The Power of "Imagine Yourself..." Advertising

Imagine Yourself Being Persuaded

EscalasAdvertisers have long known that consumers will make connections to certain brands and those relationships may defy explanation—or even common sense. For example, a father of four young children buys a red sports car when a minivan would be a more practical purchase. A busy mother drops a box of bath beads into her shopping cart, even though it’s been years since she’s taken a relaxing bath. A teenager saves his allowance for an abdominal-workout machine, although he hates to exercise. In these examples, all three consumers envision the products they’re buying as helping to define either who they are or who they want to be. The father imagines himself as a cool dude, the mother as deserving of a little self-indulgence, the teen as a guy with an enviable physique.

PHOTO: Jennifer Edson Escalas, Associate Professor of Management

Rationality aside, if those products eventually do help to enhance or define a self-image, consumers are more likely to be loyal to those brands in the future. Dr. Jennifer Escalas, associate professor of management in marketing at the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management, says that people can be persuaded to buy products based on “narrative processing,” or the telling of stories, particularly when a buyer imagines himself/herself as a central character.

Standard marketing dogma suggests that consumers make purchasing decisions because they have read or seen advertisements about a group of products, analyzed the attributes of each, and after weighing all the factors, arrived at an optimum choice. This is called analytical elaboration, a thought process that must be acquired or learned. For this approach to work, customers must be engaged and thinking. Sometimes, however, people choose merchandise because they have visualized or verbalized a scenario about themselves and one product best fits into that imagery. Escalas refers to this latter method as self-referencing, which is an easier and more natural way for most people to process information.

“We often see ourselves as protagonists in a future story,” she explains. “You relive washing dirty clothes and they come out cleaner, or you imagine yourself in running shoes and you see yourself as being more athletic or running faster.”

In a recent study, “Self-Referencing and Persuasion: Narrative Transportation versus Analytical Elaboration” (Journal of Consumer Research, March 2007), Escalas conducted experiments using an ad for a fictitious brand of running shoe and evaluated viewers’ responses in the context of narrative self-referencing (i.e., “Imagine yourself running through this park…”) versus analytical self-referencing (i.e., “We’d like to introduce you to the Westerly running shoe, designed with you in mind…”) She found that when an ad mentally transports viewers — so that they envision themselves as participants in that situation — it didn’t matter whether the arguments for buying the product were strong (the shoe is lightweight with an advanced stability system) or if they were weak (the shoe has reinforced shoe laces and is water resistant). In both cases, viewers liked the running shoe and were interested in buying it.

In other words, Escalas says, when people are thinking analytically, they’re weighing all the alternatives and differentiating among attributes. Therefore, when the attributes aren’t so great, the overall assessment of the product goes down. “But in self-referencing ads, all that stuff is irrelevant,” she adds. “You think about yourself using the product, experiencing the product, and you aren’t as focused on the individual attributes.”

The commonality among narrative self-referencing ads is that the message is presented in the second, rather than the third person. If they are effective, individuals can get caught up in the experience being shown.

“The better an ad can do that, the more persuasive it will be,” says Escalas. “Fortunately for advertisers, our natural proclivity is to imagine good things happening to us. We don’t imagine running and breaking a leg, we imagine running and feeling good.”

Generating a sensation of goodwill seems to be more important than touting the features of the product—as long as marketers are addressing a nonskeptical audience.  Escalas conducted another series of studies in which she found that people who were skeptical by nature, or those who were specifically instructed to critically evaluate an ad in terms of a product’s relevance to them, tended to require that the ad provide them with strong arguments for buying the product. They were less likely to simply be transported by the story conveyed.

“That’s a problem for marketers,” Escalas says. “If their target market tends to be very skeptical, then this technique of using narrative self-referencing with weak arguments about product features won’t work for them.”

In total, research by Escalas and others into mental simulation and determining the best advertising approaches for certain audiences has huge implications for branding. If consumers don’t link up the ad with the brand, then the marketing strategy has failed, no matter how pleasantly they were transported. Say, for example, the father buys a sports car from a competing dealership or the mother buys a different brand of bath beads. In both cases, the self-referencing worked and the consumer was persuaded, but he/she didn’t associate those wonderful mental images with a specific product.

Consumer research has also shown that narratives generating autobiographical memories (i.e., “…Remember the last time you had wine with a romantic dinner...?”) can be tricky for marketers who want to associate a brand with an experience. “Imagining the future works better than remembering the past,” Escalas says. “Remembering the past has the context and the details, but the future is more malleable and you can insert your product in there more easily.”

Narrative self-referencing ads are particularly effective in promoting self-help items, such as skin-care and hair-care products, weight-loss systems, or body enhancing equipment. Escalas insists that because we now have the technology and regulatory oversight to ensure that most products are made well, branding has become that much more vital to the art of persuasion.

“A lot of brands are now differentiating themselves along the line of what that brand means,” she says. “Narrative advertising is very good for that, because it helps create the relationship between the brand and the person and certain intangible brand benefits. Starbucks Coffee has been very successful at mark