Marketers design advertising campaigns to manipulate sensory imagery in hopes of persuading potential consumers to buy their products.
Physical distance is one dimension that impacts how actual sensory experiences are felt and processed. Physical distance has been described as the distance that a person can be from a sensory stimulus and still perceive it. Taste and touch, for example, are more proximal (or close) senses, as they require contact with the body before they can be experienced. On the other hand, visual or auditory stimuli can be experienced up close or at a much greater physical distance (distal).
Like the physical distance associated with actual sensory experiences, imagined sensory images such as those used in advertising campaigns, can vary in what researchers call psychological distance. Psychological distance is how close or far a stimulus feels to an individual psychologically, regardless of the actual physical distance. Researchers have also studied temporal, spatial, social, and hypothetical dimensions of psychological distance and showed that these dimensions influence how people think and feel.
An article published in the Journal of Consumer Research describes a series of five experiments designed to test differences in psychological distance and the dimensions of psychological distance across the five senses. The first study was a pilot study designed to test the hypothesis that the psychological distance associated with imagined sensory experiences would be perceived as similar to the physical distance associated with actual sensory stimuli. Results supported this hypothesis; when participants were asked to imagine a sensory experience associated with a particular object (e.g., touching something), taste and touch were perceived as proximal compared to sound and sight, which was perceived as the most distal experiences.
In the second study, the researchers explored whether estimates of perceived spatial distance associated with imagined proximal (taste and touch) and distal senses (sound and vision) would also differ based on the imagined sense. They predicted that proximal senses would be perceived as closer based on spatial distance estimates compared to distal senses. Participants were asked to imagine sensory experiences at a coffee shop, focusing first on taste and touch and then on sound and vision. They were asked to estimate the spatial distance of the coffee shop on a scale ranging from zero to 200 miles. As expected, when participants imagined taste and touch, they perceived the coffee shop to be significantly closer than when they perceived distal senses.
The third study investigated temporal distance estimates associated with proximal and distal imagined sensory experiences at an imaginary restaurant. The temporal distance describes a perceived amount of time: how much time (whether past or future) passes between the perceiver’s present time and the target event. Participants read two restaurant reviews, one focused on proximal sensory images (taste and touch) and the other on distal (sound and vision) imagery. To measure temporal distance, they were asked to make a reservation at the restaurant up to 6-months in advance after reading each review. In keeping with the researchers’ hypothesis that proximal sensory imagery would be associated with shorter temporal distances, the participants made a reservation sooner after reading the review emphasizing taste and touch compared to the review focusing on vision and sound.
In the next study, the researchers examined congruency between temporal distance and sensory imagery. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups and asked to read an ad copy about a festival taking place either this weekend (proximal temporal distance) or next year (distal temporal distance). The proximal sensory imagery contained in the ad copy focused on taste, while the distal sensory manipulation focused on festival sounds. Participants were asked to indicate their interest in attending the festival. When the temporal distance was proximal (this weekend), interest in attending was greater when the sensory imagery was also proximal (taste), or congruent with the temporal distance, rather than distal (sound) or incongruent. In general, these findings were aligned with researchers’ expectations based on previous studies that congruency would be associated with more positive evaluations.
The last two experiments described in the article focused on the effect of congruency between sensory images and two dimensions of psychological distance on consumer attitudes. Like the studies above, proximal senses described to participants in the studies were based on the sense of touch, while distal senses appealed to sound or sight. The dimensions of psychological distance were product experience (distal was defined as second-hand experience, while proximal experience was firsthand) and temporal distance (proximal or distal), and consumer attitudes were based on evaluations of a toy football and perceived usefulness of Yelp reviews. In general, the researchers found that the football and the Yelp reviews were more positively evaluated by participants when sensory images and the two dimensions of psychological distance, product experience, and temporal distance, were both proximal or congruent with each other.
Advertising campaigns often rely on visual imagery to attract consumers and the majority of research has focused on the effects of visual imagery on consumer preferences; however, these studies suggest that psychologically proximal sensory images like taste and touch may have greater appeal for potential consumers when advertising events that will happen soon. Congruency between these proximal images and other more proximal dimensions (e.g., spatial or temporal) of psychological distance may further enhance that appeal, although further research is needed to investigate and effectively manipulate distal imagery. While the researchers conducted multiple studies to test their hypotheses, they did not explore the sense of smell, another topic for exciting future research. This research is the first of its kind to examine the differential impact of sensory images from one modality to another.
Written by Suzanne M. Robertson, Ph.D
Elder, Ryan S., et al. “So Close I Can Almost Sense It: The Interplay between Sensory Imagery and Psychological Distance.” Journal of Consumer Research (2017).