Boston University School of Management Research Paper Series
‘‘Does it Pay to Beat Around the Bush?
The Case of the Obfuscating Salesperson?’’
Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1701042
Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1701042
Does it Pay to Beat Around the Bush?
The Case of the Obfuscating Salesperson
Boston University, School of Management
595 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, MA 02215
Tel: 617-353-3458 Fax: 617-353-4098
Rutgers University, School of Business
227 Penn St., Camden, NJ 08102
Tel: 856-225-6713 Fax: 856-225-6231
University of Missouri
Trulaske College of Business
403C Cornell Hall, Columbia, MO 65203
Tel: 573-882-3478 Fax: 573-884-0368
Keywords: Consumer Psychology, Salesperson Communication, Persuasion Knowledge
Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1701042
When a salesperson does not know the correct answer to a prospective customer’s question, one
way to deal with the matter is to obfuscate, that is, to cloud the issue by providing irrelevant
information. Does obfuscation pay? Or are there situations where obfuscation severely backfires?
We investigate these questions with three studies set in the context of interactions between
financial advisors and prospects. A preliminary study confirms that in a situation where a
financial advisor does not know the answer to a prospect’s question but can earn a commission
on the sale, a large majority of consumers indeed expect an obfuscatory response rather than an
honest “don’t know.” The two other studies show that consumer trust and investment intentions
are significantly undermined by an obfuscatory response when compared to a “don’t know,” but
again only when a commission motive is salient. Thus, while obfuscation may appear to be a
tempting alternative in the short run, obfuscating salespersons never benefit relative to admitting
a lack of knowledge. Implications are discussed in terms of persuasion theory and salesperson
Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1701042
Professors, politicians, and salespersons share a peculiar occupational hazard—they
regularly encounter factual questions for which they should know the answers on the spot, but
often don’t. In dealing with such situations, a person has three clear response options: (1) Do the
right thing and admit to not knowing the answer, (2) bluff with a false answer, or (3) obfuscate,
that is, dodge the actual question but provide a pseudo-answer with irrelevant, tangential, or
vague information. The first option is normatively appropriate, but likely entails significant
damage in expertise perceptions and esteem. The second option is also quite risky, since bluffs
and outright falsehoods could be detected, thereby leading to a total loss of credibility. Option
(3), on the other hand could be an appealing way out of the situation: the question appears to
have been answered (even if ambiguously), and one can hope that the conversation and the
questioner will move on to other matters. Therein lies the appeal of obfuscation.
The word obfuscate has its origins in the 16 th century Latin word obfuscatus, meaning “to
darken.” A contemporary definition of the word is “to make so confused or opaque as to be
difficult to perceive or understand.” Synonyms of the word include conceal, cover up, eclipse,
and shade. Obfuscatory responses, as noted earlier, are plausible in a wide range of social
interactions and communication situations. Writers (e.g., Berkoff 1981) have noted its
widespread prevalence in marketing tactics, and the present authors, in their everyday
experiences as classroom professors, are not unfamiliar with the temptations of obfuscation. Yet,
perplexingly, virtually no scholarly research appears to have been published on this topic.
Our interest in this matter focuses on interactions between salespersons and prospective
customers. As noted earlier, the major motivation for obfuscation is that it potentially allows a
salesperson to answer a prospect’s question in a seemingly reasonable way, as opposed to a
candid yet potentially damaging admission of lack of knowledge or an answer that is a willful
and risky act of pure fabrication. The use of obfuscation could be particularly tempting for
novice salespeople, given their more limited knowledge, possible lack of confidence, and desire
not to lose a potential customer. It might also be tempting for those under considerable
performance pressure, such as in the form of aggressive sales quota targets. In the present
research, we explore three important questions in regard to obfuscatory tactics. First, to what
extent do consumers believe that obfuscatory responses are likely from salespersons? Prior
research has shown that consumers often have well-established beliefs and expectations
regarding salespersons and the persuasion process (Campbell and Kirmani 2000; Friestad and
Wright 1994, 1995; Sujan, Bettman, and Sujan 1986). Scholars have also suggested that
consumers can harbor suspicion-filled, “dark side” schemas about salespersons’ relationship-
building overtures (Beatty et al. 1996; Fournier, Dobscha, and Mick 1998; Grayson 2007). We
build on this literature by examining empirically consumers’ beliefs about what salespersons are
likely to do when they do not know the answer to a prospect’s question.
Second, while obfuscation arguably has pragmatic value, does it actually help
salespersons to sell a product or might it backfire? Clearly, the answer to this question is
important from an ethical and consumer welfare standpoint. If obfuscating salespersons are more
likely to close a sale than their “come clean” counterparts, there would be an economic incentive
to behave unethically (Kalra, Shi, and Srinivasan 2003). In addition, since obfuscation amounts
to less transparency in communications with consumers, their welfare would be at jeopardy. On
the other hand, if obfuscation is likely to get punished in the marketplace in terms of a decrease
in a prospect’s willingness to buy the product, honesty might turn out to be always the best
policy. In this case, there would be an economic disincentive—at least in the long run—for the
salesperson to behave in a way that potentially harms consumer welfare.
Third, do the answers to the first two questions depend on other variables such as a
prospect’s cognizance of the salesperson’s motives? Some prior studies have shown that
consumers’ perceptions of salespersons’ motives can affect how the latter’s communications are
interpreted (Campbell & Kirmani 2000; DeCarlo 2005). A recent study has also found that
disclosing financial motives for referrals may help enhance perceptions of sincerity among
friends interacting in sales situations (Tuk et al. 2009). Based on these prior studies, it seems
plausible that a prospective customer’s knowledge of a salesperson’s motives might play an
important role in how obfuscation impacts purchase intentions.
We present three studies that investigate the aforementioned questions in the context of
communications between financial advisors and prospective customers. Recent events such as
the sub-prime mortgage scandals and large-scale Ponzi schemes have brought to the fore a rising
level of consumer distrust in the financial services industry in general and financial advisors in
particular (Wartenberg 2009; Weston 2009). Indeed, a recent article in a popular business
magazine suggests that individuals in the financial sector have “the furthest to go in regaining
consumer trust” (Young 2009). Further, academic scholars and industry observers seem to agree
that transparency in communications is central to the development of consumer trust in a
financial advisor (Knowledge@Wharton 2007). As such, we believe our research context is very
suitable for studying the issue of obfuscation in salespersons’ communications with consumers.
We first present a preliminary study in which we examine consumers’ expectations of
whether a salesperson is likely to obfuscate versus provide an honest “don’t know” when the
person does not know the answer to a prospect’s question. Next, we present the main study in
which we develop and test a theoretical framework and a set of formal hypotheses regarding the
effects of salesperson obfuscation. In developing our theoretical framework, we draw on prior
research in persuasion (Campbell and Kirmani 2000, Friestad and Wright 1994, 1995). We also
take into account work in social cognition on the role of attributional reasoning in conversational
inferences (Fein 1996; Hilton 1995) and the literature on deception in communication theory
(Buller and Burgoon 1996; Burgoon et al. 1996; Carlson et al. 2004). Lastly, we discuss a
follow-up study wherein we investigate consumers’ thought processes directly so as to better
illuminate the process mechanism implicit in our theorizing. In both the main and follow-up
studies, we focus on the moderating role of salesperson motive and the mediating role of
consumer trust perceptions and trust-related thoughts.
We explore here consumer expectations regarding what a salesperson is likely to do when
he/she does not know the answer to a prospective customer’s question. More importantly, we
also investigate whether these expectations might vary as a function of whether or not the
salesperson is motivated by a commission on the sale. Honeycutt et al. (2001) found in a survey
of auto salespersons that the likelihood of unethical sales practices increases when compensation
is based on commissions rather than salary (see also Kalra et al. 2003). Based on their findings
and the authors’ own experiences and intuitions as consumers, we expect that in situations where
a salesperson does not know the right answer to a prospect’s question, consumers will be more
likely to predict an obfuscatory response (vs. an honest “don’t know”) when they are cognizant
that the salesperson works on a commission.
Overview. We utilized a scenario that is a very common event in many organizations,
namely that of an employee trying to decide whether or not to open a 401k retirement plan
account after a conversation with a financial advisor who represents one of the employer’s
retirement plan providers. Note that in the financial services industry, financial advisors are
typically well trained in consultative selling and their usual goal is to establish long-lasting
relationships with prospective customers based on the sales of various financial products. Also,
industry practice varies considerably both across and within firms in terms of the proportion of
the financial advisor’s compensation that is based on sales commissions. As such, our research
context has high ecological validity in terms of providing a setting where a salesperson (i.e.,
financial advisor) may or may not be working for a sales commission.
The study participants were 37 adults who were approached at the entrance to a baseball
stadium in a large metropolitan area and asked to fill out a short questionnaire in exchange for a
small gift. Males and females were about equally represented in the sample, with a median age of
40. Participants read a conversation that purportedly took place between the employee (a
prospective customer) and a financial advisor and then provided their responses (see below for
more details). The study design manipulated between-subjects the salesperson’s motive
(commission vs. no commission).
Procedure and Measures. Participants were asked to imagine a situation where an
employee has taken a new job and the employer offers the opportunity to invest in a 401k
etirement plan. The employee calls one of the financial services firms that the employer has
authorized for 401k plans. The employee is put in touch with one of the firm's financial advisors.
After reading this scenario, participants then read additional information wherein we
manipulated the salesperson’s motive as follows.
In the commission motive condition, participants were told that the financial advisor's job
was to eventually persuade the employee (i.e., prospective customer) to sign up for a 401k plan
with the advisor's particular financial services firm. Further, participants learned that the
financial advisor's earnings were based purely on sales commissions and thus the advisor's
compensation would be affected by the employee’s investment decision. In the no commission
motive condition, participants were informed that the financial advisor's job was to simply
provide the employee with the information needed to make “good decisions about retirement
investing.” Additionally, it was emphasized to the participants that the financial advisor would
not earn a sales commission or any other kind of compensation based on the employee’s
Participants then went on to read an excerpt from a purported conversation between the
employee and the financial advisor (see appendix). In this conversation, the employee asks
several questions and receives correct answers. Eventually, the employee asks the target
question: "Until now, I have been contributing money into an IRA every year. If I contribute to
the 401k plan offered by my employer, could I still contribute to my IRA?" Right after the target
question, participants were asked to make a prediction of the salesperson’s response with the
“The advisor DOES NOT know the answer to this question. Given that the advisor does
not know the answer to this question, which of the following two responses would a typical
financial advisor be more likely to give?
� I have to admit, I just don't know. But I will find out for you.
� 401k plans are a great investment. As we discussed, contributing to a 401k has tax
advantages. For example, you don't have to pay income taxes on the amount you
contribute to a 401k until you later take it out during retirement. Moreover, your
employer will match some part of your contribution.”
The first answer above is an honest "don't know" response. The second answer represents
an obfuscatory response since it dodges the actual question and provides information that merely
clouds or confuses the issue.
Results and Discussion
A large majority of the participants (75%) in the commission motive condition predicted
that the salesperson would obfuscate. In contrast, only a minority (38%) of the participants in the
no commission motive condition anticipated obfuscation, and the difference between the two
conditions was statistically significant (Fisher's Exact Test, p < .05). Hence the results of this
preliminary study supported our initial conjecture that consumers are more likely to expect an
obfuscatory response when they know that a salesperson is motivated by a commission on the
sale. These perceptions are likely to be grounded in consumers’ actual experiences, suggesting
that obfuscation is a tactic that is at least occasionally encountered by consumers in their
interactions with salespeople.
Mutually beneficial communications between salespersons and prospective customers
can be usefully viewed in terms of a conversational metaphor (Blattberg and Deighton 1996).
Such communications hence should be governed by many of the same norms that are implicit in
good conversations in everyday life. For example, it would be normal to expect that the
participants to a conversation cooperate and both try to make sense of what is being said. Two
other key assumptions underlying conversational norms are that that a communication will be
comprehensible as well as truthful (Grice 1989). These norms lead to a truth bias, in which a
person generally assumes that what is said is truthful unless there are indications to the contrary
(Levine and McCornack 1991).
A deceptive communication is one that is intentionally sent to foster a false belief or
conclusion by the receiver (Buller and Burgoon 1996). It can involve direct fabrications as well
as more subtle acts such as half-truths, concealments, and vagueness (Burgoon et al. 1996;
Carlson et al. 2004). Communication scholars have noted that in order to avoid being caught in
outright falsehoods, deceptive communicators may resort to obfuscation by providing unclear,
vague or irrelevant information in their messages (Burgoon et al. 1996; Carlson et al. 2004).
Obfuscation by its very nature is an ambiguous behavior. We therefore assume that when
the recipient of a communication detects an act of obfuscation, the degree to which it is viewed
as a serious violation of a conversational norm will depend on contextual factors. Hilton (1995)
proposes an attributional model for conversational inferences. According to this model,
unexpected events or contextual cues can trigger an attribution process wherein perceptions or
assumptions about the speaker’s motives affect the manner in which conversational norms are
interpreted in any given situation (DeCarlo 2005; Fein 1996; Hilton et al. 1993).
More insight on the role of attributional processes in consumers’ responses to
salespersons’ communications comes from research in persuasion (Friestad and Wright 1994,
1995). Friestad and Wright (1994) have argued that consumers often have relatively
sophisticated knowledge structures or schemas regarding the persuasion tactics adopted by
advertisers and salespersons. Consumers interpret salespersons’ communications through the
lens of these schemas and draw inferences accordingly. For example, Campbell and Kirmani
(2000) have found that when consumers sense that a salesperson has ulterior motives, they doubt
the sincerity of pleasantries offered by that individual.
Based on the literature discussed in the preceding material, we propose that the manner in
which a prospective customer responds to an obfuscatory response from a salesperson will
depend upon what is known a priori about that person’s motives. Consider first a situation where
the prospect is cognizant that the salesperson’s earnings depend solely on sales commissions.
This is a common practice in many industries, including the financial services sector. In such a
situation, the salience of the salesperson’s motive to close on the sale should activate the
consumer’s persuasion knowledge schemas (Campbell and Kirmani 2000; DeCarlo 2005).
Further, as indicated by the results of our preliminary study, such schemas are likely to include
the “dark side” belief that given a sales commission motive, a salesperson is likely to obfuscate
when he/she does not know the answer to a question. If the prospect now in fact detects an
obfuscatory response from the salesperson, this should provide confirmatory evidence in support
of the initial belief (Deighton 1984; Forehand and Grier 2003; Sujan et al. 1986). Consequently,
the obfuscatory response is likely to be interpreted as a serious violation of conversational
norms, specifically the expectation that communications shall be comprehensible and truthful.
This should lead to negative inferences about the sincerity and trustworthiness of the salesperson,
which in turn should have a negative effect on purchase intentions.
But given the same sales commission motive, what if the salesperson candidly admits to
not knowing the answer to the prospect’s question? It could be the case that this admission might
have a damaging effect on the perceived expertise of the salesperson and raise doubts about
his/her competence. On the other hand, the straightforward “don’t know” should also directly
contradict the prospect’s schematic beliefs and accompanying skepticism regarding the types of
answers one should expect from a commission-based salesperson who does not know the answer
to a customer’s question (Forehand and Grier 2003; Sujan et al. 1986). This honest response
should help counteract any initial suspicion or mistrust the prospect might have had regarding a
commission-based salesperson. This factor should also compensate for any damage caused by an
honest “don’t know” to the perceived competence of the salesperson. The implication is that in
the presence of a sales commission motive, an honest “don’t know” should fare significantly
better than an obfuscatory response in regard to the prospect’s purchase intentions.
Consider now a situation where a prospective customer is fully aware that a salesperson
will not earn any sales commissions on purchases. In such a situation, given the absence of an
ulterior motive, it is unlikely that consumers will activate “dark side” beliefs and expectations
regarding salesperson behaviors (Campbell and Kirmani 2000). Further, research in attribution
theory has shown that unless sufficiently motivated to do otherwise, social perceivers generally
act as cognitive misers in that they prefer to simplify the interpersonal evaluation process by
arriving at quick and automatic social inferences (Hilton et al. 1993). In this situation therefore
an obfuscatory response is unlikely to be interpreted as a serious violation of conversational
norms regarding message comprehensibility and truthfulness. We accordingly predict that in a
situation where the prospect is cognizant that a salesperson is not motivated by the prospect of
sales commissions, an obfuscatory response will fare no worse than a candid “don’t know.”
More formally, we offer the following two-part hypothesis:
H1a: When a prospect is aware that a salesperson has a commission motive, an
obfuscatory response (vs. a “don’t know”) will result in lower purchase
H1b: When a prospect is aware that a salesperson does not have a commission motive,
an obfuscatory response (vs. a “don’t know”) will not affect purchase intentions.
Although the main focus of our study is on examining the effects of obfuscation in
reference to a normatively appropriate “don’t know,” from a benchmarking standpoint it is also
useful to compare the former against a situation where the salesperson does in fact provide the
correct answer. Our predictions and underlying logic parallel the preceding discussion wherein
we argued that an obfuscatory response would damage trust perceptions and purchase intentions
when a sales commission motive is operative, but not otherwise. Formally:
H2a: When a prospect is aware that a salesperson has a commission motive, an
obfuscatory response (vs. a correct answer) will result in lower purchase
H2b: When a prospect is aware that a salesperson does not have a commission motive,
an obfuscatory response (vs. a correct answer) will not affect purchase intentions.
Finally, our theorizing assumes that given the activation of persuasion knowledge
schemas in the commission motive condition, an obfuscatory response (vs. a “don’t know” or a
correct answer) should result in more consumer skepticism, distrust, and suspicion. Further, it is
such feelings of increased distrust that do the damage in terms of lowering purchase intentions.
Thus, in the presence of a commission motive, trust perceptions will mediate the effects of
salesperson response on purchase intentions. More formally:
H3a: When a prospect is aware that a salesperson has a commission motive, trust
perceptions will mediate the effects of an obfuscatory response (vs. a “don’t
know”) on purchase intentions.
H3b: When a prospect is aware that a salesperson has a commission motive, trust
perceptions will mediate the effects of an obfuscatory response (vs. a correct
answer) on purchase intentions.
Overview. The study consisted of a full factorial experiment with a 2 (salesperson motive:
commission vs. no commission) x 3 (salesperson response to a target question: “don't know” vs.
obfuscatory response vs. correct answer) design. The study was conducted via the Web, with all
participants randomly assigned to one of the six cells. The 255 adult participants were recruited
from among parents at an elementary school, members of a Rotary club, and graduate students at
a large state university. The students participated for a chance to win a cash prize in a drawing.
All other respondents participated for a $9 donation to their organization. We found no
significant differences across these groups. Demographic data collected at the end of the online
questionnaire indicate the following participant characteristics: 54% female, an average age of
41 years, and 78% currently with a 401k plan.
Procedure and Measures. Participants were provided the following instructions:
“We would like you to imagine a situation where you have taken a new job and your
employer offers you the opportunity to invest in a 401k retirement plan. You call one of the
financial services firms that your company has authorized for 401k plans. You are put in touch
with one of the firm's financial advisors. You then have the conversation described shortly with
this financial advisor. Note that you will read an excerpt that describes only the first part of your
conversation rather than the entire conversation.”
Participants were also informed that after reading the conversation excerpt, they would be
asked about their impressions of the financial advisor and asked to make an investment decision.
Next, participants were provided information pertaining to the salesperson motive manipulation.
Salesperson motive (commission vs. no commission) was manipulated in the exact same manner
as in the preliminary study. After reading this information, participants went on to read the
excerpt of a conversation with a financial advisor regarding the opportunity to invest in 401k
retirement accounts (see appendix for verbatim details). About midway through the conversation,
the prospective customer asks the target question (same as in the preliminary study). The
salesperson’s response to this target question varied between experimental conditions as follows:
� “Don’t know” condition: “Well, that seems like a pretty basic question but I just don't
know. I'll try to find out.”
� Obfuscatory response condition: “Many people contribute to IRAs, which have certain
tax advantages. Contributing to a 401k also has certain tax advantages. For example, you
don't have to pay income taxes on the amount you contribute to a 401k until you later
take it out during retirement. Moreover, your employer will match some part of your
contribution. And you get to decide how all of your money will be invested.”
� Correct answer condition: “Yes. You may still contribute up to the maximum amount
allowable by law to a traditional IRA or Roth IRA.”
After reading the conversation excerpt, the study participants provided ratings on seven-
point Likert scale items that assessed the study’s dependent variables. First, they responded to
three items that measured consumer purchase intentions in the context of personal finance
investment decisions: “I would consider opening an account with this financial advisor,” “I
would be willing to use this financial advisor as my personal financial planner,” and “I would be
willing to invest money based on the advice of this financial planner.” The three items proved to
be highly correlated and thus were averaged to form an index measure of purchase intentions (α
= .89). Next, trust perceptions of the salesperson were measured with four items adapted from
the customer-salesperson relationship literature (e.g., Crosby, Evans, and Cowles 1990). This
measure also proved to be quite reliable (α = .82). The specific items were: “This financial
advisor is…(1) honest in his dealings with me, (2) someone I feel I can trust, (3) NOT always
upfront with me (reverse coded), and (4) never tries to mislead me.” After this, participants
responded to two items designed as manipulation checks. The first item assessed the success of
the salesperson motive manipulation with the question “Will this financial advisor make a sales
commission based on your investment decision?” The second item checked on the salesperson
response manipulation with the question “Did this financial advisor know the answers to ALL of
the questions that you asked?” Participants responded to both questions with the response
categories of “yes,” “no,” and “not sure.” Finally, participants completed items related to
Manipulation Checks. Since both of the manipulation-check measures were categorical
variables, they were analyzed via logistic regressions with appropriate dummy-variable coding
for the independent variables. The first logistic regression confirmed that participants were more
likely to state that the salesperson would make a commission in the commission motive (vs. no
commission motive) condition (65% vs. 14%, respectively; B = 1.96, Wald (1) = 12.8, p < .001).
Also, neither the main effect of the salesperson response manipulation nor the interaction term
were significant in this logistic regression (p’s > .25; see table 1). The second logistic regression
showed that the likelihood of participants opining that the salesperson knew the answers to all of
the questions was significantly affected by the salesperson response manipulation. Specifically,
participants in the obfuscatory response condition were marginally more likely to indicate that
the salesperson knew all the answers relative to those in the “don't know” condition (21% vs.
5%, respectively; B = 1.53, Wald (1) = 3.08, p < .08). A separate chi-square test confirmed a
reliable difference between the aforementioned conditions (χ 2 (1) = 10.7, p < .001). Conversely,
when compared to their counterparts in the correct answer condition, participants in the
obfuscatory response condition were much less likely to state that the salesperson knew all the
answers (21% vs. 72%, respectively; B = - 2.53, Wald (1) = 17.98, p < .001). Further, neither the
main effect of salesperson motive nor the interaction between the two independent variables was
significant in this logistic regression (p’s > .4). These data indicate that as expected, the
obfuscatory response induced some uncertainty on whether or not all of the questions had been
Main Results. A 2 x 3 ANOVA was conducted with purchase intentions as the dependent
measure and salesperson motive and response as the independent variables (see table 1 and
figure 1 for cell means). This ANOVA yielded a significant salesperson motive by response
interaction (F(2, 249) = 3.19, p < .05), as well as main effects for salesperson motive (F(1, 249)
= 4.12, p < .05) and salesperson response (F(2, 249) = 4.66, p < .01). To test hypotheses 1 and 2,
it is necessary to isolate specific comparisons between two of the three conditions of the
salesperson response treatment. Accordingly, we followed up on the overall 2-df interaction in
the ANOVA with appropriate 1-df contrast-contrast interaction tests.
Hypotheses 1a and 1b together predict that the effects of an obfuscatory response (vs.
“don’t know”) on purchase intentions will be moderated by salesperson motive. Accordingly, the
corresponding 1-df contrast-contrast interaction was significant (F(1, 249) = 6.67, p < .01).
Consistent with hypothesis 1a, when the prospect was aware that the salesperson has a
commission motive, obfuscation lowered purchase intentions relative to an admission of lack of
knowledge (M = 3.56 vs. 4.07, respectively; F(1, 249) = 5.17, p < .05). The pattern of results also
supported hypothesis 1b; when no commission motive was involved in the sale, an obfuscatory
response fared no worse than the “don’t know” in its effect on purchase intentions (M = 4.36 and
4.06, respectively; p > .2).
Hypotheses 2a and 2b together predict that the effects of an obfuscatory response (vs.
correct answer) on purchase intentions will depend on salesperson motive. In support, the
corresponding 1-df contrast-contrast interaction was marginally significant (F(1, 249) = 3.78, p <
.06). As predicted in hypothesis 2a, when the salesperson had a commission motive, obfuscation
hurt purchase intentions relative to providing the correct answer (M = 3.56 vs. 4.43, respectively;
F(1, 249) = 11.92, p < .01). In contrast, and consistent with hypothesis 2b, when the salesperson
did not have a commission motive, an obfuscatory response did not significantly affect purchase
intentions when compared to giving the correct answer (M = 4.36 and 4.52, respectively; p > .5).
Hypotheses 3a and 3b predict that when the salesperson is known to have a commission
motive, trust perceptions will mediate the effects obfuscation on purchase intentions. To test
these hypotheses, we employed the Baron and Kenny (1986) approach by conducting three
regressions for each hypothesis within the commission motive condition. Regarding hypothesis
3a, an obfuscatory response (vs. don’t know) proved to be a significant predictor of intentions to
invest (unstandardized B = -.51, t(96) = - 2.07, p < .05) as well as of trust perceptions (B = - .76,
t(96) = - 3.85, p < .01). In addition, when intention to invest was regressed simultaneously on
both salesperson response and trust perceptions, the regression coefficient for salesperson
response was no longer statistically significant (p > .20), whereas trust perceptions proved to be a
reliable predictor (B = .95; t(95) = 11.33, p < .01). Taken together, these results indicate that
given a commission motive, trust perceptions completely mediated the effect of an obfuscatory
response (vs. don’t know) on purchase intentions (Sobel z = 3.65, p < .001). Regarding
hypothesis 3b, the univariate regressions confirmed that an obfuscatory response (vs. correct
answer) had a significant negative relationship with purchase intentions (B = -.87, t(79) = - 3.10,
p < .01) and also with trust perceptions (B = -.96, t(79) = - 4.56, p < .01). Further, when intention
to invest was regressed simultaneously on both salesperson response and trust perceptions, the
coefficient for salesperson response was not significant (p > .8) whereas the coefficient for trust
perceptions was statistically significant (B = .97, t(78) = 9.19, p < .01). These results suggest that
as predicted in H3b, when the salesperson is known to have a commission motive, trust
perceptions completely mediated the effects of obfuscation (vs. correct answer) on purchase
intentions (Sobel z = 4.08, p < .001).
Insert table 1 and figure 1 about here
The findings confirm our theorizing that the effects of obfuscation depend upon what the
prospect knows about the salesperson’s motivation. When a salesperson stands to gain via a
commission on the sale, we hypothesized that the prospect would be more likely to react
negatively to an obfuscatory response. And indeed, given a commission motive, in our study an
obfuscating salesperson fared worse than a counterpart who provided the correct answer, and
also one who simply admitted to not knowing the answer. The results indicate that in such
situations obfuscation harms trust perceptions, which in turn leads to lower purchase intentions.
Interestingly, however, when it is clear to the prospect that a salesperson does not have an
extrinsic motive such as a sales commission, obfuscation (vs. a correct answer or a “don’t
know”) proves to be neither beneficial nor harmful. Our theorizing suggests that the difference
between the two motive conditions is on account of the activation of “dark side” persuasion
knowledge schemas by prospects when a sales commission is operative. When such schemas are
salient in the minds of prospects, dodgy answers by salespersons are interpreted negatively. An
internal analysis of the data for just the participants in the obfuscatory response condition
provides some additional support for this logic. Given a situation where a salesperson could earn
a commission from the sale and an obfuscatory response, there was positive relationship between
purchase intentions and whether or not a participant felt that the salesperson knew all the
answers (r = .27, p < .07). But in the absence of a commission motive, there was virtually no
association between these two particular variables among the participants who read an
obfuscatory response (r = - .01, p > .9).
The primary goal of this study was to shed more light on the process mechanism central
to our theorizing, and to do so by examining the thought processes of consumers who encounter
obfuscation from a salesperson. We earlier postulated that prospects activate “dark side”
schemas when they know a sales commission is at stake and consequently become more
mistrustful when they detect an obfuscatory response. In the previous study we saw evidence of
this mechanism in the form of the mediating role of trust perceptions. However, trust perceptions
were measured in that study with scale items only, and that too after the main dependent variable
of purchase intentions. It could be argued that the trust measure may have been prone to carry-
over effects (Bickart 1993), thereby leading to common method bias in the mediation analysis.
Therefore, in this study we used an open-ended thought-listing procedure to tap into consumers’
cognitive processes immediately after they had read the scenario regarding the interaction with
the salesperson. The prediction is that when a salesperson has a commission motive (vs. no
commission motive), an obfuscatory response will be more likely to engender mistrustful
thoughts regarding the salesperson, and that such negative thoughts will in turn have a
detrimental effect on consumer purchase intentions.
Overview. The study consisted of a factorial experiment with a 2 (salesperson motive:
commission vs. no commission) x 2 (salesperson response to a target question: “don't know” vs.
obfuscatory response) design. The study was conducted on the Web, with all participants
randomly assigned to one of the four cells. Note that in order to lessen the cost of data collection,
in this study we dropped the correct answer condition that we had included mainly for
benchmarking purposes in the main study. The 134 study participants were recruited from a
national panel. Eighty-one percent were female, with an average age of 48 years (all over 21),
and 32% of them currently had a 401k plan.
Procedure and Measures. The procedure, scenario, and measures used in this study were
identical to those in the main study with the following exceptions. The financial data in the
scenario was updated for the current year (see appendix). In addition, to increase engagement
with the scenario we gave the salesperson a name (Bill Smith). A key difference in this study
was that we collected thought-listing data immediately after participants had read the
conversation between the salesperson and the prospective customer. Specifically, we elicited
participants’ thoughts with the following open-ended question: “Regarding this advisor and the
conversation you just had, what are you thinking right now? Please write down whatever you are
and have been thinking about the advisor and the conversation.” Each participant could list up to
five thoughts. Later, two coders blind to the experimental conditions and hypotheses coded in a
dichotomous manner whether or not a participant had produced at least one thought that
indicated distrust. Specifically, the coders were instructed to look for thoughts that indicated a
participant was skeptical or suspicious of the salesperson; the salesperson was dishonest, pushy,
or aggressive; and the salesperson deliberately avoided answering a question. Some verbatim
examples of the thoughts that were coded as mistrustful are as follows: (1) “I’m wondering if he
was telling the whole truth.” (2) “Is he just looking out for the company or for me?” (3) “Seemed
to be pushing the 401k.” (4) “I thought he avoided the question of whether I could still invest in
my IRA.” Agreement between the coders was 93%; differences were reconciled by discussion
between the coders.
After completing the thought listing question, participants completed the items related to
the measure of purchase intention (α = .96). This question was followed by the items for the two
manipulation checks and then the demographic classification measures.
Manipulation Checks. The results of a logistic regression confirmed that participants in
the commission motive condition were more likely to state that the salesperson would make a
commission in the commission motive condition relative to the no commission motive condition
(66% vs. 10%, respectively; B = 2.82, Wald (1) = 16.2, p < .001); salesperson response had no
effect on perceptions of commission status (p > .7) and the interaction term was also not
significant (p > .9). Also as expected, the proportion of participants who felt that the salesperson
knew all of the answers to the prospective customer’s questions was higher in the obfuscatory
response condition when compared to the “don’t know” condition (34% vs. 18%, respectively; B
= .94, Wald (1) = 2.94, p < .09); this dependent variable was not affected by the manipulation of
salesperson motive (p > .4) and the interaction term was also not significant (p > .9).
Main Results. We first conducted a 2 (salesperson response) x 2 (salesperson motive)
ANOVA on purchase intentions in order to confirm that the findings replicated those of the main
study in regard to hypotheses 1a and 1b. In this analysis, the salesperson response by salesperson
motive interaction proved to be marginally significant (F(1, 130) = 3.63, p < .06). Follow-up
pair-wise comparisons of means confirmed the anticipated pattern of moderation (see table 2 for
cell means). When the prospect was aware that the salesperson had a commission motive,
intention to invest was lower if the salesperson gave an obfuscatory response rather than a “don’t
know” (M = 4.12 vs. 4.98, respectively; F(1, 130) = 4.20, p < .05). But in the condition where
the salesperson did not stand to gain via a sales commission, obfuscation proved to be about as
effective as an honest admission of lack of knowledge (M = 4.58 and 4.32, respectively; p > .5).
We then examined our data for evidence of the mediation process implied by hypothesis
3a. As before, we used the Baron and Kenny (1986) approach and conducted a series of three
regressions, all within the commission motive condition. The first regression confirmed that an
obfuscatory response (vs. “don’t know”) had a significant negative impact on intentions to invest
(B = - .87; t(63) = - 2.22, p < .05). Next, a logistic regression confirmed that participants were
more likely to have mistrustful thoughts when they encountered obfuscation rather than a “don’t
know” (B = .78; Wald (1) = 8.87, p < .01). Finally, when intention to invest was regressed on
both salesperson response and whether or not a participant had mistrustful thoughts, the
coefficient for salesperson response was no longer statistically significant (B = - .56; t(62) =
1.32, p > .15), but the coefficient for whether a participant had mistrustful thoughts was
marginally significant (B = -.82; t(62) = - 1.80, p < .08), suggesting that the latter variable at
least partially mediated the effects of obfuscation (Sobel z = 1.54, p < .12).
Insert table 2 about here
Obfuscatory responses are likely to occur in a wide range of communication situations,
yet this topic has rarely been explored by academic scholars. The present research has focused on
the issue of obfuscation by salespersons when they do not know the right answer to a prospective
customer’s question. The work has drawn on prior theorizing and research on persuasion (e.g.,
Campbell and Kirmani 2000; Friestad and Wright 1994), attributional reasoning (e.g., Hilton et
al. 1993), and communication theory (e.g., Burgoon et al. 1996). Across three studies, we
investigated consumers’ expectations of obfuscatory responses by salespersons as well as the
effects of such responses during communications between salespersons and prospects. In all
three studies, we found considerable evidence for the moderating role of salesperson motives.
When prospects are cognizant that a salesperson stands to gain via a commission on the sale,
their expectations of an obfuscatory response are heightened. Further, when a salesperson works
on commission, obfuscation backfires: in such situations, on account of the activation of “dark
side” persuasion knowledge schemas, prospects interpret obfuscatory responses rather
negatively. They produce mistrustful thoughts and are less likely to buy the product. In a sales
commission context, salespersons do much better by being forthright and admitting to not
knowing the answer to a prospect’s question. Our theoretical conjecture is that the perceptions of
honesty gained from a simple “don’t know” help compensate for any damage done to the
perceived competence of the salesperson.
Interestingly, however, we also find that when a prospect is aware that a salesperson does
not work on commission, and consumers’ persuasion knowledge schemas have not been
activated, then the salesperson may be able to “get away” with obfuscating, in the sense that it
tends not to generate distrust on the part of the prospect. But reassuringly from a consumer
welfare perspective, in such a scenario there does not appear to be any particular advantage to
the salesperson in obfuscating relative to offering up a candid “don’t know.” Thus, when a
salesperson does not know the correct answer to a prospect’s question, beating around the bush,
notwithstanding its apparent pragmatic value, is probably never the best response in terms of
persuasiveness, and indeed, can backfire in terms of effectiveness.
Our research adds to the body of knowledge which has explored contexts in which
consumers activate skeptical or suspicion-filled beliefs and expectancies regarding marketers and
salespersons (e.g., Campbell and Kirmani 2000; Fournier et al. 1998; Friestad and Wright 1994;
Grayson 2007; Moorman, Deshpande, and Zaltman 1993). Specifically, we are able to shed light
on the role of sales commissions in whether and when salesperson obfuscation is likely to
succeed or backfire. The present findings also highlight the crucial interplay between cognizance
of marketer motives, persuasion knowledge schemas, and trust perceptions in affecting
consumers’ purchase intentions. Upon receiving an obfuscatory answer from a salesperson, our
research participants generated mistrustful thoughts, but only when a skeptical or watchful state
of mind had been created beforehand by their cognizance of an ulterior motive for the
More generally, the present findings also contribute to our understanding of how the
social context of communication influences the interpretation of a message and the impression
formed of the message source (Wyer and Gruenfeld 1994; Wyer et al. 1994). Wyer et al. (1994)
suggest that when information is acquired in a social context, people pay attention to both the
literal meaning of the information as well as its pragmatic implications. In particular, messages
that violate normative expectations may lead the message recipient to question the source’s
motives and to process the information differently. In our studies, it appears that when
participants in the no-commission condition encountered an obfuscatory answer, they processed
it without drawing overly negative inferences about the communicator. In fact, in this condition
the impact of this response on the prospect’s purchase intentions was about equivalent to that of
providing a correct answer. In contrast, when the salesperson had a commission motive, an
obfuscatory answer appears to have been interpreted as a serious violation of communication
norms of informativeness and truthfulness (Grice 1989).
Prior research has shown that extrinsic monetary incentives can undermine prosocial
behavior in general (Ariely, Bracha and Meier, 2009) and, more specifically, that unethical
behavior is more likely among salespersons who work on commission (Honeycutt et al. 2001;
Kalra et al. 2003). Our research suggests that consumers seem to be aware of this phenomenon,
and adjust their expectations and thinking patterns accordingly. Our results also suggest that
salespersons that are known to work on a pure commission basis should be particularly careful to
avoid any obfuscation in their communications with prospective customers; otherwise, they are
likely to play into the negative stereotypes held by consumers. In that sense, some salespersons
may be at a disadvantage simply due to the nature of their firm's compensation structure. They
may have a more difficult time earning their clients’ trust since even a slightly less-than-
forthright communication could be easily misinterpreted. Overcoming salesperson stereotypes
may involve utilizing alternative compensation structures that are then made explicit to
prospective customers (DeCarlo 2005).
The present work also reinforces and adds to prior research that has identified trust and
transparency in communications as cornerstones of a lasting relationship between consumers and
salespersons or firms (Fang et al. 2008; Fournier et al. 1998; Grayson 2007;
Knowledge@Wharton 2007; Moorman et al. 1993; Morgan and Hunt 1994). Specifically, we
find that a combination of a salesperson commission motive and obfuscation seriously
undermines consumer trust, which in turn has a detrimental effect on purchase intentions. The
bottom line appears to be that when faced with a choice, salespersons might do better to come
across as dumb but honest rather than as clever but devious, not only from an ethical point of
view, but from a very pragmatic one as well.
Limitations and Future Research
There are several limitations of our findings that would be interesting to pursue in future
research. First, our empirical work was confined to a particular form of obfuscation and a
conversation scenario set in a specific financial services context. Future research may be able to
confirm whether the present findings generalize to other forms of obfuscation and a diverse
range of interactions between salespersons and prospects. Second, our theorizing and study
operationalization were predicated on the assumption that obfuscatory responses are likely to be
perceived for what they are. But it may be the case that just as in other domains where
consumers have been shown to exhibit varied amounts of attention and perceptual vigilance to
marketing stimuli (Ratneshwar et al. 1997), all individuals may not be equally adept at detecting
obfuscation. Third, the conversation in our studies occurred in a setting where the salesperson
did not have a prior relationship or history of interaction with the consumer. It is possible that
preexisting characteristics of the relationship (e.g., Aaker, Fournier, and Brasel 2004) may well
determine how consumers respond to obfuscatory responses received from a salesperson, and
this also might be an interesting direction for future research. In the same vein, obfuscation
might produce different effects when the prospect perceives the interaction context as a one-time
sales transaction rather than as a relationship-building overture. Fourth, our research did not
explore the range of possible motives for obfuscation, and this is also a topic left for future
Finally, it is noteworthy that our studies did not involve any face-to-face interactions, so
we are not able to account for the possible impact of nonverbal cues, such as the physical
attractiveness of the salesperson, in regard to the effects of obfuscatory communications.
Ahearne, Gruen, and Jarvis (1999) have found that salesperson attractiveness is positively related
to performance (particularly in the short run), and their data also indicate that the effects of
attractiveness on performance are partially mediated by perceptions of trustworthiness. This
finding suggests that a salesperson’s appearance or looks may independently influence the
manner in which consumers respond to obfuscatory answers; it remains for future research to
ascertain whether attractive salespersons, even when working for a commission, are more likely
to get away with obfuscation.
In conclusion, we note that the topic of obfuscation in marketing and other forms of
persuasive communications is worthy of much more investigation. The present findings indicate
that whether obfuscation by a salesperson is construed negatively or not is in the eye of the
beholder. Understanding the types of motives and situational variables that influence how
consumers respond to an obfuscatory response—or possibly turn a blind eye to it—could be a
fertile area for scholarly research. If the future of marketing is essentially all about having good
conversations with customers (Blattberg and Deighton 1996), the role of obfuscation cannot be
Conversation Between an Employee and a Financial Advisor
Hello. I just started a job here with company [X] and they have offered me the opportunity to invest
in a 401k. I'm not sure whether I should do this. Could you tell me exactly what a 401k plan is?
Sure. A 401k is what's known as a "defined contribution plan." What this means is that the plan
determines the monetary contributions that you and your employer can make to a retirement plan. The
benefit or payout at retirement depends on how well your investments in the plan do over time. This is one
way that 401k's differ from traditional pension plans.
So, if I decide to invest in a 401k plan, how does it work?
If you decided to participate in your employer's 401k plan, your 401k contributions would be invested at
your direction, for example, into various mutual funds provided by the plan. You would decide how much
money to invest and where to invest it, subject to the plan's provisions.
Why would I want to open up a 401k rather than investing in some other kind of savings plan?
A key benefit of 401k plans is that employers often match at least part of employees' contributions. For
example, your employer may contribute 50 cents to your plan for every dollar you contribute, up to a
Do I have to pay taxes on what I would contribute to a 401k plan?
No. Another major advantage of 401k plans is that they allow employees to make pre-tax contributions.
In other words, your contributions are automatically deducted from your paycheck each pay period,
before your paycheck is taxed. You don't have to pay taxes on the amount you put away.
So, would I ever have to pay taxes on the money in a 401k plan?
Taxes on the money you put into a 401k are put off or deferred until you take the money out during
What about if I take the money out before I retire?
If you take money out of the 401k before the age of 59 1/2, you would have to pay income taxes on the
amount you take out and you would have to pay a 10% penalty as well.
If I decided to invest in a 401k I guess I'd have to decide how much money to put into it. What is the
maximum I could contribute?
In 2003 (2007), you can contribute up to $12,000 ($15,500) of your salary. This limit increases each
year. So in future years you could contribute more.
What if I wanted to put even more money into a 401k, could I?
Well, if you are age 50 or over you can make additional "catch-up" contributions of $2,000 this year, for
a total contribution limit of $14,000. These catch-up amounts will also increase each year for the next
Do these dollar limits apply to what my employer contributes to my plan?
No. These limits do not include the amount that your employer chooses to contribute to your plan. These
are the amounts that you yourself can contribute from your paycheck. So the total amount contributed by
both you and your employer will usually be more than what you alone contribute.
Until now, I have been contributing money into an IRA every year. If I contribute to the 401k plan
offered by my employer, could I still contribute to my IRA?
Well, I guess I'm a little concerned about tying up my money in a 401k. What if I were to buy a
home soon? Could I use the money I've invested in a 401k to put a down payment on a house?
In some cases, 401k plans provide loans. Funds obtained from a loan are not subject to income tax or the
10% early withdrawal penalty. Whether or not you can take out a loan against your 401k is determined
by your employer's rules.
If I did take out a loan, how quickly would I need to pay it back?
You would need to pay the loan back over five years, although this can be extended for a first-time home
What if I decide I want to retire before age 59 1/2? Isn't there any way to avoid the 10% early
distribution penalty on retirement payments from my 401k?
Well, there are some exceptions. For example, if you are retiring from the company that is sponsoring
your plan and you are at least 55 at retirement, you can begin to withdraw monthly income from your
401k with no penalty.
What if in the future I wanted to move my 401k from this employer into a 401k plan with a
different employer? Would I be allowed to do this without paying any penalties?
First, you would need to check with your new employer to ensure that their plan accepts rollovers. If they
do, ask them for instructions on where assets from your old 401k should be sent. Then contact your
former employer and ask for the necessary form(s) to complete a rollover into your new employers plan.
You would incur no penalties when rolling assets from one plan to another.
Can you tell me more about your firm's mutual funds?
Sure, let me tell you about what we have to offer....
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Main Study: Results as a Function of Salesperson’s Motive and Response
said the salesperson
will make a
said the salesperson
knew all the
Intention to invest
Intention to invest and trust perceptions have a scale range of 1-7.
No commission motive
NOTE.— Cell means for intention to invest that share the same superscript are significantly
different at p < .05.
Follow-Up Study: Results as a Function of Salesperson’s Motive and Response
Percent of participants who said
the salesperson will make a
Percent of participants who said
the salesperson knew all the
Intention to invest
Percent of participants who
produced mistrustful thoughts
Intention to invest has a scale range of 1-7.
No commission motive
NOTE.— Cell means for intention to invest that share the same superscript are significantly
different at p < .05.
Main Study: Intention to Invest as a Function of Salesperson’s Motive and Response