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Critics’ Input Colors Consumer Choices

From toasters to tipples, buyers ceding decisions to outside advisers.
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A new study showing how certain film critics can influence box office gross has implications beyond the multiplex.

The basic findings also apply where "people can't evaluate (consumer goods) or don't want to bother evaluating and are willing to cede their decisions to someone else," said Peter Boatwright, an associate professor of marketing at Carnegie-Mellon University and one of the study's co-authors.

"Reviewing the Reviewers: The Impact of Individual Film Reviewers on Box Office Performance" identified two different types of critics: influencers, whose opinions correlate with early box office sales, and predictors, whose opinions jibe with overall gross.

Using this as a takeoff point, Boatwright and his colleagues, Suman Basuroy of Florida Atlantic University and Wagner Kamakura of Duke University, tracked more than 400 films during a four-year period, then compared their box office gross with the reviews of 46 critics from publications with the widest possible circulation.

In some ways, the results were not exactly earth-shattering: The study found that critics are "influencers, and not predictors," that they tended to have less impact on big-budget films in wide release and more on smaller movies with limited release patterns. What this means is that audiences were going to see The Dark Knight no matter the quality of the reviews (which happened to be good), but they needed critical chatter to discover an indie hit like The Visitor.

"In our study, critics were a lot less relevant for movies that were more mainstream," Boatwright said. "The niche films are where they have greater influence because there's less information available."

This concept of available information, or the lack of it, is where the study has broader implications, particularly when it comes to what Boatwright refers to as "experience goods, where you have to buy it before evaluating it." This can mean anything from toasters to automobiles, as well as art forms like books, theater and TV shows. The lack of information about a product, or the presence of too much information, means that consumers might, in a sense, cede their critical responsibilities and accept the advice of self-appointed professional experts.

This means everyone from film critic Roger Ebert and Robert Parker in the wine world, the so-called "Big Three" tech reviewers for gadgetry (Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, David Pogue of the New York Times and Ed Baig of USA Today), auto reviews in publications like Car and Driver, even a TV stock analyst like CNBC's Jim Cramer.

"All products are complicated and have multiple features," Boatwright said. "You could always talk to your friends" and get their opinion, "but now it's expanded to people you don't know."

Also coming into play here is cost.

As the film going experience shows, consumers are not afraid to take a flyer on something if it's relatively inexpensive. But raise the price considerably — say a Broadway show at $125 a seat — and the expertise of critics becomes more relevant.

"Where you're spending a chunk of change, it's an investment," Boatwright said, "and you don't want to be wrong. If you're thinking of buying an expensive wine, you might tend to look for the ratings, but if it's a table wine, you might take a risk."
Because of this, many companies now use critical raves as promotional tools. But as the experience of the film industry suggests, some of these reviewers, known by the pejorative term "quote whores," are so unendingly positive, their opinions become irrelevant. What this suggests, Boatwright said, is that "having a variety of experts suddenly becomes more informative. When you have the question of the quality of a toaster, it has quality or it doesn't, and it's great if there are a lot of opinions because then I can see where it all weighs out at the end."

Boatwright feels his micro study has macro relevancy because "at a general level, we can assess and detect if critics are influencing sales, and if some have greater impact than others."

He said critical weight might vary from one industry to another, and ultimately, it comes down to who you trust. If you need a critical evaluation of a product, Boatwright said, "you need to look deeper and find critics with different tastes. You need to get to know a critic."