Why ads that stoke consumer cravings can backfire
Reminding people of something they haven’t had in a long time could make them want it more, but only if there aren’t any good substitutes.

A bar chart plotting study participants’ ratings, on a scale of one-to-nine, of how much they miss using Facebook. When not prompted to think about other social networks, they gave a rating of four-point nine on Day One and six-point seven on Day Three. When prompted, they gave a rating of six-point-one on Day One and five-point-nine on Day Three. A second bar chart plots ratings, on a scale of one to seven, of how soon they intended to resume using Facebook, with seven indicating as soon as possible. When not prompted, they gave a five-point-five rating on Day One and six-point-two on Day Three. When they were prompted, the gave a six on Day One and a five-point-six on Day Three.

Marketers should denigrate the value of alternatives.

  • Getting people to long for a product by asking, “When was the last time you had . . . ?” is a popular advertising tactic. But research by Chicago Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach and Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Xianchi Dai finds that the desire for something depends not only on the time elapsed but also on the presence of alternatives.
  • In one study, the researchers asked college students for their feelings about foods specific to their hometowns. They found that the craving for favorite foods increased over time—unless good substitutes were present, in which case craving decreased.
  • The results hold true when the object of desire is Facebook. Fishbach and Dai had participants in another study abstain from using Facebook for three days. Some of these participants were asked to list other social-networking sites they had used in the meantime, and how much they enjoyed them. Those who were reminded of substitutes reported missing and craving Facebook less over time (see chart).
  • Marketers should denigrate the value of alternatives, Fishbach says, while underscoring that a product is the only one that can satisfy a particular need. Emphasizing the absence of good substitutes may be as important as reminding people what they haven’t enjoyed recently.

Click here to download this briefing as a PDF.

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