Playing Hard to Get with Uninformative Advertisements

What on earth does a Formula One race car have to do with a razor blade? Can that brand-name medication really help me ride a tandem bicycle down a wooded path? Why don’t any of these advertisements have anything to do with the products they’re trying to sell me? These are the kinds of questions you might reasonably ask the next time your favorite television show takes a commercial break.

A paper by Yale School of Management’s Associate Professor of Marketing Jiwoong Shin and former Yale SOM Associate Professor, Dina Mayzlin, offers an explanation for why 37.5% of television advertisements deliberately omit any real facts about the products they are selling: they’re playing hard-to-get. The paper, “Uninformative Advertising as an Invitation to Search”, which appeared in Marketing Science, explains that by leaving out details about their products, uninformative television ads can invite customers to do further research on their own.

This invitation to search for more information can actually be a sign that the product or company featured in the uninformative ad is of particularly high quality. The manufacturer of an excellent automobile, for example, might find it impossible to explain all of the reasons its cars are the best in a 30-second advertisement. If they are confident that a quick internet search will show a potential customer a wealth of information about just how good their cars are, they might aim instead to make the advertisement just confusing and intriguing enough to prompt the watchers to pull out their smartphones or tablets and start searching. The manufacturer of an inferior automobile may be less excited by the reviews and information a quick Google search would yield, and aim instead to make a few key factual points about their cars’ selling points in their 30 seconds.

One of the key assumptions the authors make in their study is that seeking out more information about a product is essentially free. With the internet right at the fingertips of so many consumers, that assumption is truer today than ever before. There is evidence that consumers search while they watch, too – one study estimates that companies that advertise during the Super Bowl experience a temporary 20% increase in web traffic. With consumers clearly willing to do more research after they view an advertisement, crafting an ad mysterious enough to prompt more searches makes good sense. However, playing hard to get can be risky: Mayzlin and Shin’s model also concludes that particularly poor quality products might also opt for uninformative advertising, because they simply do not have anything impressive to say about their product. Marketers have to strike a delicate balance between providing enough details about their product to be informative, and leaving enough mystery to encourage consumers to seek out more information on their own.

So, next time you find yourself baffled by a vague, unrelated television ad, remember – you might be asking the very questions the advertiser wants you to ask.

Contributed by:

Robert Kimball
Joint MBA & MEM Candidate, Class of 2016
Yale School of Management
Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies