivates them to distance themselves from the brand, leading to disengagement. In three mixed-method studies, we show that behaviors such as using profanity in conjunction with the brand lead highly connected consumers to experience vicarious shame, prompting distancing motivations, and ultimately leading to real-world unfollowing behaviors on social media. We also show that proactive moderation behaviors by the brand can help to attenuate these responses. These results provide insight into the process by which self-brand connection interacts with socially unacceptable brand mentions and suggest a limitation to the insulating effects of strong self-brand connections.