Need Help Due In 10 Hours 5 scholarly sources APA Intro summary of the article Discuss how ethics impacts communication discuss the consequences or imp

Need Help Due In 10 Hours 5 scholarly sources APA


summary of the article

Discuss how ethics impacts communication

discuss the consequences or impact on the subject of the article, the organization, and society

discuss importance of ethics in business

reflection of what was learned 


use attached article should come to 6 pages total Vol.:(0123456789)1 3

Journal of Business Ethics (2020) 164:39–60


Punishing Politeness: The Role of Language in Promoting Brand Trust

Aparna Sundar1 · Edita S. Cao2

Received: 31 March 2018 / Accepted: 3 November 2018 / Published online: 13 November 2018
© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Morality is an abstract consideration, and language is an important regulator of abstract thought. In instances of moral
ambiguity (e.g., ethically ambiguous business practices), individuals may pay particular attention to matters of interactional
justice (i.e., how consumers are treated with politeness and dignity by the brand in question). Politeness in language has been
linked to greater perceptions of social distance, which we contend is instrumental in regulating attitudes toward a brand. We
posit that politeness in a brand’s advertising will impact consumers who are attuned to violations of interactional justice
[i.e., those with low belief in a just world (BJW)]. In three studies, we demonstrate that the politeness used in advertising
as well as consumers’ individual differences in BJW affect judgments and attitudes toward brands. Specifically, individuals
with a low just world belief are more likely to harbor negative attitudes towards a brand with ethically ambiguous business
practices if the language used in advertising is impersonal (politer) than when the language used in advertising is personal
(less polite). Importantly, for individuals with a low BJW, lowered trust due to the advertisement’s language mediated the
relationship between politeness and attitudes toward the brand. Theoretical and managerial implications of this research
are discussed.

Keywords Politeness theory · Interactional justice · Belief in a just world


Brands are deliberate in their use of language in advertis-
ing and communications. In 2014, Monsanto, the behemoth
agrochemical company with various allegations of unethical
behaviors (see Langreth and Harper 2010), created a website
(http://disco ver.monsa to address consumers’ con-
cerns over genetically modified foods. The following is an
excerpt from the website:

At Monsanto, we’re all about sustainable solutions.
That’s why we’re committed to getting the public
involved in a global conversation about the methods
we’re using in order to help grow enough food for a
growing world. These methods not only have direct

applications for our food supply, but warrant a con-
versation about global sustainability and biodiversity,
too—which is why if you’ve got questions, we’ve got
answers. Ask your own question regarding anything
from honey bee health, to the effects of GMOs, to sus-
tainability in agriculture and more.

The language used in this excerpt includes various fea-
tures of conversational language, such as idioms, contrac-
tions, and personal pronouns such as we. Such language is
often used among speakers who are socially close and per-
sonalizes the speaker to reinforce such closeness (Brown
and Levinson 1987). It is evident that Monsanto and other
controversial brands attempt to use language in a way that
can shape consumer attitudes towards the brand. What is
less evident is whether such tactics are successful in gain-
ing consumer trust and whether such efforts help or hurt the
brand in the consumer’s eyes.

Politeness as a communication strategy can be effec-
tive under certain circumstances and has important impli-
cations for both consumers and brands (Dillard and Shen
2005; Fitzsimons and Lehmann 2004; Kronrod et al. 2012a).
An effective communication strategy may enhance con-
sumers’ perceptions of a brand and affect their subsequent

* Aparna Sundar

Edita S. Cao

1 Lundquist College of Business, University of Oregon,
Eugene, OR, USA

2 University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

40 A. Sundar, E. S. Cao

1 3

decision-making. For example, politeness in online reviews
can help reviewers seem more credible and likeable (Ham-
ilton et  al. 2014). Politeness in advertising could cause
consumers to purchase certain products or make more
environmentally-friendly decisions (Kronrod et al. 2012a,
b). However, when consumers are exposed to their ethically
ambiguous practices, brands may face the risk that their
intentions are doubted. In particular, brands may find it
advantageous to use language to distance themselves in cer-
tain circumstances in a strategic effort to refocus consumer
attention on their abstract or primary characteristics (such as
brand personality). This could be an effective alternative to
the default focus of a consumer on contextual details (such
as recent negative publicity or questionable business prac-
tices). One way to regulate social distance is by adjusting the
level of politeness in language (Brown and Levinson 1987;
Stephan et al. 2010).

The present research is the first to examine how advertis-
ing that adopts politeness in its language can influence atti-
tudes toward a brand. We are specifically interested in how
consumers respond when a brand behaves in an ethically
ambiguous manner. When practices are ambiguous, consum-
ers are more likely to be swayed by the language used by
advertising. Specifically, the research question we examine
is whether more (vs. less) polite language used in brand
advertising would lead consumers to harbor more negative
attitudes toward brands (e.g., desire to punish a brand for
its actions) when they encounter ethically ambiguous brand
practices like the ones discussed on consumer blog sites or
online reviews. Critically, it is important to understand when
and why consumers would be more likely to harbor nega-
tive attitudes toward a brand. One such characteristic that
consumers differ on regarding their beliefs related to ethi-
cal behavior is belief in a just world (BJW). Therefore, we
examine how a consumer’s BJW affects his or her negative
attitudes towards a brand. Critically, we investigate the role
of brand trust as an underlying mechanism that influences

In this article, we start by presenting a review of polite-
ness theory in communications. We then propose the link
between politeness and attitudes toward a brand. Specifi-
cally, we demonstrate that the politeness used in advertising
can affect consumers’ perceptions of the brand, which can
make them want to punish the brand for ethically ambiguous
practices. Critically, we explore the role of a BJW, which is
a belief that people get what they deserve (Lerner 1980).
Finally, for individuals who do not have strong beliefs that
the world is just, we demonstrate that brand trust drives their
attitudes and desire to see the arguably transgressing brand

Communication Tactics Reflective of Politeness
in Advertising

The use of language in communication is both meaning-
ful and often intended to change perceptions of ethical, or
unethical, behaviors of an organization (Farrell and Far-
rell 1998; Hoover and Pepper 2014; Schwartz 2004; Ste-
vens 1999; Sundar 2018, p. 20; Sundar et al. 2016; Winkler
2011). The two assumptions that make language meaningful
are (1) communications should clearly and concisely convey
information (Grice 1975; Lakoff 1975) and (2) communica-
tions should be polite in order to deliver negative or incon-
veniencing information without hurting the speaker’s public
image (Lakoff 1975). The underlying motivation of polite-
ness in speech is to avoid the risk of potentially negative
social outcomes if speakers are impolite to those that wield
power over them (Riley 1993). Specifically, such negative
social outcomes threaten others’ perceptions of the speaker’s
self-image. Politeness in language, used strategically, helps
speakers manage how others perceive them in specific social

Politeness is a linguistic tool to regulate self-image and to
minimize interpersonal threats (Brown and Levinson 1987).
People in general are concerned about the way others think
about them. In other words, they care about their public
image in a given social context (Brown and Levinson 1987;
Fraser 1990; Goffman 1967). In general, individuals coop-
erate to maintain each other’s positive self-image. When
it comes to the use of language in transactional contexts
(such as consumer–brand interactions), individuals may be
concerned about being perceived to be too harsh or direct
(e.g., asking for a favor, requesting information, criticizing
another, or some other imposition; Brown and Levinson
1987). Therefore, phrasing transactional acts in a way that
mitigates perceptions of such directness is desirable. Indeed,
keeping positive social value is intrinsically important and
requires maintenance throughout a transactional interaction
(Fraser 1990). Politeness is often adopted as a strategy in
social interaction that minimizes the directness and impo-
sition in communications to maintain others’ social worth
(Brown and Gilman 1960).

Politeness is commonly assumed in conversations, and
one only notices its absence when a speaker is violating this
social expectation (Fraser 1990). That said, politeness can-
not be explained as a straightforward social norm; rather, it
is governed by the underlying psychological mechanisms
and specific expectations in a given interaction (for a review,
see Eelen 2014; Watts 2003). As suggested by politeness
theory, there are two ways in which politeness is incorpo-
rated in language (Brown and Levinson 1987). An imper-
sonal (or politer) form of speech is adopted when there is a
threat to being respected and acknowledged by others (Fraser

41Punishing Politeness: The Role of Language in Promoting Brand Trust

1 3

1990). In contrast, a more personal (or less polite) form of
speech is adopted when there is a threat of not being per-
ceived positively or appreciated by others (Fraser 1990).
The key difference between the two types of tactics (i.e.,
personal vs. impersonal language) is the level of social dis-
tance maintained between the speaker and hearer, along
with the accompanying expectations for the respective dis-
tance. Impersonal speech establishes greater social distance
between the speaker and hearer; personal speech establishes
a sense of familiarity (Brown and Levinson 1987). Because
greater social distance often leads to abstract moral thought
(Eyal et al. 2008), language tactics that reinforce greater
social distance (i.e., impersonal language) may be of par-
ticular interest when examining ethical judgments.

Operationalizing Politeness in Communications

Politeness encompasses a variety of communication and
behavioral tactics that are adopted in different social situ-
ations. The use of specific tactics in language is a way of
accomplishing the goals of a given social situation. Brown
and Levinson (1987) operationalized such tactics in terms
of honorifics, verb tense, pronouns, word choice, phrasing,
and other parts of speech. A sentence that communicates the
same informational content can therefore be varied based on
the social intentions of the speaker. Several impersonal and
personal tactics are mirrors of one another. For example,
when using honorifics, addressing another with the formal
title of Sir or Mister is an impersonal communication tactic
that gives deference, but addressing another with the familiar
dude or mate is a marker of in-group identity that reflects a
personal communication tactic (Brown and Levinson 1987;
Morand 2000). Similarly, using formal and grammatically
correct language is another impersonal tactic designed to
show deference, whereas the use of contractions or slang
is a personal tactic that also represents in-group language,
reflecting solidarity with the hearer (Brown and Levinson
1987; Morand 2000). Another common impersonal com-
munication tactic is using the subjunctive mood (e.g., “You
might say”), which reflects pessimism as to whether the
hearer will agree or comply and also minimizes the size
of the imposition on the hearer, mitigating discomfort to
both the speaker and the hearer (Brown and Levinson 1987).
Another common personal communication tactic is phras-
ing statements to pre-suppose common ground (e.g., “You
know how we all”) or the hearer’s needs (e.g., “Wouldn’t you
like”), suggesting that the speaker understands the hearer
and reinforcing familiarity (Brown and Levinson 1987;
Morand 2000). In sum, impersonal tactics assume and use
language to soften imposition, whereas personal tactics
assume and use language to reinforce solidarity.

Politeness, Social Context, and Attitudes
toward a Brand

In all social interactions, we have expectations of how con-
versations should flow. These expectations also hold true
for brand communications with consumers, a socially dis-
tant context of interaction. Because of such expectations,
how polite speech is influences the audience’s evaluations
of the speaker (Eelen 2014). Indeed, those who use language
that violates understood social rules (i.e., speech deemed
impolite or inappropriate) may be evaluated negatively and
socially sanctioned (Eelen 2014; Lakoff 1977). Therefore,
we understand that we risk negative evaluation if we pre-
sent language that is less polite. As with much of our moral
reasoning, morality, as associated with appropriate levels
of politeness, is ingrained from childhood. Parents either
encourage or discourage speech as good or bad based on
whether such speech is polite or impolite (Gleason et al.
1984; Snow et al. 1990). Our judgments of whether speech
is polite, impolite, or overly polite are largely a function of
our perceptions of the speaker’s intentions, and judgments
of such intentions are highly variable (Haugh 2010). Speech
must cause offense for one to sanction it (Haugh 2015). The
link between offensive acts of speech and desire to see the
offender punished is particularly salient for strangers, and
care is generally taken to avoid offending the listener (Haugh
2015). We therefore suggest that politeness in language
should be particularly influential in shaping judgments and
perceptions about a source in socially distant contexts.

When an individual considers a brand as socially close,
he or she may have a high degree of familiarity with the
brand and is more likely to anchor onto and utilize prior
attitudes about the brand (Hoyer and Brown 1990; Keller
1993). In fact, consumers with prior experience with a brand
rely on those earlier memory-based judgments when making
subsequent evaluations of the brand and purchase decisions
(Kardes 1986). It is then very possible for these people to
infer that the brand had innocent intentions. In contrast, if
consumers rely on negative prior attitudes toward a brand,
they may infer that the brand acted on unethical intentions.
Established heuristics about a brand will then be more criti-
cal than nuances in the brand’s advertising messages. How-
ever, consumers do not have such prior attitudes with lesser
known brands. In such cases, we suggest that individuals
may consider the brand as socially distant. In such situations,
exposure to the brand’s ethically ambiguous practice would
lead to heavy reliance on the impression the brand makes
through its messaging. Therefore, the question at hand is
what types of communication tactics would influence atti-
tudes toward the brand and hence influence judgments of
punishment in the eyes of the consumers.

Prior literature has shown that the greater the social
distance between speakers, when one of them has morally

42 A. Sundar, E. S. Cao

1 3

transgressed, the more morally wrong the transgression is
perceived to be (Eyal et al. 2008). This harsher judgment is
due to the difference in the aspect of a situation on which
one focuses. Specifically, people tend to interpret socially
distant situations based on abstract moral principles instead
of nuances of the specific situation at hand (Eyal et  al.
2008). Because it is more difficult to imagine or predict
how socially distantly others will behave (Eyal et al. 2008),
people retain the essential meaning of a transgression (e.g.,
stealing should generally be punished) and neglect the spe-
cifics of the particular transgression (e.g., a parent stole to
feed his or her starving child). It therefore follows that polite
speech that increases social distance (i.e., the use of imper-
sonal communication tactics) should increase the desire to
see the offender punished in an ethically ambiguous situa-
tion. Likewise, less polite speech that reduces social distance
between speakers (i.e., personal communication tactics)
should decrease the desire to punish in the same situation.
If this is the case, the tactics that brands tend to use (i.e.,
impersonal communication tactics that are generally con-
sidered politer) may actually hurt consumer perceptions of
a brand whose ethically ambiguous business practices are

Politeness and Justice

Of relevance to the current work is one component of inter-
actional justice: interpersonal justice, which refers to how
people are treated with politeness, dignity, and respect by
those with authority or those involved in determining an
outcome (Bies and Moag 1986; Bies and Shapiro 1987;
Greenberg 1993). Although an outcome may be perceived
as fair (i.e., distributive justice), individuals may still feel
they are treated unfairly (i.e., interactional injustice; Bies
and Shapiro 1987). Interactional justice is more valuable to
a brand than other types of justice, particularly in mollifying
consumers after a complaint (Blodgett et al. 1997). Indeed,
higher perceptions of interactional justice have been shown
to increase customer satisfaction (Goodwin and Ross 1992;
Kau and Loh 2006) and decrease negative word-of-mouth
(Blodgett and Tax 1993). Importantly, when interactional
justice is violated, there are negative impacts in the form of a
desire to see a transgressor punished. For example, if a sub-
ordinate in the workplace perceives interactional injustice,
he or she will resent his or her supervisor or the institution
and will seek to retaliate (Aryee et al. 2007). In such a situa-
tion, retaliation occurs because there is a specific entity (i.e.,
the supervisor or the institution) to blame. When individuals
believe an entity deliberately acted unfairly, they believe that
it is deserving of punishment (Folger et al. 2005). These
examples suggest that interpersonal acts impact individuals’
perceptions of justice and desire to punish those who are to
blame. In the present context, a brand is a clearly defined

entity, and brand communication is a clearly defined act.
Therefore, perceptions of unfairness may translate to nega-
tive attitudes toward the brand (i.e., a desire to punish the

Indeed, the predictions of politeness on consumers’ neg-
ative attitudes toward a brand are not so straightforward.
Importantly, perceptions of interactional justice and morality
are often orthogonal, such that justice concerns are not nec-
essarily moral concerns (Folger et al. 2005). For instance,
injustices are perceived in varying degrees (Gilliland et al.
1998). For example, an employee who is terminated and
receives a generous severance package but is also escorted
off the premises may view the entire process as unfair (but
not as a violation that is sufficiently serious that it can be
deemed immoral) due to the interactional injustice of being
escorted away. However, such a situation may rise to a moral
transgression if an employee is wrongfully terminated,
receives no compensation, and is escorted off the premises.
Through these contrasting examples, there is a clear distinc-
tion between merely wanting justice and judging immoral-
ity. By this logic, an injustice may be perceived as unfair
without necessarily being immoral. Similarly, a misfortunate
situation in which all involved are blameless can be judged
as unfair without rising to the level of immoral (Greenberg
1993). Therefore, it is critical to understand when an injus-
tice leads to the desire to see a transgressor punished. Impor-
tantly, such judgments are based on prior beliefs surrounding
the brand. One belief that addresses when and how people
react to such information is the BJW.

Belief in a Just World and Punishment

BJW is the belief that people get what they deserve (Lerner
1980). In general, when we encounter an injustice, BJW
motivates us either to punish a victimizer or, if this is not
possible, to blame the victim of an injustice (Lerner 1980).
BJW can be measured as a consistent individual difference
and is positively correlated with conservative social atti-
tudes, deference to authority, and conformity to social norms
(Rubin and Peplau 1975). The basic human value of con-
formity is defined as the protection of order and harmony in
relations (Schwartz 1992). This value, in which politeness
is an intrinsic component, is also positively correlated with
BJW (Feather 1991). The relationship between wrongdoing
and punishment is predictable for those high in BJW: They
are more likely to punish those who violate social norms
(Zhu et al. 2012). Those high in BJW are more likely to
strive for justice as an end in itself. BJW can be viewed as a
kind of personal contract; the more people wish to be treated
justly by others, the more they feel obligated to behave justly
themselves (Lerner 1980).

Although those high in BJW strive for justice and tend to
punish those who violate social norms, they tend to perceive

43Punishing Politeness: The Role of Language in Promoting Brand Trust

1 3

interactions to have a greater sense of interactional justice
than those low in BJW. For example, pupils with a high
BJW evaluate their grades and the attitudes of their teach-
ers and parents toward them as just (Correia and Dalbert
2007; Dalbert and Stoeber 2006). Likewise, prisoners who
are high in BJW believe that their legal proceedings and
their treatment by corrections officers are more just than
those low in BJW (Dalbert and Filke 2007). Importantly,
those low in BJW are more sensitive to interactional justice
(Lipkus 1992). Specifically, those low in BJW perceive oth-
ers as more motivated by self-interest and believe that people
often exploit others to their advantage, particularly those of
higher power and status (Lipkus 1992). Thus, those low in
BJW are more cautious of the actions of those in high-power
positions (Lipkus 1992). Such caution and lowered sense of
trust of others may lead those low in BJW to behave in ways
hostile to such others relative to those high in BJW (Nudel-
man 2013). On the other hand, those high in BJW are also
more likely than those low in BJW to positively evaluate
others who are more powerful than themselves (Rubin and
Peplau 1975). Indeed, those high in BJW associate higher
status with positive characteristics to a greater extent than
individuals low in BJW (Dion and Dion 1987).

Because those low in BJW are more sensitive to inter-
actional justice concerns and tend to be wary of those with
high power or status, we expect that those low in BJW will
be more attuned to communication tactics and therefore have
more negative attitudes on how polite brand communica-
tion is than those high in BJW. Specifically, we predict that
those low in BJW will harbor more negative attitudes toward
ethically ambiguous brands that communicate with politer
(impersonal) communication tactics, as they may view such
tactics as a self-serving means to deflect immoral behaviors
(i.e., to save face). We expect that those high in BJW are
more likely to believe that others will behave in an interac-
tionally just way. Further, if those high in BJW believe that
a brand fails to be just, they may believe that the brand will
compensate through other means that promote interactional
justice (e.g., communicate politely). Because they are less
sensitive to violations of interactional justice, those high in
BJW may deem brands that communicate with impersonal
or personal communication tactics to be polite. Therefore,
we expect the effects to be attenuated for those high in BJW.

H1 There is a significant interaction of consumer just
world beliefs and advertising language politeness on nega-
tive brand attitudes such that consumers with low BJW are
more likely to harbor negative attitudes toward a brand for
ambiguous business practices when the advertising language
is more polite (i.e., uses impersonal communication tactics)
than when it is less polite (i.e., uses personal communication

tactics). However, this effect is attenuated for consumers
with high BJW.

Next, we seek to examine the underlying process that
would influence a consumer to harbor negative attitudes
toward a brand. We turn to the concept of trust, as it is
an important component of decision-making in situations
related to morality and ethics (Turner and Valentine 2001).
Specifically, we examine the role of brand trust as the media-
tor of communication tactics’ and BJW’s effects on negative
attitudes. In the next section, we develop the argument for
why brand trust—in particular, the violation of such trust—
would spur certain consumers to harbor negative attitudes
toward a brand.

Brand Trust

Trust is the belief that others’ motives will be beneficial to
one’s own interests (Robinson 1996; Turner and Valentine
2001). Trust (or distrust) is expectancy in nature, reflecting
the extent to which an individual believes that another entity
can be relied on (Rotter 1980; Stack 1978). Brand trust is
the ability of a brand to elicit trust from consumers (Chaud-
huri and Holbrook 2001) and is a key mediating variable
in building relationships with customers (Morgan and Hunt
1994). Specifically, shared values, such as a sense of what is
right or appropriate and what is wrong or inappropriate, are
positively related to trust, which in turn is positively related
to relationship commitment (Morgan and Hunt 1994). Fur-
thermore, trusting consumers are often motivated by a desire
to reward trustworthy brands (Helm 2004). However, brands
that violate consumers’ sense of trust may motivate such
consumers to want to punish such untrustworthy brands
(Helm 2004). In particular, a brand that communicates in
a way that violates such sense of trust may spur those with
low BJW to become more disillusioned and critical. In other
words, when a brand communicates with impersonal com-
munication tactics under conditions of potentially negative
publicity, those with low BJW may view such tactics as self-
serving. Although those with low BJW are less motivated
than those with high BJW to act to correct an injustice, they
tend to behave in a more hostile manner towards those they
trust less than those high in BJW (Nudelman 2013). Specifi-
cally, consumers with low BJW may be hostile to a brand
that facilitates those feelings by harboring negative attitudes
toward the brand. Therefore, we predict that those who are
most prone to being critical (i.e., those with low BJW) who
view an advertisement with impersonal communication tac-
tics (interpreted as inappropriately polite) are more likely to
harbor negative attitudes toward a brand because they trust
the brand less. Formally,

44 A. Sundar, E. S. Cao

1 3

H2 Brand trust mediates the interaction between consumer
just world beliefs and advertising language politeness on
negative brand attitudes. Specifically, consumers with low
BJW (but not consumers with high BJW) who view a more
(vs. less) polite advertisement will trust the brand less and
subsequently will harbor more negative attitudes toward the

Overview of Studies

In the following three studies, we demonstrate that the
politeness of the language used in advertising can bring
about different consumer reactions toward a brand. Specifi-
cally, we examine consumer reactions to unethical business
practices, such as harboring negative attitudes and making
moral judgments. Our main prediction is that consumers low
in BJW will be more inclined to question a polite brand’s
intentions and will ultimately harbor negative attitudes (i.e.,
want harsher punishments) toward the brand. In the first
study, we ask consumers to consider an ethically ambiguous
brand practice and then expose them to an advertisement in
which communication tactics (i.e., impersonal or personal)
are varied. Based on our theorizing, we also explore the key
moderator of BJW and the underlying mechanism of trust
toward the brand. Specifically, in Study 1, we test whether
individuals’ expectations that an insurance brand with poten-
tially unethical business practices will be punished more
severely are dependent on their reported BJW and the polite-
ness of the language used in its advertising. In Study 2, we
replicate and extend our findings from Study 1 using a dif-
ferent measure of negative attitude and by …

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