A Research Paper Validating Immersive Branding Experiences
Imagine you are hiking along a narrow path, the cliff’s edge just a step away from your feet. You look out and see a magnificent landscape of majestic snow-capped mountains kissing the sky. Ahead of you is a wooden rope bridge, swaying gently in the breeze. You slowly walk across, watching your feet, each step causing the bridge to shake and creak. The cliffs fall away from under you as you get to the middle of the bridge, perilously suspended two thousand feet in the air. As you make it to the other side, feeling the solid ground beneath your feet, you hear a rumbling. You turn around to see boulders and rocks larger than cars tumbling from the mountain top above. They crash into the wooden bridge and smash it to bits. You jump back in fright, and look down at your feet. Good thing you have the new Capra hiking boots from Merrell to keep you on solid ground.
The experience just described is a real brand experience from Merrell, a hiking apparel company. Merrell worked with Framestore VR Studios, part of the visual effects team that created the Academy-Award winning effects in Gravity featuring Sandra Bullock, to create an immersive experience for their new line of boots, the Capra, utilizing virtual reality (10 Best Uses, 2017). In this paper, I will argue that virtual reality will be a powerful medium for branding experiences in the near future due to the feeling of presence and its effects on consumers. I will explore virtual reality, current advertising trends, two models of persuasion, and how to leverage presence in immersive branding experiences to bring consumers closer to the brand.
Virtual reality, or “VR,” technology has emerged over the past three years as a tool for entertainment, education, and many other use cases. Users of virtual reality usually wear some form of “goggles” over their eyes, formally known as a head-mounted display or HMD. These goggles display a virtual (digitally produced by a computer) environment to the user. What makes VR compelling is its use of user-motion tracking. By using sensors to track the user’s head movement, VR systems can alter the displayed environment to match a user’s actions. If the user looks to the left, the displayed image will also turn left. Imagine a camera in the virtual environment that follows the user’s head movement. Because the view through the lenses responds naturally to the user’s movement, the user feels immersed in the environment, and interprets that environment as reality (Bailenson, 2015). Virtual reality is all about experience and transportation, since a user believes they are somewhere else while something is happening to them. VR can be used to take students to ancient Rome, show surgeons 3D models of patient anatomies pre-surgery, and enable people to have experiences they’d never otherwise have access to. For example, my cousin, who suffered a traumatic brain injury, cannot ride a real roller coaster, but can ride a VR roller coaster for a similar experience. Although immersive technology includes augmented reality and “mixed reality,” this paper will center on virtual reality systems.
Currently, digital advertising, advertisements online and on mobile phones, has grown immensely. Pulling in hundreds of billions of dollars, digital advertising revenue is projected to pass TV ad revenue in 2017 for the first time. While the success of digital ads is clear — digital ad revenue grew by 17% in 2016 — the path forward is not (Poggi, 2016). How can advertisers continue their upward slope? For example, imagine you are looking at your Facebook feed. Do you ever click on the ads in the sidebar? For the amount of attention we give our screens, it should be easy to capture at least some of it. However, advertisers face the incredible challenge of directing our attention 2 inches to the right. In fact, Grigorovici states that “[c]lassical advertising media have been facing effectiveness issues caused by our increasing advertising filled media environments, or viewers’ ‘resistance to persuasion’ and advertising awareness abilities caused by recognition of commercial message frames embedded in media content” (Grigorovici, 2003). Consumers are increasingly aware of advertisements and simultaneously desensitized to traditional advertising formats. Knowledge of typical persuasion frames is referred to as the “persuasion knowledge model.” Grigorovici outlines the persuasion knowledge model as follows.
THE PERSUASION KNOWLEDGE MODEL
The persuasion knowledge model (PKM) is the idea that consumers understand when they are being persuaded. If they see an advertisement, they recognize it as an advertisement and know they are being persuaded. When consumers know they are being persuaded, they form what Grigorovici calls a “cognitive shield” against the persuasion message. PKM is based on the “dual process model,” outlined by Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman, author of the famous Thinking Fast and Slow. The dual process model is a psychological model that believes cognition happens in one of two separate systems: System 1 and System 2. System 2 is methodical, the “voice of reason,” if you will. When consumers see an advertisement and recognize the persuasion frame, their System 2 kicks in and begins to form the cognitive shield against the message. However, System 1 is much more instinctive, responding based on emotion and impulse. If consumers do not recognize the persuasion frame, they will naturally process incoming perceptions with System 1, and thus be more responsive to persuasive messages. Thus, to be effective in persuasion, an advertisement should appeal to System 1. To appeal to System 1, an experience must mask the persuasion frame in order to avoid being processed by System 2. On top of that, appealing to System 1 requires tapping into emotions and impulses.
Masking the Persuasion Frame
One common practice emerging is the use of native advertising, where sponsors pay for content about a product, and the content resembles typical content that viewers consume. This includes magazine or blog posts about products, videos on YouTube about products, or photos of Instagram stars with products. Since the content resembles typical content, viewers do not realize that it is an advertisement, and are easily persuaded by it, absorbing subliminal messages without knowing. For example, an article published in the New York Times is pictured below in Figure 3. Although resembling a normal article, the piece was actually a native advertisement paid for by Orange is the New Black, a show about women in jail (Sebastian, 2014). To parallel native advertisements, virtual reality branding experiences seem just like other virtual reality experiences, and can escape the persuasion frame recognition. On top of that, virtual reality experiences can appeal more deeply to a consumer’s emotion than traditional media where native advertising currently exists.
Tapping into Emotions
Emotional appeals are extremely persuasive, as shown by the affect infusion model (AIM), also outlined by Grigorovici. Studies have shown that people watching television programs tend to have more positive brand attitudes towards advertisements that play after a show that they enjoy. Thus, consumers’ affect, or emotion, is infused with their response to the advertisement. This is because emotions cause most consumers to process information with System 1; “heuristically,” based on instinctive responses, rather than “systematically,” using reasoning and methodological thinking (Grigorovici, 2003). Noticeably, many advertisements have emotional appeals such as humor, values of family and friendship, and images related to sexual appeal. For example, the Coke campaign “Open Happiness,” pictured below (Figure 4), focuses on emotional appeals, showing laughing, smiling couples and friends sharing Coke.
The dual process model, persuasion knowledge model, and affect infusion model reveal insights into human psychology that can be used to make virtual reality branding experiences extremely engaging and persuasive. Virtual reality branding experiences have advantages over traditional media in appealing to System 1 due to the idea of presence. Presence masks the persuasion frame while creating visceral emotional experiences.
THE THREE E’S
Presence is a feeling that most users experience in virtual reality. Many definitions for presence exist, such as Hill’s definition in The Psychology of Rhetorical Images: “filling the audience’s entire field of consciousness” (Hill, 2004). This is very similar to the definition that this paper will use. Presence has been defined for decades as the “psychological feeling of being there” (Grigorovici, 2003; Bailenson, 2015; Ahn, 2016). Users experiencing presence will often attempt to interact with virtual objects as if they were real, have natural responses to virtual stimuli, and treat virtual avatars as real people. Grigorovici sets several measures of presence, defining it with “immersion,” “interaction,” and “autonomy.” On the tri-axis scale pictured below (Figure 5), head-mounted-display-based high immersive virtual environments ranked near the top of the most “present” mediums. Typical advertisements are much lower on the list, clocking in with conventional TV and monoscopic video.
Although presence is generally accepted as a given in virtual environments and virtual reality experiences, there are varying degrees to which presence is felt by the user. Compelling virtual reality brand experiences will attempt to maximize presence in order to maximize persuasion. This can be accomplished by using the three E’s. The three E’s are a model introduced in this paper based on the ideas of presence from Dr. Jeremy Bailenson and Dr. Dan Grigorovici, as well as the ideas of interactivity from Dr. Matthew Lombard and Dr. Jennifer Snyder-Duch. The three E’s are Emotion, Exploration and Ethics. Grigorovici talks about affective and emotional impacts of VE on brand attitude, which is “Emotion,” the first E. Lombard and Snyder-Duch provide evidence that suggests that interactivity increases presence, especially in advertising scenarios, thus “Exploration” is the second E. Finally, research done by Bailenson suggests that there are implications for “Ethics” in virtual experiences.
Emotion is incredibly important to creating a compelling advertisement. Although traditional media have methods to appeal to a consumer’s emotions, VR provides a new window of opportunity for creating truly visceral experiences. Regarding the Merrell brand experience described in the introduction, Adweek remarked that “people emerge from it squealing in delight and with their knees trembling” (10 Best Uses, 2017). In the experience, consumers nearly fall to their deaths after a landslide destroys the bridge they just crossed. Because users’ brains in virtual reality respond realistically to virtual stimuli due to presence, the user is suddenly scared out of their minds. Right afterwards, however, the user climbs to the summit of the mountain and is surrounded by a majestic view of the Italian mountains, and also flags with the Merrell logo. Their breath is taken away and they laugh as they look down at the world. The enjoyment and positive emotions will cause the user to have healthier brand attitudes and even increase purchase intention, based on the affect infusion model. Additionally, the overwhelming emotional experience is instinctual and reactive, completely processed by System 1. Since System 2 is not involved in processing the experience, consumers have a hard time recognizing the persuasion frame. Moreover, experiences with visceral emotions tied to them are easily integrated into deep memory. Merrell’s strategy hammers home the visceral aspect of “shock and awe.” Thus, when designing immersive experiences, it is important to focus on two extremes, specifically fear and love. Whether it’s an experience with cute puppies or a consumer’s favorite sports team, a walk across a tightrope or flying in a plane, virtual reality experiences should focus on emotions such as fear and love. These two emotions are easily created in VR and psychologically very similar, and therefore, can be used to appeal to System 1, mask the persuasion frame, increase the positive effects of the affect infusion model, drive presence and improve brand attitude.
The next E is “Exploration,” which focuses on designing experiences that encourage movement and interaction and ties in heavily with emotion. Both of these are uniquely important in creating compelling advertisements and shaping presence. Interaction and natural mapping of motion both increase the enjoyment of the experience (O’Bailey & Bailenson, 2016; Lombard & Snyder-Duch, 2001). Enjoyment is key to the aforementioned affect infusion model and appeal to the consumer’s emotional state. Part of natural mapping is covered by the technology, which ensures accurate tracking of body motion in virtual environments (VEs). However, it is the job of the experience designer to make the user see their natural mapping in action. First, there should be a sense of embodiment in the experience, where the user feels like they are taking over a body in the VE. This makes the user feel like they are spatially present and can interact and affect the VE, which in turn leads to self-connection and deeper memory of the experience (Segovia & Bailenson, 2009; Ahn, Bostick & Ogle, 2016). Embodiment can be accomplished by using visible self-avatars (3D models which the user controls) that have accurately mapped movement. These do not necessarily need to be humanoid, but should respond accordingly to input movement. For humanoid avatars, this requires sophisticated inverse kinematics, which can be implemented with inexpensive plug-ins. For other types of avatars, it is up to the designer to map accurate movement (Ahn, Bostick & Ogle, 2016). Secondly, it is important to design the experience to enable interaction and movement. Interaction and movement both increase the sense of embodiment while increasing presence. When a user can interact with a VE, there is a stronger sense of spatial presence and embodiment. Therefore, designers should include all types of interactions with the VE. Even small details, like curtains reacting to a brush of the hand, can heavily influence presence. The deeper the presence, the more the persuasion frame is kept in the wings, thus opening the path to System 1 appeals. On top of interactions that deepen presence, designers should utilize the 360 degree aspect of VR. In Merrell’s experience, a vast mountain range was displayed in the distance, so when the user turned around they could see everything. Turning not only increases movement, and thus embodiment, but allows users to have a sense of discovery, further masking the persuasion frame. Exploration works in conjunction with Emotion to mask the persuasion frame, increase enjoyment according to the affect infusion model, and help deepen presence in order to appeal to System 1, ultimately increasing brand attitude and purchasing intention.
Although VR has compelling features that make it well suited for the next generation of branding experiences, there are many side-effects of VR that designers must understand before beginning their campaigns. Especially for at-risk audiences, such as children, there are several ethical implications when designing VR branding experiences. Impulsivity and false memories in children are two major issues that are exacerbated to a higher extent in VR than in most other media.
One issue with VR and children is the effect of VR on impulsivity. In a study at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, it was shown that VR reduces executive function in young children, impairing their inhibitions. This was shown by their lack of obedience in a game of Simon Says (O’Bailey, 2016). In a digital world, where consumers can buy anything with one click, children and digital payment systems need to be highly monitored. For instance, imagine if a digital payment system were integrated into a VR branding experience and consumers could buy the product directly after the experience. Children would have a much harder time controlling themselves, and even if there were restrictions on the system, may beg their parents to buy the product. If VR advertisements abuse their power over children, many kids may end up impulsively buying products or immediately asking their parents for products. While powerful for advertisers, this raises ethical issues concerning the broader tactic of marketing to children directly.
Virtual reality has been proven to have a lasting impact on people’s memories. It has been used to treat PTSD, allowing people to become desensitized to their own traumatic memories (Rizzo, 2005). One of the most notable studies on VR’s impact on memories was done at Stanford by Dr. Bailenson and Dr. Segovia. Children in preschool and elementary school were put into separate “story” conditions. They were all told the same story about swimming with whales. Then, one trial group went through a VR experience that involved seeing themselves swimming with whales, while another group was told to imagine swimming with whales, and the final group sat idle for one minute. Results indicated that the VR and imagination groups had significantly higher likelihoods of having false memories, memories they believed to have actually happened, of the event. This has massive implications for VR advertisements. Immersive branding campaigns need to ensure that the experiences they are creating will not be harmful to a consumer if the consumer were to believe that it truly happened. For example, imagine if Oreo were to make a VR experience for children in which they were bullied before receiving a pack of Oreos from a friend. While a potentially effective ad — tying emotional comfort to the brand in times of extreme distress — this would be abusive. The experience would run the risk of having children integrate the memory of the VR experience as a real memory, and being bullied is a traumatic memory that children should not have to carry with themselves, especially if it never actually happened. Although memories can form the basis of many brand attitudes and emotions towards products, advertisers must be careful not to abuse their power over children’s memories.
VR is an incredibly powerful tool. With the three E’s, advertisers can leverage the power of exploration, emotion, and ethics to create deep presence in VR branding experiences to appeal to System 1, mask the persuasion frame, and give audiences an emotional experience that will improve brand attitudes based on the affect infusion model. However, all of the above powers have flipsides. VR can mold children’s memories and actions or exploit children’s impulsivity. I propose that VR advertisements have a screening process that is regulated by the a special committee on the FCC that knows exactly the full risks of VR’s side effects, especially on children. This would require a large amount of research in VR’s psychological effects, but I believe it to be necessary. Research typically lags behind technology, as with TV, the internet, and smartphones. But in this case, it cannot. VR affects our psychology at a much deeper level than any of the above technologies. Because of this, it has extremely powerful use cases for persuasion. I believe that VR branding experiences will be an incredible opportunity for advertisers to unlock deeper relationships with consumers. Merrell’s Trailscape experience has already shown the effect that VR can have on consumer attitudes, while setting a high standard for quality VR branding experiences that are explorative, emotional, and ethical. However, we must continue to establish standards for ethical VR brand experiences. Going forward, immersive technologies should be fully understood before we tap into their power. This isn’t a bridge we can cross when we get to it.
Thank you to Dr. Jeremy Bailenson, whose lab conducted most of the research cited in this paper. His mentorship helped shape my curiosity about the deeper questions underlying virtual reality and other immersive technologies. This paper would not have been possible without Dr. Erica Cirillo-McCarthy, whose guidance and feedback helped me throughout the entire writing process.
Figure 1 — (2017). 10 Best Uses of Virtual Reality In Marketing. mbryonic. Retrieved from http://mbryonic.com/best-vr/
Figure 2 — Icons Used: Arafat Uddin — Mind Ying Yang from Noun Project
Figure 3 — (2014). Deziel, M. Women Inmates, Separate but Not Equal. Illustration by Otto Steininger. New York Times. Retrieved from
Figure 4 — (2016, Nov. 18). Coke Ad Fallacy. Eldopest. Retrieved from https://rampages.us/eldopest/2016/11/18/coke-ad-fallacy/
Figure 5 — Grigorovici, Dan M. (2003). Persuasive Effects of Presence in Immersive Virtual Environments. Being There: Concepts, Effects and
Measurement of Consumer Presence in Synthetic Environments, Giuseppe Riva, Fabrizio Davide, and Wijnand Ijsselsteijn, eds. Amsterdam: Ios Press, 192–205.
Figure 6 — Icons Used
Freepik — Magnifying Glass from Flaticon
Hoang Loi — Square Smile from Noun Project
Marcio Duarte — Scale from Noun Project
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