How Online Ads Help You Shop Faster

Ads Make It Easier For Consumers To Find What They Want

Apr 22, 2021
As Featured In 
Journal of Consumer Research

Are ads for that pair shoes you looked at online seemingly following you around the internet? When you’re ready to buy them, those ads might actually be a big help, finds new research from Maryland Smith’s Michel Wedel. For planned purchases, ads can help consumers find what they are looking for faster to make online shopping more efficient.

Wedel, Distinguished University Professor and the PepsiCo Chair in Consumer Science, worked with Ralf van der Lans of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Rik Pieters of Tilburg University in The Netherlands on the research, featured in the Journal of Consumer Research. They looked at how advertising can help people to implement a purchase they were already planning to make – something that hasn’t been studied in previous research – especially in the online setting, where the time between seeing an ad for an item and actually shopping for it can be as short as the time it takes to click an image.

The researchers hypothesized that online ads that included an image of the actual product – instead of just a brand name or logo and a general photo – would speed up a consumer’s search when shopping online for the product. They ran five experiments to test their theory.

“It turns out that the effect is very robust,” says Wedel.

The researchers’ findings show that ads that contain a product image reduce the subsequent time it takes a consumer to find that product on cluttered websites by about 25 percent, even across up to three consecutive searches on different websites during an online shopping session.

Wedel and his co-authors used eye-tracking technology and a new measure – Color Congruent Attention – to look at where people’s eyes fixated and how the colors of products impacted how long they fixated on products on shopping pages. Their findings reveal that the ads were not actually helping consumers pinpoint the product they wanted; they were helping them weed out all the products they didn’t want. Consumers themselves were not aware that this was what was happening.

Wedel explains why: When people search for anything, they spend most of their time rejecting things.

“In the end, there’s only one acceptance decision if you find what you’re looking for,” he says. “It turns out, seeing a photo of an item makes you much more efficient at suppressing or rejecting what it is that you are not looking for.”

That’s why having an image of the actual product in the ad – not just a logo – is critical for the effect to work, says Wedel. And colors matter. “If the target and the competitors’ products are more distinct in terms of color, it becomes easier to reject competitors.”

But there’s a caveat, says Wedel.

“We found that these ads only work for websites that do not have a particular visual arrangement. So it works for websites with row/column displays that are randomly organized, or organized alphabetically or in some other way that is not by visual features. But as soon as the websites are organized by visual features – for example, by color – then the effect goes away.”

That’s because when items are organized according to visual features, like having all red shoes grouped together, it becomes much more difficult for consumers to distinguish between features and suppress competitors to find what they’re looking for.

“It makes the ads that you show people just before they start to search less effective,” Wedel says. “Random or alphabetical or other types of nonvisual organization would be much better in helping people to implement their purchase intentions.”

Online retailers can use the research results to consider the way they organize their websites, says Wedel. If consumers can’t find what they’re looking for, they might buy something else – which would still be good news for the retailer – or they might leave the site altogether or not make a purchase at all.

The takeaway for marketers?

“We are one of the first to actually show that advertising in the context of people making planned purchases works,” Wedel says. “It can actually help people to find whatever it is that they are going to buy more efficiently, and that makes people less sensitive to intrusions from competitors. If you don’t have a very clear image of the product that you’re looking for, you might actually end up buying something else.”

That’s why those retargeting ads can work so well, says Wedel. They visually reinforce a consumer’s purchase decisions at the point of purchase. “This research shows that can be a very effective type of advertising for these particular purposes.”

For consumers, the research offers good news, says Wedel.

“Consumers are often put off by advertising, and they feel that it’s intrusive, especially those retargeting advertisements. But this research shows that consumers can actually be helped by advertising. If there’s something you want to buy and you want to find it quickly, advertising can actually help you to do that.”

Read the full research, “Online Advertising Suppresses Visual Competition During Planned Purchases,” in the Journal of Consumer Research.


About the Author(s)

Michel Wedel was named a Distinguished University Professor in July 2015. He holds the PepsiCo Chair in Consumer Science at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. His main research interest is in Consumer Science: the application of statistical and econometric methods to further the understanding of consumer behavior and to improve marketing decision making. Much of his recent work has measured the effectiveness of visual marketing using eye-tracking technology. He teaches models for Marketing decision making for MBA students, advanced Marketing analytics for MS students, and Bayesian statistics for Ph.D. students.

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