Fan Boys, Good, Bad or just stupid?

June 22, 2012
4 mins read

HAVE YOU EVER found yourself fuming because someone just didn’t get the finer points of Apple? Perhaps your brand bug-bear revolves around an intense sense of frustration of those who refuse to embrace Android because they are mindless iSheep controlled by Cupertino? It might even just be that you simply think both sides of the Apple vs. Android argument are idiots who just don’t get Windows 7 Phone.

Whichever (if any camp) you belong to, it could be that according to a study from the University of Illinois, you may be defending yourself because you view criticisms of your favourite brand as a threat to your self-image.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, examines the strength of the consumer-brand relationship and concludes that those who have the most knowledge of (and experience with) a brand are more personally impacted by criticisms around the particular brand they identify with.

The basis of the study comes from two experiments that saw researchers first test a group of 30 women and then a group of 170 undergraduates to see whether the test subjects’ self esteem was tied to the general ratings of various brands. The findings make for very interesting reading indeed. Those who had a high self-brand connections (those who follow, research, or simply like a certain brand) tended to be the ones whose self esteem suffered the most when their brands didn’t do well or attracted criticism. Those with a relatively low self-brand connection were unaffected on a personal level regardless of what was said about any given brand.

Could it be the rabid, anti-social and all so often irrational defending of a brand or product online has finally been explained? Perhaps, but then again the study also found that of the subjects tested, those with a high self brand connection also tended to discount negative news about their favourite brands or would even ignore it, mentally rewriting brand history in the process.

Either way, it appears that fanboy behaviour could occur because the brand is seen as being intimately tied to the self, so failure on the part of the brand is experienced as a personal failure. This is of course great news for marketers when money and purchasing decisions are at stake.

The news however, isn’t so good when in an effort to maintain a positive self-view, high self brand connected individuals react aggressively to criticisms of their particular favourite brand by going on the attack online.

Psych 101 stuff aside, there are some very real implications for marketers and tech brands as a direct result of the whole fan boy phenomena. Driven in part by the explosive growth in the cult of the fan boy and also of social networking, the whole sordid equation has begun to coalesce into an unpleasant online cocktail with lethal spin offs for big brands.

While marketing execs from Google, Microsoft and Apple are patting each other on the back for creating legions of individuals who’ll fight to the death to defend their favourite brand, the potential downsides could be huge.

Many potential buyers, particularly of consumer electronics, are desperately keen to make an informed purchase decision and as such tend to spend a huge amount of time researching a particular product online. A frequently cited research statistic quoted was that the average PC buyer did more research when buying a $2000 PC than when buying a $200,000 house.

For the uninitiated shopper, stumbling upon a group of fan-boys thrashing it out in a comments section or product forum can be disturbing or even worse still, an off-putting experience. Sarah, a receptionist for a law firm, provides a compelling example of the harm that can be done by fan boys;

“I was undecided between the iPhone 4s and the Nokia Lumina, because both were great looking phones and friends had said good things about both. After reading the comments on a review online I was shocked to see people laying into each other about all sorts of weird specifications, which totally confused me and put me off buying Apple. On another site, the comments around Windows phone were even worse, with amazingly tactless insults being slung around. This left me unsure about what I was buying and put me off completely, so I ended up getting an Android”

Buyer confusion stemming from the online antics of ardent fan boys may be one negative side effect, but negative associations around a particular product or brand is another. Adam, unemployed, discovered this while shopping for an MP3 player;

“I wanted an iPod Nano for the gym and decided to check out some reviews before I paid any money. The comments being bandied around under the reviews left me feeling shocked, and I decided I didn’t want to buy into such a crazy scene. I still haven’t got a music player, and when I do get one, it won’t be from Apple”.

Building a community of brand advocates may have long been a holy grail for brand marketers, but it could also be catastrophically back-firing as bewildered first time buyers back away from the anti-social behaviour of fan boys slugging it out in unwinnable online fights for brand supremacy.

Further fueling the fan boy fires are social networks such as twitter, Facebook and Google+. Having spent a significant amount of time on these sites, it isn’t all that unusual to see a call to arms with a fan boy quoting a link to someone saying something vaguely negative about their brand. This in turn frequently has the effect of bringing hordes of excitable (but often badly informed) fan boys into the fray where they trade blows. Small insignificant remarks or comments can quickly descend into heated and protracted arguments online.

Online editors may be rubbing their hands together with glee as page hits go off the charts. However, none of this online traffic is clicking adverts, and as shown earlier, many first time genuine buyers become early casualties. The fan boy phenomena isn’t all bad however, as the near encyclopaedic knowledge around their favourite products can also be tapped into as a source of invaluable tech support and arcane information, also making on-line forums handy places to visit to get tough tech questions answered.

Having been a tech writer and reviewer across numerous media outlets spanning broadcast, print and online, dealing with irrational or just plain nasty letters, comments and email has long been a necessary evil. Sadly the trend appears to be accelerating, which is ironic given the well intentioned (yet oh so often badly informed) damage being done to the very brands that legions of fan boys are willing to defend to the digital death. PAT PILCHER

Pat has been talking about tech on TV, radio and print for over 20 years, having served time as a TV tech guy and currently penning reviews for Witchdoctor. He loves nothing more than rolling his sleeves up and playing with shiny gadgets.


  1. I see no great problem with Fanboy debates as, in my observation, even the most negative contributors on discussions can give interesting points of view or new pieces of information. On the Internet it is information that is king and social niceties are reserved for more personal contact.

  2. Hi That’s a fair point and this can of course be argued. I’ve updated the story to include that perspective – many thanks for chiming in!

  3. But surely old-fashioned good manners aren’t that hard to uphold in the digital domain? What I find the worst is the comments you invariably see under YouTube clips – on that medium, conversations just seem to escalate to pitched battles that amount to nothing but different ways to be offensive.

  4. fanboys are great !
    they provide hours of endless fun and targets for ribbing.

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