Source of article The Jury Room - Keene Trial Consulting.

Seriously. Kellogg Northwestern has just examined a number of research studies showing that seeing or hearing about too many scandals may result in purchase decisions made in seemingly unrelated areas. Here’s how their review starts:

You’re at the grocery store, scanning your phone while walking through the aisles. An article pops up about a CEO caught embezzling millions from the employee pension fund. You shake your head in disgust, then turn your attention to which ketchup to buy.

And while it seems entirely unrelated, the condiment you choose could be impacted by the news you just read.

As you may have guessed, this isn’t just a choice between Heinz, Dole, or the generic store brand. It is apparently based on our sense of “what most people” would choose as, according to the researchers, we attempt to restore the “moral order” of things—even in the condiment section.

“Witnessing a moral violation can actually change people’s product choices,” explains Ping Dong, an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School. At work is a human need for maintaining the social order. When we see or hear about an immoral act, it feels like a breach to the social order, Dong explains. Our instinct is to try to repair that breach.

One way to do so is by demonstrating our own conformity to majority opinion, which signals that violating social norms will not be tolerated. And to show you that marketers are attuned to social sciences research, here is how they might try to manipulate you based on this research. You really are not safe from attempts to use social influence anywhere. Even in the condiment aisle. Maintain vigilance.

Her findings have implications for marketers honing their message for different groups of customers. Perhaps people in a state experiencing a government scandal are shown ads touting a car’s popularity, while those elsewhere see ads that suggest a vehicle will make them stand out in the crowd.

“For marketers nowadays, it’s very easy to do online targeting,” Dong says. “They can use different marketing communication strategies to consumers living in different areas.”

And there may actually be people pretending to be shoppers or vendors who are actually watching you in the condiment aisle. Instead they are researchers. Seriously.

Dong is now further testing her theory by looking at real purchase behavior. She has research underway analyzing data from national grocery chains to see if purchases change based on the prevalence of regional news coverage of moral violations such as political scandals.

“I predict,” she says, “that in places with higher chances of political scandals, people will be more likely to purchase more popular brands.”

We are all subject to news alerts (that are going off pretty constantly now) and media stories focused on a never-ending stream of scandals with the potential to be experienced as moral affronts. You will want to read this story carefully and consider how to best use the findings in your case.

Since we queued this blog post for publication, we have been provided a remarkable example of this dynamic. Following the horrific shootings in Parkland, Florida. When the National Rifle Association responded to the tragedy by urging calm and quiet reflection, the high school students in Florida exploded in outrage. As the ripples extended, the effects took a form that was not anticipated—corporate sponsors, partners, and supporters of the NRA have quit. From banks to airlines to insurance companies and many others, there was a universal perception that corporate well-being required distancing themselves from the NRA. And in this digital age, you can find lists of companies with ties to organizations such as the NRA to facilitate your boycott efforts.

There are multiple ways this research can be applied depending on the case facts and your own role in the case. This is one of the kinds of projects that really makes us love the research academics come up with—especially when it is something most of us would not consider. Use scandal to your advantage in constructing case narrative.

Just bear in mind that scandal makes us want to conform and make popular choices.

When we are not confronted with scandal, we may want to stand out and be individual.

Witnessing Immoral Behavior Makes Us Want to Buy Popular Brands: How scandals impact seemingly unrelated purchasing decisions. Northwestern: Kellogg Insight.