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Esther Uduehi, Doctoral Student, University of Pennsylvania

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I am a Person, But They Are a Condition: The Role of Language Choices on Consumer Behavior for Stigmatized Groups


Although millions of consumers deal with various stigmatized identities such as obesity, homelessness, and substance use disorders, little is known about 1) whether stigmatized identity language within the marketplace matches consumer preferences and 2) the psychological factors that impact the use of these language choices towards stigmatized groups. While there is some evidence that people dealing with stigmatized conditions prefer person-first language (e.g., person with obesity) instead of identity-first language (e.g., obese person), the use of person-first language is not universal by brands. This talk first addresses research that uses health ads and voice-over lab studies. We find that people dealing with weight issues are more interested in engaging with nutrition brands that use person-first language to describe their weight identity. However, data scraping weight and nutrition brand websites reveals that brands are more likely to use identity-first language to describe weight identities. This talk then explores what drives the use of identity vs. person-first language for stigmatized groups. Using textual analysis of 1326 nonprofit organizations and academic literature as well as follow-up lab experiments, we find that for conditions perceived to be more changeable, organizations and people are more likely to use identity-first language. The relationship between people’s use of identity-first language for conditions viewed as changeable is mediated by perceptions of onset or personal responsibility for stigmatized others. Our results suggest that if person-first language is helpful in empowering stigmatized groups, it will be necessary to point out the multi-faceted nature of the systems that support the stigmatized condition, such that individuals are not saddled with the type of responsibility that hides their personhood behind their condition.