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Research Highlights

Lost in the Moment: When Consumers Connect Emotionally

Tom Meyvis

Consumers tend to underestimate the emotional impact of fictional stories, compared to stories that are known to be true, or somehow closer to the consumer.

Book publishers and TV and film producers, take note: consumers anticipate a more intense emotional experience if they are going to be reading or watching a true story – even though fictional stories tend to be equally engrossing – according to new research by NYU Stern Marketing Professor Tom Meyvis and Brandeis University Assistant Marketing Professor Jane Ebert.

As the authors write in “Reading Fictional Stories and Winning Delayed Prizes: The Surprising Emotional Impact of Distant Events,” consumers tend to underestimate the emotional impact of fictional stories, compared to stories that are known to be true, or somehow closer to the consumer. In fact, the results of the authors’ studies show that when people watch movies they believe are fictional, the emotional impact is just as intense as that of movies they believe are based on fact.

There is an exception: if people have time during the movie or TV show to reflect on the experience and the fact that it is fiction – for instance, during a commercial break – they can distance themselves from the experience, resulting in weaker reactions to fictional stories.

Professor Meyvis notes: “If you are selling a movie based on a true story, it makes sense to advertise this aspect, both to prospective moviegoers and to people who saw the movie (as it will intensify both the anticipated and remembered emotional experience). However, if you are selling a movie that is completely fictional, you want to downplay that aspect both before and after the experience (as consumers will – incorrectly – expect it to be less intense). If you can somehow draw parallels to real, local, current events, it will make the movie more attractive.”