When ‘it’s wrong, don’t do it’ doesn’t work

Consumer deviance – theft, fraud, aggression – is a significant issue for managers and to date, the common ways of deterring these negative behaviours are to say “It’s wrong, don’t do it” or to say “you will be caught and punished”. But these hard stick approaches do not seem to be working as we continue to observe deviant consumer behaviour in the marketplace.

In our research, published in the Journal of Marketing Management, we explore why these deterrence strategies might not be working as well as they should.

Strategy 1: It’s wrong, don’t do it

For this deterrence strategy to work it assumes that everybody agrees the behaviour they are deterring (e.g., stealing) is wrong. There are two problems with this assumption.

1. Everybody has a different definition of what is right and wrong, irrelevant of what the law or organisational policy objectively states as right and wrong.

In this paper, we found that as a society, we agree on the outright acceptable (e.g., using a fuel voucher to buy petrol) and unacceptable (e.g., using stolen credit card to order goods online) behaviours, yet we tend to disagree on whether most behaviours are right or wrong, irrelevant of what the law or an organisation’s policy states. For instance, in Study 1 we found just as many people thought the illegal downloading of TV shows was acceptable as people who thought it was unacceptable, despite it being illegal.

2. People can know certain behaviours are wrong and still engage in them if they have a justification excusing their actions.

In previous work in the Journal of Marketing Management , we found certain justifications were related to people’s individual definitions of what is right and wrong.

So, “it’s wrong, don’t do it” is falling on deaf ears.

Strategy 2: You will be caught and punished

For this deterrence strategy to work, managers need to ensure there is sufficient resourcing to detect and then swiftly punish deviant consumer behaviour. However, the problem with this approach is that most organisations do not have enough resourcing to detect behaviours in the first instance. It costs a lot of money to have high-tech loss prevention systems, CCTV cameras, security tags, etc. Combining this with the fact that some deviant consumer behaviour (e.g., lying) are incredible hard to detect means that most deviant consumer behaviour does go undetected. When people don’t think they will be caught, the punishment becomes irrelevant and thus, an ineffective deterrent. In our research, we found that risk perceptions of being caught and punished are low, if not absent, undermining the ‘you will be caught and punished’ approach to deterrence.

So, what then?

Alternate strategies

In our research we found that perceived prevalence, perceived outcomes, and moral identity could be alternate motives for deviance, which could suggest efficacy in exploring tactics like social proofs, humanising the victim, and moral triggers to deter deviant consumer behaviour in the future.

Social proofs could be used to persuade individuals to perform a desired behaviour by suggesting peer or social group engagement in that behaviour. This stems from the finding that people are likely to engage in deviant consumer behaviour if they think others are also engaging in that behaviour (i.e. perceived prevalence). This approach is commonly used to encourage environmentally friendly behaviour, yet there is an opportunity to use it to reduce deviant behaviour.

Humanising the victim is a means of educating people about the harm their actions are causing. This becomes complicated when harm is being directed to a self-service checkout (an inanimate object) or a large ‘faceless’ organisation. Dr Dootson has already begun exploring how the use of robots and virtual reality in-store can trigger empathetic responses to large organisations to curb instances of deviant consumer behaviour without creating negative customer experiences commonly associated with bag-checks or CCTVs (see Brook, 2017; Bruce-Smith, 2017; Collier, 2017; Mortimer & Dootson, 2017).

Moral triggers are used to encourage self-regulation by drawing people’s attention to their own moral traits (e.g., honesty). Past research successfully applied this strategy to reduce insurance fraud whereby signing a declaration of honesty at the beginning of the form saw a reduction in fraudulent insurance claims (Shu et al., 2012). There is an opportunity to scale this approach in other types of consumer deviance as we found moral identity was an alternate predictor to risk for why people engage in deviant consumer behaviours.

The future: designing out deviance

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to deterrence. Instead, managers should look to design out deviance as we saw with the Amazon Go convenience store. Removing the opportunity for deviance will alleviate the resource strain managers’ experience when trying to implore people to do the right thing and to detect and punish them when they don’t.


Bruce-Smith, A. (2017). QLD’S top minds are trying to stop you scanning everything as onions. https://www.pedestrian.tv/news/arts-and-culture/qlds-top-minds-are-trying-to-stop-you-scanning-eve/dc3be179-f122-48a4-9685-3b5669d5bb4a.htm
Mortimer, G., & Dootson, P. (2017, June 12). The economics of self-service checkouts. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-economics-of-self-service-checkouts-78593
Shu, L. L., Mazar, N., Gino, F., Ariely, D., & Bazerman, M. H. (2012). Signing at the beginning makes ethics salient and decreases dishonest self-reports in comparison to signing at the end. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(38), 15197–15200. doi:10.1073/ pnas.1209746109 http://www.pnas.org/content/109/38/15197.full

Read the original research article: Dootson, P., Lings, I., Beatson, A. & Johnston, K.A. (2017). Deterring deviant consumer behaviour: when ‘it’s wrong, don’t do it’ doesn’t work. Journal of Marketing Management. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2017.1364285

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Paula Dootson

Paula Dootson

Dr Paula Dootson, PhD, is a Research Fellow in the PwC Chair in Digital Economy at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. Her research focuses on understanding and deterring deviant consumer behaviour across a number of domains. Paula’s research will provide organisations with more effective deterrence strategies to reduce instances of deviant consumer behaviour in the marketplace. Paula’s work has been published in the Journal of Marketing Management, International Journal of Bank Marketing, University of New South Wales Law Journal, and Advances in Consumer Research.

ORICD iD iconhttp://orcid.org/0000-0002-8020-8762

Ian Lings

Ian Lings

Dr Ian Lings, PhD, is a Professor in marketing at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. His research explores the ‘firm–employee–customer’ triad and has been published in a range of journals including the Journal of Service Research, the Journal of Business Research, Long Range Planning, and the Journal of Services Marketing. Ian co-authored the research-student focused book: ‘Doing Business Research: A Guide to Theory and Practice’ (Sage). He is an associate editor of the European Journal of Marketing and sits on the international advisory board of the Journal of Service Management.

ORICD iD iconhttp://orcid.org/0000-0002-6150-5470

Amanda Beatson

Amanda Beatson

Dr Amanda Beatson, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer in marketing at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. Her research focuses on services marketing and management, drivers of service success, self-service technologies, and enhancing consumer experiences. Her work has been published in a range of journals including the Journal of Business Research, Journal of Business Ethics, Service Industries Journal, and Services Marketing Quarterly.

ORICD iD iconhttp://orcid.org/0000-0001-7741-2060

Kim Johnston

Kim Johnston

Dr Kim Johnston, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer in public relations at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. Dr Johnston’s research focuses on cultural knowledge as it relates to strategic communication, social impact, and engagement. She is currently editing the Handbook of Communication Engagement (Wiley). Her work has been published in a range of journals, including Journal of Change Management, Public Relations Review, and Journal of Public Relations Research. She is on the editorial board of the Journal of Public Relations Research and Corporate Communications: An International Journal.

ORICD iD iconhttp://orcid.org/0000-0002-6119-203X

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.