Bit by Bit, Step By Step: Why and When Consumers Need to See It to Believe It in Change Advertisements

Advertiser 1: “Weight loss is a hard thing to prove.”

Advertiser 2 (Don Draper): “No, it isn’t. It’s ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. Since the dawn of time.”

(Mad Men, season 1, episode 11)

In a recently academic paper published on the Journal of Marketing Research, Cian, Longoni, and Krishna (2020) analized how ads promising change work and when and why they are persuasive.

Consumers often desire change. We want to be thinner, have whiter teeth, get rid of headaches, or have thicker hair. Companies respond to such desires by offering products that promise to deliver the corresponding changes: weight-loss programs, teeth-whitening products, painkillers, or hairgrowth treatments. On a public policy level, desirable change is often the goal of public service announcements (PSAs) aiming to promote healthier behaviors. The advertisements for these products (change ads) typically feature visuals of the “before” and the desired “after” (e.g., photos of a person at the beginning and the end of a weight-loss program); we call these “before/after” ads. Another, less commonly used type of change ad features visuals of the intermediate outcomes that occur between the “before” and the “after” (e.g., photos of a person gradually slimming down); the authors call these “progression” ads (see picture below for some examples)

Imagine that you have just been nominated Chief Marketing Officer of BpiDiets. BpiDiets is a weight-loss brand that aims at promoting products and programs that promise long-term weight-loss through medical, nutritional, and lifestyle changes. Your traditional ad-agency have just provided you with a brief of the ads promoting your new weight-loss product. All the ads include only the visuals of the starting and ending point of the weight-loss; that is, photos of a person at the beginning and the end of the weight-loss program (“before-after” ads). The ad agency assures you that showing a picture of the “before” and one if the “after” is the industry standard and all ads promising change use this format. However, you remembered seeing a competitor weight-loss’s ad featuring visuals of the intermediate steps that occur in between the “before” and the “after” (that is, photos of a person gradually slimming down throughout the weight loss program; “progression” ad). Now you are wondering – which format is more credible and therefore persuasive, the before-after or the progression ad? 

The fundamentals behind this question are addressed in this article. Across ten studies, and several consumer domains, the authors show when and why progression ads are more persuasive than before-after ads. Although progression ads only comprise visuals of “outcomes,” they facilitate spontaneous simulation of the process leading to the desired transformation, which in turn renders the ad more persuasive. Furthermore, the authors show when progression ads are particularly persuasive (when consumers are highly skeptical of whether they can achieve the advertised results), and when progression ads are instead detrimental for persuasiveness (if the consumer’s focus is on achieving effective results quickly, and doing so is possible). 

The authors show that, as long as the promised changed requires a long time to be achieved, progression ads are more persuasive than before after ads. However, if achieving the promised only requires a short amount of time, and consumers are focused on the time necessary to achieve the change, then progression ads are less persuasive than before-after ads.

These results have many managerial implications given that current marketing practices indicate that progression ads are systematically neglected in favor of before-after ads. The authors findings suggest that before-after ads and progression ads are not equivalent, and that choosing the right type of visuals is critical for credibility and persuasion. The authors provide guidelines for when and how using progression ads is advantageous for brands. Many products and services promise change and, as such, these results apply quite broadly for the development of marketing and public policy messages across media, including digital advertisements, websites, product packages, and public health messages. In one study, for example, the authors showed that a campaign against alcohol abuse is more persuasive when uses a progression visual.

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Company Name: University of Virginia, Darden School of Business
Contact Person: Luca Cian
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City: Charlottesville
State: VA
Country: United States