Remember that fresh, buttery popcorn you had a few weeks ago? Maybe you didn’t really have it at all, and the memory was created by a magazine ad. Impossible, you say? Actually, new research shows that some print ads can be impactful enough to create a false memory of having tried a product that doesn’t even exist!

Researchers Priyali Rajagopal (Southern Methodist University) and Nicole Montgomery (College of William and Mary) showed subjects either high imagery or low imagery versions of print ads for a fictitious popcorn product, Orville Redenbacher Gourmet Fresh. Other subjects were allowed to consume “samples” of the invented product which were actually a different Redenbacher popcorn.

A week later, all of the participants were surveyed to determine their attitudes toward the product and how confident they were about their opinions. Amazingly, members of the group that viewed the more vivid ad were as likely to report that they had tried the product as the group that actually consumed the samples. The group that saw the low imagery ads were less likely to report they had tried the product, and had weaker, less favorable opinions about it.

Changing the brand to an unknown name, the fictitious “Pop Joy Gourmet Fresh,” reduced the false memory effect. I presume that the more ubiquitous the product and brand, the more likely these false recollections are to occur. I’m sure I could look at any number of vivid ads from Lamborghini and still never think I had taken an Aventador for a spin.

Use Vivid Images

The real story here isn’t that advertisers can create false memories, which seems unlikely in most circumstances. Rather, this study shows the power of print ads that incorporate vivid imagery – clearly, paper has once again shown itself to be an effective medium. (See also Paper Beats Digital For Emotion.) These ads, even though static and two-dimensional, can apparently create the impression of experiencing the product in consumer brains, and can increase positive feelings about the product.

Clearly, it’s worth taking the time to create superb images – mouth-watering, well styled closeups for food products, for example. For other products, images that emphasize the products sensual aspects – textures, scents, etc. – would likely work best, even though the sensory experience will be in the mind of the viewer. Since we experience the world in color, I would expect that color ads would beat black and white for creating the sense of having experienced the product.

It would certainly be interesting to repeat the experiment with broadcast video or online rich media ads – these media might lack the high resolution of print, but that shortcoming might be offset by the inclusion of motion and sound. Adding some neuromarketing analysis of how subjects’ brains react to different ads would be interesting as well. In the meantime, these findings are good news for magazine publishers who can offer excellent quality, realistic reproduction of vivid ads.

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