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Press Release from the Journal of Marketing: The Art of Product Concealment in Online Retail

Matt Weingarden

Chicago, March 11, 2020 — Researchers from the University of Georgia and University of Pennsylvania published a new paper in the Journal of Marketing that investigates when and how visual concealment tactics may benefit or hurt aesthetic product evaluations.  

The study, forthcoming in the May issue of the Journal of Marketing, is titled “Leaving Something for the Imagination: The Effect of Visual Concealment on Preferences” and is authored by Julio Sevilla and Robert Meyer. 

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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, the research team replicated the effect in a more realistic field experiment that included a teaser ad on Facebook. 

The study also operationalized visual concealment in multiple ways. For example, initial studies manipulated visual concealment 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. The researches also demonstrated additional evidence for the effect through less intrusive manipulations. Specifically, in the 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 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, the 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. 

Full article and author contact information available at:  https://doi.org/10.1177/0022242919899393

About the Journal of Marketing 
The Journal of Marketing develops and disseminates knowledge about real-world marketing questions useful to scholars, educators, managers, policy makers, consumers, and other societal stakeholders around the world. Published by the American Marketing Association since its founding in 1936, JM has played a significant role in shaping the content and boundaries of the marketing discipline. Christine Moorman (T. Austin Finch, Sr. Professor of Business Administration at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University) serves as the current Editor in Chief. 
https://www.ama.org/jm

About the American Marketing Association (AMA) 
As the largest chapter-based marketing association in the world, the AMA is trusted by marketing and sales professionals to help them discover what’s coming next in the industry. The AMA has a community of local chapters in more than 70 cities and 350 college campuses throughout North America. The AMA is home to award-winning content, PCM® professional certification, premiere academic journals, and industry-leading training events and conferences.  
https://www.ama.org

Matt Weingarden is Director, Integrated Academic Content, a role which includes serving as publisher and managing editor of the AMA's four scholarly journals, as well as managing the AMA's numerous academic conferences and academic community initiatives.