How to hook customers: first, tease them

Alice G. Walton | Aug 31, 2018

Teasing is an age-old method of arousing interest that works in flirtation—and apparently marketing, too. By creating a momentary uncertainty, a marketer or advertiser can more effectively deliver information to a prospective customer, according to Chicago Booth’s Christopher K. Hsee and University of Wisconsin PhD candidates Bowen Ruan and Zoe Y. Lu, who also find most people underappreciate the power of teasing.   

Teasing, which the researchers define as creating and then resolving an uncertainty, is currently used sparingly in advertising, they write. One exception is Apple’s approach to new products, which piques curiosity and kindles speculation by withholding information until the release date. But the researchers find other reasons to use uncertainty, including that it increases happiness and interest in trying a product. 

In one experiment, the researchers had a group of participants read both a general and a specific statement—for example, some participants read the general statement “Three types of mammals undergo menopause” and then a specific statement identifying those three types as killer whales, pilot whales, and humans.

But another group of participants read the general statement and then a question that asked if they could identify those three types of mammals. Few could, and most spent 12 seconds in a state of uncertainty until told the answer. And participants liked the experience significantly more when given the question, the researchers find.

Interestingly, when a third group of participants was given the option of either receiving the information directly or being teased first with a question, most opted to simply receive the information. This, note the researchers, suggests that people are impatient and don’t spontaneously seek out teasing—and the joy that it brings. 

Follow-up experiments confirmed the phenomenon. The researchers had people look at pictures of 24 cities and either guess which city was shown before viewing the answer or immediately view the answer. After every four slides, the researchers asked participants to rate their enjoyment. People who were guessing gave higher ratings, indicating they were happier. Again, when given a choice, most people chose to immediately view the answer.

The effect, write the researchers, exemplifies an approach to happiness known as hedonomics, which studies how to extract more happiness from existing resources. (For more, see “How to be happy without earning more,” Summer 2018.)

Advertisers, the researchers note, often advise to avoid uncertainty—they cite prominent advertising executive David Ogilvy, who told companies to use the name of the brand or product being sold within the first ten seconds of an advertisement. But the research indicates companies, for no additional cost, could make ads more fun and effective. Simply changing how information is presented can make consumers happier and more willing to try a product.