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Breaking the rules may be “cool”—or not

May 21, 2014
Courtesy of the Journal of Consumer Research
and World Science staff

Break­ing the rules may make a per­son or prod­uct seem “cool”—but not when those rules are viewed as worth­while, a study finds.

The re­search con­cludes that peo­ple and brands be­come “cool” by un­der­stand­ing what’s con­sid­ered nor­mal, obey­ing the rules con­sid­ered nec­es­sary, then di­verg­ing from those con­sid­ered ex­pend­a­ble.

Cool­ness helps sell eve­ry­thing from fash­ion and mu­sic to elec­tron­ics and cigarettes, note the au­thors of the work, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Con­sum­er Re­search

“Our re­search ex­plores how brands and peo­ple be­come cool in the eyes of con­sumers. We rea­soned that brands could be­come cool by break­ing rules that seemed un­nec­es­sary or un­fair, but not by break­ing le­git­i­mate rules,” write au­thors Ca­leb War­ren of Tex­as A&M Uni­vers­ity and Mar­ga­ret C. Camp­bell of the Uni­vers­ity of Col­o­rad­o.

Across six stud­ies, they looked at how per­ceived cool­ness is in­flu­enced by “au­ton­o­my”—or de­par­ture from norms.

In one stu­dy, they said, par­ti­ci­pants were asked to as­sess an ad­ver­tise­ment that ad­vo­cat­ed ei­ther break­ing or fol­low­ing a dress code. Some par­ti­ci­pants read that the dress code ex­isted for a le­git­i­mate rea­son (to hon­or war vet­er­ans), where­as oth­ers read that it ex­isted for an ille­git­i­mate rea­son (to hon­or a cor­rupt dic­ta­tor). Re­sults in­di­cat­ed that break­ing the dress code made the brand seem cool­er in the sec­ond case than in the first.

One of the six ex­pe­ri­ments fo­cused on what makes peo­ple cool. That and oth­er stud­ies by the team sug­gest “the same bas­ic pat­tern be­tween au­ton­o­my and cool­ness holds for peo­ple as well as con­sum­er prod­ucts,” War­ren said.

Brands in­ter­est­ed in show­ing how cool their prod­ucts are can high­light fea­tures of in­de­pend­ence and un­ique­ness, the au­thors not­ed. But they point­ed out that it’s hard to be cool to eve­ry­one: what some see as cool, oth­ers will la­bel de­vi­ant. Fi­nal­ly, for pol­i­cy­makers hop­ing to curb risky be­hav­iors, study re­sults point out the ben­e­fits of mes­sages that make de­sired be­hav­iors more “au­tonomous” (and there­fore cool) to the tar­get au­di­ence.

“Col­lec­tively, our stud­ies find that cool­ness is a sub­jec­tive, pos­i­tive trait per­ceived in peo­ple, brands, prod­ucts, and trends that are au­ton­o­mous in an ap­pro­pri­ate way,” the au­thors con­clude.


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Breaking the rules may make a person or product “cool”—but not when those rules are viewed as good ones, a study finds. The research concludes that people and brands become “cool” by understanding what’s considered normal, obeying the rules considered necessary, then diverging from those considered expendable. Coolness helps sell everything from fashion and music to electronics and cigarettes, note the authors of the work, published in the Journal of Consumer Research. “Our research explores how brands and people become cool in the eyes of consumers. We reasoned that brands could become cool by breaking rules that seemed unnecessary or unfair, but not by breaking legitimate rules,” write authors Caleb Warren of Texas A&M University and Margaret C. Campbell of the University of Colorado. Across six studies, they looked at how perceived coolness is influenced by “autonomy”—or departure from norms. In one study, they said, participants were asked to assess an advertisement that advocated either breaking or following a dress code. Some participants read that the dress code existed for a legitimate reason (to honor war veterans), whereas others read that it existed for an illegitimate reason (to honor a corrupt dictator). Results indicated that breaking the dress code made the brand seem cooler in the second case than in the first. One of the six experiments focused on what makes people cool. That and other studies by the team suggest “the same basic pattern between autonomy and coolness holds for people as well as consumer products,” Warren said. Brands interested in showing how cool their products are can highlight features of independence and uniqueness, the authors noted. But they pointed out that it’s hard to be cool to everyone: what some see as cool, others will label deviant. Finally, for policymakers hoping to curb risky behaviors, study results point out the benefits of messages that make desired behaviors more “autonomous” (and therefore cool) to the target audience. “Collectively, our studies find that coolness is a subjective, positive trait perceived in people, brands, products, and trends that are autonomous in an appropriate way,” the authors conclude.