Guest article by Tobias Otterbring,
Finalist of the Best Service Dissertation Award 2018 by SERVSIG and Maastricht University

Isn’t it obvious that women spend more money than men in the presence of a physically fit male employee? Isn’t it obvious that viewing an opposite-sex individual with an attractive face makes people more motivated to choose healthy rather than unhealthy foods? And isn’t it obvious that restricting product touch in a store decreases rather than increases consumer spending? After all, these are all beliefs held by consumers and even marketing professors. But what if I told you that none of these seemingly self-evident “facts” were true?

When considering a newly communicated scientific finding, a common comment from the public, and certainly from reviewers in academic journals, is to say something like “That’s obvious” or “We knew it all along.” Although such claims can be perfectly justified, there is, of course, a risk that people who proclaim a research result as righteous redundant due to its self-evident nature forget the fact that it’s much easier to foresee findings after the outcomes are known.

One of my dissertation topics focused on athletic male employees, such as the “hot” hunks who work in stores like Abercrombie & Fitch, and their potential impact on consumer behavior. People predicted – with great certainty, I hasten to add – that the presence of a physically fit male employee at the entrance of a retail store should have a much more positive effect on female, as opposed to male, customers’ purchase behavior. Interestingly, though, a retail field study demonstrated that male customers spent significantly more money and purchased products that were almost twice as expensive as those purchased by female customers in the presence, but not absence, of a physically fit male employee.

In another set of studies, I investigated whether exposure to attractive faces, such as those occurring on packaging, in-store displays, or ads, could influence customers’ food choices between healthy and unhealthy options. This time, I asked over one hundred marketing professors to predict how they thought most people would be influenced by viewing an opposite-sex individual with an attractive (vs. unattractive) face just before making a food choice. They then replied by indicating whether they thought that most people would choose either a healthy or an unhealthy food option. Some of the professors kindly questioned the value of my investigation, with the best of intentions, and seemed to be under the impression that the poor PhD student had come up with a research topic that could only yield one obvious answer. According to their predictions, that obvious answer was that viewing an opposite-sex individual with an attractive rather than unattractive face should make people more motivated to choose a healthy food option. However, a series of field and lab experiments revealed that people were in fact significantly more inclined to choose unhealthy food alternatives after exposure to an attractive opposite-sex face.

As a final illustrative example, one of my dissertation projects examined how an in-store product demonstration could influence customers’ subsequent purchase behavior depending on whether they were restricted or encouraged to touch the products demonstrated. Once again, individuals’ intuition-based predictions postulated that this was a no-brainer: Consumers whose freedom to touch was restricted rather than encouraged during the demonstration should certainly spend less money and purchase fewer products – plain as a pikestaff! Well, not really. Because, as it turned out, a field study revealed that restricting (vs. encouraging) product touch during the in-store demonstration resulted in a powerful boost in consumer spending and lead to significantly more products purchased.

So, what’s the evident take-away message based on these examples? It’s simple for sure. To find counterintuitive effects and identify unexpected relationships between variables, it may be smart to start with commonly held beliefs and taken-for-granted assumptions, and then provide evidence that what seems to be true is in fact the opposite of that which most people would predict. Isn’t that obvious?

Tobias Otterbring
Assistant Professor of Marketing
Aarhus University, Denmark

& Research Fellow
Karlstad University, Sweden




Otterbring, T., Ringler, C., Sirianni, N.J., & Gustafsson, A. (2018). The Abercrombie & Fitch Effect: The Impact of Physical Dominance on Male Customers’ Status-Signaling Consumption. Journal of Marketing Research, 55(1), 69–79.

Otterbring, T. (2017). A Shaken Self on Shopping: Consumer Threats and Compensatory Consumption. Doctoral Thesis. Karlstad University Studies 2017:6, Karlstad, Sweden.