The ‘false experience effect’ means advertising could be playing with your memory.
Can advertising create fake memories about trying products that you have never actually experienced? In a series of research studies that we conducted, consumers who read vivid print advertisements for fictitious products reported false memories of having tried these products, despite the fact that this would have been impossible. These consumers also evaluated the falsely remembered products as favourably as other consumers who actually did try the products. We call this the “false experience effect” because the product evaluations are based on a mistaken belief of having tried the advertised brand.
In one study, a group of undergraduate students looked at a high-imagery ad (containing a vivid picture of a group of people and a bowl of fresh-looking popcorn, along with a rich description of how it feels to eat the popcorn), while others looked at a low-imagery ad (containing only the brand logo with a factual description of the popcorn’s attributes) for a fictitious product (Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Fresh microwave popcorn).
Another group of students saw either the high-imagery or low-imagery ad and subsequently ate what they believed to be Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Fresh microwave popcorn. In reality, they ate an existing product from the Orville Redenbacher brand, since Gourmet Fresh is not a real product.
One week later, all participants were asked for their memory of the product, their evaluations of the product, and how confident they were in those evaluations. Students who saw the low-imagery ad that simply described the attributes of the popcorn were unlikely to report having tried the popcorn, and they exhibited less favourable and less confident attitudes toward the popcorn than the other students.
But students who had seen the high-imagery ad that described the experience of tasting the popcorn were as likely as students who actually ate the popcorn to report that they had tried the popcorn, and they subsequently reported attitudes toward the popcorn that were equally favourable and strong. In fact, 76 per cent of the respondents who saw the high-imagery ad reported that they had tried the popcorn.
When asked for more information about their memories of trying the product, these individuals reported that their memories were as vivid as those of individuals who had actually tried what they thought was the product, and they had little doubt that the memory was real. This suggests that viewing the vivid advertisement created a false memory of eating the popcorn, despite the fact that consumers could not possibly have tried the fictitious product.
Since all high-imagery advertising is unlikely to result in the creation of false memories, we used additional studies to explore conditions under which the false experience effect would and would not arise. We found that decreasing brand familiarity and reducing the amount of time between viewing the ad and reporting evaluations reduced the effect.
In a second study, when respondents viewed an ad for a fictitious brand of microwave popcorn (Pop Joy’s Gourmet Fresh), they were less likely to report false memories of trying the product and did not exhibit attitudes that were as favourable or confident as respondents who viewed an ad for Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Fresh microwave popcorn. This suggests that plausibility of the false memory is critical in obtaining the false experience effect. That is, when it is highly unlikely that one could have tried a brand (e.g., the brand is completely unfamiliar), false memories are unlikely to be created through a single advertising exposure.
In a third study, when respondents were asked for their memories about trying the product and their attitudes toward the advertised product (Colgate All-Day toothpaste) immediately after viewing the ad, they were less likely to report false product experience memories than respondents who were surveyed one week after viewing the ad. Thus, introducing a time interval between viewing the ad and reporting memories and product evaluations appears to increase the false experience effect.
We suggest this pattern occurs because over time, people are more likely to forget the source of a highly vivid memory (i.e., viewing an ad) and are more likely to believe that their knowledge of the product is attributed to actual product experience. This is an important finding because consumption and purchase decisions are often made after a significant time delay between advertising exposure and the decision.
Since vivid advertising is so prevalent, our intention was to understand some of the effects that advertising can have on consumers. Our results have very important implications for public policy-makers, marketers, and consumers. The findings suggest a need for public policy-makers to further study the effects of high-imagery advertising carefully, with a focus on examining ways to prevent or reverse the effects of false memory. These results may also help educate consumers. If vivid ads can create false memories of product experience, consumers need to be vigilant while processing high-imagery advertisements.