If you've found yourself the proud new owner of a trendy, millennial-pink skillet, or a cat-shaped mug you hit "buy now" on after some late-night Insta scrolling, you're not alone. There's a scientific explanation for why that impulse purchase may have happened.
Ads that show hands interacting with a product, like a hand holding a new cooking pan, get more engagement on apps like Instagram than ads that have no hands, according to a 2021 paper in the Journal of Marketing Research.
The paper includes findings from eight studies where authors use "images, GIFs, and VR" to show that vicarious touch increases the feeling of ownership of a product and the value a customer assigns to the product.
In other words, if there is a hand in an ad, you might subconsciously feel connected to that product and be willing to buy it at full price — or even, in some instances, pay more than what's listed.
Here's why this tactic works and how to keep it from encouraging you to overspend.
Touching a product increases the feeling of ownership of that product, which makes customers more inclined to pay more for it, according to a 2009 study published in the University of Chicago Press Journals.
As e-commerce continues to grow, retailers have found a way to apply that concept to online shopping by including hands in digital advertisements.
In one of the eight studies the authors examined 4,535 Instagram posts from four companies with products that could be displayed in one's hands.
The 43% of posts that portrayed hands in physical contact with a product received 65% more "likes" than posts that didn't portray hands.
Smartphones are a good example of a product that makes users feel connected to it by using hands in ads, says Andrea Luangrath, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Iowa and coauthor of the study. "Samsung and Apple, they are always presenting their devices in someone's hand," she says.
"When you see a hand reaching out and touching a product, you are forming a connection with that hand. You are more likely to feel like that is your own hand if it is interacting with the product in a meaningful way."
The strategy works no matter how un-human the hand looks, she adds. Luangrath and her co-authors created different depictions of hands in advertisements for study participants, but the feeling of connection remained consistent.
"We did things like digitally altering the hand, making it a disembodied hand, and still people are able to connect with that limb," she says. "Even if it's not realistic, we were still able to see the effect. It was almost difficult to get people to not feel this."
This is not the only tactic retailers use to encourage spending.
Price anchoring, for example. Shoppers tend to give weight to the first piece of information they receive. If a product listing says an item was $100 but is now discounted to $75, the "anchor" is $100. While shopping, this can make you feel like you are getting a good deal, even if the anchor price is not reflective of the market rate.
Limited-time offers or flash sales are other strategies retailers use to entice customers and they often trigger the scarcity effect, a cognitive bias that makes people place higher value on products they believe are sought after and running out.
If you find yourself adding to cart on Instagram a little too frequently, there are tools you can use to stop yourself from following through. For example, download a price-comparing app like ShopSavvy that let you type in a product name and see where else it is being sold and for how much.
Even if you decide to go ahead and buy what you've just seen advertised, you'll at least know where else you can get a good deal.
You can also remove your credit card information from your phone. Having to type in the number creates another barrier to purchase and might result in you deciding you don't actually need that cool new cooking pot.
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