Seeing mouthwatering ads on Instagram doesn’t necessarily guarantee sales

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Imagine tasting that juicy burger you saw in an Instagram ad or trying out the latest Apple Vision Pro headset computer. This act of mentally simulating the experience of a product before purchasing is a tool that marketers have been wielding for years. But how effective is it? A new study by Yale University and USC researchers is seeking to answer that very question.

The research brings together findings from over 50 studies conducted between 1980 and 2020. It sought to find out whether making customers “mentally” experience a product actually compels them to buy it.

What is Mental Simulation?

Mental simulation involves creating an experience in your mind, almost as if you’re living it. Marketers often use enticing visuals or catchy slogans to make consumers imagine using a product. Think of the mouthwatering food images you see on restaurant menus or commercials that ask viewers to imagine themselves in exotic holiday locations.

The results from various studies are mixed.

“However, although some studies have noted positive influences on behavioral intentions and behavior, others have found minimal or even negative effects,” the researchers say in a media release. “It is difficult to interpret these findings given how the modality of simulation, frequency of induction, type of consumption experience, and target populations vary widely in research and practice.”

The team came up with four key takeaways from the study:

1. Mental Simulation works, but to an extent: While the study did find that mental simulations generally increase the likelihood of a purchase, the effect was relatively small. So, while imagining that burger might make you a tad hungrier, it’s not a guaranteed sale.

2. Quality over quantity: One standout finding was that not all simulations are created equal. Interactive media, such as augmented reality (AR) or 360-degree videos, paired with verbal descriptions, had a much stronger impact than static images.

3. Frequency matters: Marketers need to strike a balance in how often they use these mental simulations. Repeated exposure to the same ad can be more than just annoying; it can actually deter consumers from making a purchase due to becoming overly familiar with it.

4. Online vs. In-person matters: The study found that mental simulations didn’t work as effectively for online samples, likely because participants weren’t as engaged. This is especially relevant in today’s digital age, where much of advertising expenditure is online.

Junk food and processed food
(© makistock –

Practical implications for marketers

Based on the findings, researchers give several suggestions:

  • Invest in interactive tools: For businesses that rely on consumers’ ability to imagine using a product before buying, tools like AR and 360-degree videos might be worth the investment.
  • Diversify your platforms: Luxury brands are already using platforms like TikTok and Instagram for unboxing videos, helping potential customers visualize owning and using luxury products.
  • Balance is key: It’s crucial for marketers to combine both visual and verbal prompts effectively and to control the exposure frequency.
  • Channel choice is vital: Due to the decreased effectiveness of mental simulations in online ads, marketers might want to invest more in channels where the consumer is actively seeking out the product, ensuring higher engagement.

“While mental simulation inductions are a common approach found across many industries and product categories, our systematic, large-scale analysis suggests that marketers should carefully consider the right approach, context, and frequency of prompting mental simulations,” researchers conclude.

The study is published in the Journal of Marketing.

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