Will Products Look More Attractive When Presented Separately or Together?
Research by Christopher K. Hsee and France Leclerc
From deciding on which products to buy, which job applicants
to hire, or which presidential candidates to elect, evaluating
options is part of everyday life. However, are there situations
when evaluating multiple options concurrently does more harm
In the recent study, "Will Products Look More Attractive
When Presented Separately or Together?," University of
Chicago Graduate School of Business professors Christopher
K. Hsee and France Leclerc use the following example to introduce
the issue of forms of product evaluation.
Suppose there are three local appliance stores that sell
coffeemakers. The first store sells two brands of comparable
quality, Braun and Krups. The second store sells only Braun.
The third store sells only Krups. Will consumers who visit
the first store, with two brands to choose from, value the
two brands differently than those who go to the second and
third stores, and evaluate Braun and Krups independently?
If so, in which store will these brands be valued more highly,
and therefore purchased more?
This example illustrates different "evaluation modes."
In what is referred to as "joint evaluation mode,"
two products are evaluated side by side. In "separate
evaluation mode," each product is presented alone and
evaluated independently. The authors find that for products
of comparable quality, customers respond differently to different
Hsee argues that all evaluations are performed using joint
evaluation, separate evaluation, or some combination of the
two. For example, in a presidential election, people will
use joint evaluation to decide between the two candidates.
Once the president is elected, however, people will use separate
evaluation to judge his performance.
Examining how judgments and decisions differ between these
two basic modes of evaluation offers insight into how evaluations
are formed and what factors influence this process.
"We wanted to see if it was possible to create conditions
under which we could predict whether products would be more
favorably evaluated in joint or separate evaluation,"
says Leclerc. "It turns out that one of these conditions
is whether the products are considered better than average
or worse than average."
Through six experiments studying judgment and choice, the
authors find that if the products are already considered to
be better than the average product in the same category, then
subjecting the products to joint evaluation will make them
seem less attractive to consumers. If the products are considered
to be inferior to the average, then subjecting them to joint
evaluation will make the products more appealing to consumers.
The authors recommend that managers should be aware of the
significant and highly predictable effect of evaluation mode
on consumer judgment and choice. Good products will be hurt
in joint comparison, and should be presented separately. Lesser
products will be enhanced through comparison, and should be
The authors rely upon two underlying assumptions in the study.
First, when evaluating something, people compare that option
to whatever reference information is available at the time.
For example, when assessing the worth of a house, prospective
home buyers will use some point of reference, and make their
assessment by comparing the current house against that reference.
This reference information can be concrete, such as a house
owned by a prospective buyer's friend, or it can be based
on abstract information such as the "average house"
or "most other houses" in the given region. This
abstract information is referred to as a "natural"
reference, which is what comes to mind as the average for
a given product category, and is commonly used in situations
of separate evaluation.
The second underlying assumption is that when evaluating
two options jointly, people rely less on this "natural"
reference information and make their evaluation by comparing
one option against the other. If a home buyer is shown two
houses, the buyer will be less likely to think of a friend's
house or the average house, and instead will compare the two
houses against each other. In joint evaluation, the reference
is the other product.
"When people are evaluating something, they compare
it to a reference point," says Hsee. "For example,
if I offer you a job for $60,000 a year, whether you are happy
with that number depends on what you are using as your reference
point, whether it is your salary expectations or your previous
salary. Your reference point plays a crucial role in any evaluation."
Hsee and Leclerc's study included six experiments that tapped
into different product categories, types of reference information,
and other variables. Their experiments yielded a consistent
pattern of results: when the products are better than a natural
reference point, the products will look more attractive and
are more likely to be purchased when they are presented separately.
If the products are inferior to a natural reference point,
they will be perceived more favorably and will more likely
be chosen when presented jointly.
The two variables in the experiments were: 1) joint versus
separate evaluation; and 2) whether the products were considered
better than average or worse than average.
Real-life situations may involve more options, more attributes,
and multiple references, but the authors argue that these
basic principles will still hold.
Why does joint evaluation negatively impact a consumer's
impression of high quality products?
"Consider two company-paid vacations, one to Paris and
one to Hawaii," says Hsee. "You would probably be
happy with either vacation. However, if you are given a choice
between the two vacations, you may find relative deficiencies
in each-Paris lacks Waikiki Beach and Hawaii lacks the Eiffel
Tower. As a result, you may evaluate each option less favorably
than if you were presented with either option alone."
Conversely, the results show that joint evaluation benefits
lower-quality products. If option A and option B are both
worse than average, they will not be perceived favorably when
evaluated on their own. However, when compared to each other,
people may see the relative merits of each of these below-average
options, and may like them more.
"Standard rational choice models assume that people's
preferences are stable and will not be influenced by external
factors such as context," says Hsee. "Our results
show this is not true. People's preferences are not necessarily
well defined or stable, and can be influenced by the context
of the decision-making; for example, whether the evaluation
mode is joint evaluation or separate evaluation."
Choosing the Right Evaluation Mode
"One myth in marketing is that more options are always
better," says Hsee. "Our research indicates that
it's not always the best strategy to present consumers with
many options in a given product category. If your product
is good, then making it easy for people to compare it to similar
products will actually decrease the likelihood that people
will buy it. For good products, just present one option, and
don't confuse your customers."
Hsee and Leclerc's findings can help retailers decide whether
to carry multiple models or brands of a certain product category,
or limit themselves to one model or brand.
For example, luxury car dealerships will be better off carrying
only one make. For car dealers who sell lower-end cars, carrying
multiple makes would be a better strategy.
The effect of joint versus separate evaluation is not only
limited to product display. It can impact consumer decision-making
in a number of marketing activities. For example, in product
concept testing, if consumers are provided with descriptions
of product concepts to evaluate, marketing managers should
be aware that responses may be biased by whether consumers
evaluate one or more concepts at the same time, and whether
these new concepts are improvements over average existing
products. If these concepts are improvements, evaluating multiple
concepts simultaneously will lead to less positive responses
than if the concepts were evaluated independently.
Their findings also apply to the placement of advertisements
in media and catalogs, including the effectiveness of coupons
in newspaper inserts. When coupons for brands of the same
product category were presented on the same page, previous
studies have shown that they were significantly less effective
than when placed on different pages.
Hsee and Leclerc's findings are also useful for developing
marketing strategies for new product launches.
"Say a company is manufacturing two comparable digital
cameras," says Hsee. "Should the cameras be launched
at the same time in the same markets or at different times
in different markets? If the goal is to sell as many cameras
as possible, we would advise that if the two cameras are both
better than average, they should be launched separately. If
the two cameras are worse than average, they should be launched
"The Internet has made it much easier to engage in joint
evaluation of products, which makes our theory even more relevant,"
says Leclerc. "Marketers should be aware that this digital
ease of comparison can help or hurt the evaluation of their
products depending on whether these products are high-end
Christopher K. Hsee is professor of behavioral science
and marketing at the University of Chicago Graduate School
of Business. France Leclerc is associate professor of marketing
and behavioral science at the University of Chicago Graduate
School of Business.