Cause and effect: Why proximity matters in product effectiveness

For businesses and advertisers looking to market and promote a product – especially a new one – successfully communicating the effectiveness of that product is essential.

How then can we improve our understanding of the ways consumers form judgments of product effectiveness?

Take the example of a print advertisement: what factors are at play in helping consumers gauge a product’s effectiveness?

Our research shows that factors that appear seemingly unimportant such as the distance – or spatial proximity – between the image of the product and the desired outcome do in fact have an important influence in judgments of effectiveness.

For example, an advert for an acne cream may show the tube and an acne-free part of the face to illustrate the resulting effect. The closer the two images, the more consumers believe that the product will be effective.

dominoesCommunicating cause and effect is critical to a product’s successObjectively, the distance between the images should not be a factor in assessing product quality.  However, we have learned from infancy that proximity to the object is essential to achieve the desired result.

For example, you can lift a mug only if your hand is in contact with it. The closer your hand is to the mug, the greater the likelihood of movement. Or take the example of sport – to move a ball, the foot, racket, or hand should be in contact with the ball.

The findings of our study are important for marketers as consumers frequently buy products to solve a particular problem. For instance, they try to find the right over-the-counter medicine to treat their muscle pain, a stain remover for their laundry, or toothpaste that will whiten their teeth.

The findings also have implications that in other areas, such as predicting consumer attitudes and receptivity to new products.

Failed product launches, after all, can be a costly business.

One high-profile example is pharmaceutical firm Pfizer’s withdrawal of its inhaled insulin product, Exubera, in 2007 which forced the company to take a loss of around US$2.8 bn.

From an advertising perspective, the way in which a drug is administered can influence people’s perception of how closely the product works on the problem, and consequently affects judgments of its effectiveness.

For example, a tablet that promises to cure an ear infection will be a harder sell than an ear drop because of the proximity differences between the medication and the source of problem.

In the case of Exubera, Pfizer attempted a major shift by breaking the well-established association between insulin and injections. The ad for the drug showed supposedly diabetic people using an inhaler to get their doses.

However, not only was the Exubera inhaler unwieldy, it also required users to measure their insulin dose in a different way. Added to that, the proximal disconnect between an inhaler and the diabetic problem may have also exacerbated perceptions of product ineffectiveness.

That gap proved Exubera’s undoing and when the connection between the product and its target consumers failed to gel, Pfizer was eventually forced to withdraw it from sale.

Knowledge matters

With such cases as Exubera in mind, we set out to examine the evidence that the proximity between visual representations of cause and effect can influence consumer judgment.

ThinkAloud4Our study involved male and female consumers evaluating product effectiveness based on print adverts for acne cream, pain reliever, nasal allergy spray, bug spray and fabric softener – all showing the product and the “after” image, or the results from using it.

Each advert had two versions.  Some had the image of the product and the result far apart; while others had the images closer.

In every case, consumers assumed the product was more effective when the two images were closer rather than farther away.

However, this was not consistent across the board. There were circumstances when such differences in judgments were less obvious.

For example, the proximity of the images had a greater bearing on consumer judgements when they were less knowledgeable about a product category.

In this case the closer the product was to the result, the more they believed in product efficacy compared to the more knowledgeable consumers.

Additionally the distance between the images mattered less when the product’s effect depended on long-term use and was not immediate.

It is also worth noting that if people are reminded of processes in which physical contact is not crucial for the reaction, the reliance on spatial proximity is weakened.

For instance, after people think about biological processes such as how an egg turns into a bird or how a seed grows to be a tree, they show less proximity bias in their judgment about product effectiveness.

Another important finding is timeframe – unless told otherwise, consumers assumed the results would happen sooner rather than later.

Our findings suggest that when marketers want to promote the immediate effects of their products, the images of the product and the desired consequence should be placed close to each other in the advertisement to strengthen the perception of causal relatedness.

While uncovering several new findings, our research also raises further questions that deserve future study.

Further research could examine when and how the influence of spatial proximity is affected by whether the consumer reads left-to-right or right-to-left (such as is the case with Arabic speakers for example), which could have a bearing on the placement of the images.

Sign up to our newsletter