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How to Increase Customer Preference with Partially Concealed eCommerce Products

How to Increase Customer Preference with Partially Concealed eCommerce Products

Julio Sevilla and Robert Meyer

Online retailers seek to provide consumers with a complete, sophisticated view of products in a manner that most closely resembles real-life (i.e., videos or 360-degrees views). However, a new study in the Journal of Marketing suggests that it may be better to leave something to the buyer’s imagination. The study demonstrates that concealing some elements of a visually appealing item from view may lead to higher buyer preference for the item. Empirically, the “sweet spot” tends to be to show about two-thirds of the product, which represents enough exposure for a potential customer to confidently conclude that the product is appealing, but also enough concealment to trigger curiosity and its associated positive affect. Marketers can thus create higher preference for visually appealing items by moderately concealing them. Ironically, this effect is limited to visually appealing items (i.e., those with the least to hide) and does not replicate with unattractive stimuli.

The effect is relevant to online retailing contexts and also to advertising teasers, marketing tactics that promote new products by concealing part of their visual features (e.g. new car models). Furthermore, the effect generalizes to different products and stimuli, including concept cars, sneakers, and human faces. The fact that the effect is not limited to products, but generalizes to more nuanced stimuli such as human faces, means that these findings also have implications for social media and networking and dating sites. In fact, while most of the research studies were laboratory-controlled, our research team replicated the effect in a more realistic field experiment that included a teaser ad on Facebook.


In this work, we also operationalized visual concealment in multiple ways. For example, in our initial studies, visual concealment was manipulated in a way that was analog to teaser ads. That is, participants were exposed to an image that visually occluded from view some of its parts through the use of black frames. In this case, participants were able to note that there was a clear intent to deliberately conceal from view some aspects of the target item. However, we showed additional evidence for the effect through less intrusive manipulations. Specifically, in our final studies, visual concealment was not as overt. Instead, the image was manipulated by omitting the presentation of some snapshots or angles of the product in a sequence of images. The use of these two different paradigms, along with different stimuli categories, gives us confidence that the effect is relevant to both online retailing and teaser ads for product categories where visual appeal is critical to consumer evaluation.

In conclusion, this research encourages marketers to consider moderately concealing elements of their visually appealing products to drive customer preference through curiosity and its associated positive affect. Furthermore, this research reveals that, in certain contexts, marketers may work against their goals of improving the customer experience by adding new features to a retailer website, such as product videos or 360-degrees views of appealing products. Hence, marketers should consider not only the technological, but also the psychological repercussions when making this type of decision. 

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From: Julio Sevilla and Robert Meyer, “Leaving Something for the Imagination: The Effect of Visual Concealment on Preferences,” Journal of Marketing.

Go to the Journal of Marketing

Julio Sevilla is Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Georgia, USA.

Robert Meyer is Frederick H. Ecker/MetLife Insurance Professor of Marketing, University of Pennsylvania, USA.