Our study offers the following real-world implications:
- Using more interactive and engaging simulation prompts, such as 360-degree videos and AR tools, are especially effective in increasing behaviors. Investing in such technologies and approaches could be particularly important for companies that rely on consumers simulating a future experience or outcome.
- Some existing technologies and channels—such as animated graphics and email marketing—can be leveraged for simulation-based communications. Luxury brands already employ unboxing videos on TikTok and Instagram to stimulate viewers’ imagination and influence their future purchases.
- Marketers must consider combining visual and verbal prompts. For instance, in the case of online reviews, consumers find it easier to process the review when the photo and text convey similar aspects of one’s experience, which, in turn, increases the review’s perceived helpfulness.
- For marketers employing mental simulation in their campaigns, controlling, and especially limiting, daily exposure is particularly important. For instance, Hulu has taken steps to ensure its viewers can encounter the same commercial only twice per hour, four times per day, or 25 times per week. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram now allow marketers to place limits on daily or weekly exposure, which we recommend should be set even lower than those employed by Hulu.
- The online studies yielded nonsignificant results as opposed to in-person studies, which produced significant effects. Mental simulation prompts were ineffective for online respondents, possibly because they were not sufficiently involved or engaged in the simulation process. This finding may be particularly alarming for managers because a large chunk of advertising spending is on TV and digital channels that may be consumed during distracting activities and can lead to active disengagement from ads. As a workaround, ads that include mental simulation may better fit into channels in which consumers initiate the marketing activity, such as search ads that ensure greater consumer attention and engagement based on declared interests.
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.
Lessons for Chief Marketing Officers
In a new Journal of Marketing study, we synthesize and evaluate over 50 studies conducted over four decades (from 1980 to 2020) to analyze when mental simulation prompts heighten consumers’ purchases.
Enticing people to buy a juicy burger or the new Apple Vision Pro spatial headset computer can involve the same marketing approach: prompting consumers to mentally simulate future purchases or consumption.
Wendy Wood is Provost Professor Emerita of Psychology and Business, University of Southern California, USA.