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Side Effects

When advertisers think right, they’re right on.

Picture the last food advertisement you saw. Maybe it was for a bacon-loaded burger with dripping juices and melting cheese. You probably remember the food, but can you remember if someone was actually holding the burger?

Cartoon man participating in a study

That seemingly small detail could be the difference between ordering a combo meal or skipping the drive-through, says marketing professor Ryan S. Elder, the Marriott School’s resident expert in advertising imagery.

According to research published by Elder, the way products are visually depicted in advertisements, such as orienting an item toward a person’s dominant hand, can lead consumers to experience a mental simulation that triggers action.

In plain terms, when a Wendy’s ad shows a person holding a cheeseburger with his or her right hand, right-handed folks can better imagine eating it. And when they can imagine eating it, they buy it. 

For advertisers, the revelation is more than just food for thought.

“Very subtle things can make a fairly big difference in persuading a consumer to buy or not,” says Elder, who joined the Marriott School in 2011. “Advertisers should be focused on ways to get consumers to simulate the experience of using their product.”

The concept is really quite simple: See a picture of pie with a fork on the right side? Righties are more likely to dig in. A bowl of soup with a spoon placed to the left? Lefties show an increased intent to purchase.

And this subtle trick works for nonedible products too. If the ad helps you imagine using the product, you’re more likely to pony up the cash.

Moment of Truth

BYU alum Adam Hansen is a righty—but only in terms of handedness. The vice president of innovation at content development company Ideas To Go is a Libra and considers himself a political independent. But when Hansen learned about Elder’s research through a mutual colleague, it immediately rang true.

Cartoon woman's smile with a pen in her teeth

“Advertisers often over-rationalize stuff to the detriment of the more emotional connection,” says Hansen, whose firm has offices in Minneapolis; Orlando; and Morristown, New Jersey. “The more advertisers can connect people to that quick, instinctive ‘oh yeah, I get it’ moment, the better their ads are going to be. If you don’t make that happen, it’s a recipe for failure.”

For Hansen, the idea of having a spoon to the right of a dish makes perfect sense because righties can see themselves in that situation better. “It puts them in that moment of truth,” he adds.

Elder has found that immersing consumers in that moment is a subtle advertising art, but not necessarily a complicated one.

While Elder has been interested in advertising since his youth, it wasn’t until he was knee-deep into his marketing PhD program at the University of Michigan that he got serious about studying how images can evoke mental interaction.

He was at home one day reading a research paper when he decided to conduct a short, fairly unscientific experiment with his wife and her friend. He drew a picture of two pots: one with the handle on the right and one with the handle on the left. Then he asked the women if it would make a difference to them if the handle was on the right or the left in a magazine ad.

“They said, ‘I don’t know, maybe,’ which is obviously not a good enough answer,” Elder says. “So we ran a small study with about twenty people, asking them how likely they would be to buy the two pots. We got enough of a result to think this might be something worth pursuing.”

The experiments increased from there and became a part of Elder’s doctoral dissertation, catapulting him into a multi-study project that included hundreds of research subjects. 
The result, published as a paper in the Journal of Consumer Research, confirmed with strong statistical significance that a consumer’s intentions to buy something climb when shown ads that facilitate the experience of using that product.

Elder says his fascinating finding is rooted in theory—specifically, grounded cognition.

Derived by Emory University psychologist Lawrence Barsalou, the theory maintains that bodily states, actions, and even mental simulations are used to generate our cognitive activity. 

Study Hall

To help make sense of the academic jargon, Elder points to a study from the late ’80s that tried to connect the dots between physical and mental experiences.

A group of researchers found that when people held a pen between their teeth—which forces the muscles around the mouth to mimic smiling—they thought cartoons were funnier than when they held the pen between their lips—which restricts the muscles used for smiling.

Cartoon bowl of cereal with a spoon

“The idea is that our thoughts and our bodies are really interconnected,” Elder says. “So I wanted to know, can you actually go through a process where your thoughts can be triggered by a sensory experience generated from advertising?”

To get his answer, Elder and his colleagues recruited dozens of undergraduate students to look at mock advertisements and then evaluate how likely they were to buy the food shown.

The first experiment featured three pictures of a bowl of yogurt: a bowl with a spoon on the left, one with the spoon on the right, and a third with no spoon at all. He found that when the spoon orientation matched the participant’s dominant hand, they were significantly more likely to buy.

“If you don’t give me a spoon, I can’t imagine eating this yogurt,” Elder says. “And if it’s on the left-hand side, it’s hard for me to imagine eating it.”

Students were then shown pictures of hamburgers—one with a hamburger being held in a left hand, one in a right hand, and one more with no one holding it. The results were the same: when the dominant hand matched with the image, purchase intentions increased.

Cartoon hamburger

From there, the experiments got more complex. Using an ad for Betty Crocker cake mix with a fork positioned to the right or left of a slice of cake, Elder then occupied participants’ dominant hand by asking them to grasp a clamp. Elder’s hypothesis: since the mind and body are interconnected, occupying the hand would block the ability to simulate with the dominant hand.

The result was fascinating. Because the dominant hand was in use, having the fork on the right was no longer an advantage for advertisers. In fact, since the only free hand consumers had, both mentally and physically, was the non-dominant hand, right-handed individuals were more likely to buy when the cake was pictured with the fork on the left and vice versa.

Elder completed the research project with additional experiments involving ads for tomato soup and images of mugs. Again, the results added up.

Ad Hoc

In addition to being an intriguing look at the mind of consumers, the research has crystal-clear implications for advertisers. 

Marriott School marketing professor Mike Bond experienced the phenomenon firsthand
when he worked in the brand-management industry prior to coming to BYU. 

Bond had been working on the Marie Callender’s frozen meals brand when he inherited an advertising campaign that had been performing extremely well. His team made what they thought were some minor but important tweaks to the campaign, including modifying an ad, and then tested their new creation, fully expecting similarly stellar market research scores.

What came back stunned them—a 20 percent decline in test scores.
“We couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working,” Bond says. “We went frame by frame through both the old spot and the new spot.”

The prior ad had only one additional element: a two-second clip showing someone with a fork, scooping up mashed potatoes, gravy, and a little meat, before the camera cut away.
“We looked at it and thought, ‘Do you think that is it?’” Bond recalls. “So we reshot the ad to show a person taking food away with a fork. And then, all of a sudden, our scores were back up to where they were before.”

The implication of Elder’s research is clear. Target the majority of consumers by orienting product images toward the right. Though you may alienate a small percentage of left-handed folks, the impact on the larger body of right-handed consumers will overwhelm this problem.

On top of that, the research also has consequences for product packaging and shelf displays in retail environments. For example, a slight change in how mugs are displayed at the front of a coffee shop may have a significant impact on purchases because consumers can better imagine grabbing them.

Likewise, creating packaging that encourages mental simulation—think of Gatorade’s gripper bottles or Orville Redenbacher’s new microwavable bowls—is likely to increase the odds of consumers buying those things.

Cartoon cake

A few savvy consumer product companies have already reached out to Elder in hopes of implementing his research, including engineering and electronics conglomerate Philips and consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble. 

Whether or not more advertisers get wise to Elder’s academic insights, he believes connecting with consumers is in the details.

“The bottom line is that advertisers should be more deliberate in the things they thought were minor,” he says. “The really subtle cues that consumers experience matter a lot.”

In simple terms, it pays to choose the right. Sorry, lefties. 


Article written by Todd Hollingshead
Illustrated by Jonathan Carlson

About the Author
Todd Hollingshead is a media-relations manager for University Communications at BYU. He graduated from the university in 2004  with a bachelor’s degree in communications and has since added a master’s degree in the same field. Hollingshead has written for several titles, including the Deseret News, the Daily Herald, and The Salt Lake Tribune. He joined  University Communications in 2007 and has been a righty since birth.

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