Skip to main content

You're a Brand-Damaging Old Flag

Researchers find Americans react negatively when Old Glory is used to sell merchandise.

There is a debate among political psychologists whether the image of the American flag brings out people's inner conservative or stimulates partisans of all sorts to move more firmly into their own corner. Whichever is true, new research suggests slapping the stars and stripes onto consumer merchandise produces a different kind of reaction.

It makes American consumers less likely to purchase the product.

"The American flag, as a national symbol, has special sociocultural meaning for Americans," write researchers Lili Wang of Zhejiang University, and Pen Zuo of Shanghai University of International Business and Economics. "When this symbol is used as a persuasion tactic, this use provokes outrage from consumers."

In the journal Psychology and Marketing, Wang and Zuo describe four studies that demonstrate this dynamic. The first featured 238 United States residents recruited online who were asked to evaluate four products: a bag, a bottle, a pair of shoes, and a T-shirt.

For one-third of participants, the label on each product featured an image of the American flag. For another third, the label read "U.S.A." For the final third, it contained no patriotic wording or imagery. Using a seven-point scale, each participant indicated how much they liked each item, and how likely they were to purchase it if they were in the market for such a product.

The researchers report the products with no patriotic label received the best evaluations, and those with the flag image received the worst. This was found for items that are linked with a person's identity (such as the T-shirt and shoes), and one that was strictly utilitarian (the bottle).

Why this aversion? The researchers argue it is an example of what psychologists call "reactance." That describes a state in which we perceive someone is trying to constrain our behavior. Many people chafe at this and react by somehow reasserting their freedom. (This largely explains the anger over "political correctness.")

"The American flag, as a national symbol, has special sociocultural meaning for Americans."

Wang and Zuo repeated the experiment with a different group of 170 U.S. residents. These participants also filled out a questionnaire in which they responded to statements such as "When someone forces me to do something, I feel like doing the opposite" and "I consider advice from others to be an intrusion."

The results replicated those of the first experiment, and further found that individuals who rated high on the reactance scale evaluated the flag-festooned products more negatively than those with low scores.

An interesting question arises from these results. Certain politicians and news anchors regularly wear a flag pin on their lapel, presumably to signal patriotism. But if this comes across as insincere or inappropriate, might it prompt people to turn the channel, or vote for the other guy? That'd be a fascinating subject for a follow-up study.

So, in this politically polarized era, here's a belief most of us share: The flag is an inappropriate way to push merchandise. The stars and stripes should not be used to sell shoes.