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Paper by Rik Pieters accepted for publication in the Journal of Consumer Research

Published: 29th March 2021 Last updated: 27th November 2021

The paper “Visual Competition Suppression During Planned Purchases” by Rik Pieters, co-authored with Ralf van der Lans (HKUST, first author) and Michel Wedel (University of Maryland), has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The paper reveals how advertising for the product that people are planning to buy helps them (automatically) to suppress perceptual features of competing brands and thus implement their purchase plans.



Consumers may fail to make their planned purchases when it is hard to find the product they decided to buy among the competition on cluttered shopping websites. This research tests the hypothesis that online advertising can speed-up product search, and thus support planned purchases, by visually suppressing competing products rather than enhancing the target product on websites that lack a systematic visual organization of products. Support for this hypothesis is of theoretical and managerial importance. That is, much is known about how online ads displayed on a website can impact consumers’ behavior on that website as reflected in clickstream data. However, online advertising for a product may also improve search for that product on subsequent shopping websites, and much less is known about this. Moreover, clickstream data only reflects the behavioral outcomes rather than the product search processes that consumers engage in when trying to implement their intentions, and these are of key interest here. Seven studies aim to help closing this knowledge gap and test our hypothesis. First, a survey supports the prevalence of the phenomenon: close to 90 percent of consumers report having searched for products on a shopping website after having clicked on a prior online ad. Second, an experiment reveals that our hypothesis goes against lay theories: the majority of consumers predicted that online ads do not affect product search, and that, if they would, the ads’ impact on product search would be independent of shopping website design. Then, three eye-tracking and two search-time experiments support our hypothesis: online ads containing an image of the target product speed-up product search, in particular when the shopping website is cluttered with competing products. We develop a new eye-tracking based measure of Color Congruent Attention during search that captures the effects and that can be readily used for managerial analytics. Our results demonstrate that online advertising may speed-up search by about 25 percent, and mostly due to faster competitor rejection rather than faster target acceptance. The two search-time experiments replicate the effects under incentive compatible conditions and confirm our hypothesis that online ads are effective on shopping websites with competitors that are visually distinct from the target. This research, therefore, reveals how online ads can help consumers to implement their product choice intentions by suppressing the competition, and how our new eye-tracking-based measures can detect this.