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Research Article

Selfie campaigns as advertising tactic: mental imagery as a driver of brand interest and participation

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Received 21 Dec 2020
Accepted 15 Jun 2022
Published online: 15 Jul 2022

Abstract

One common way to share brand experiences is the selfie, a major trend in the context of user-generated content. Nevertheless, research on the effectiveness of user-generated content, and selfie campaigns in particular, is still scarce. In the context of selfie campaigns, participation (i.e. taking a selfie with the brand and posting it) represents one form of consumer engagement. Besides a behavioral reaction, selfie campaigns might also stimulate brand interest. To fill this research gap, the current research relates the mental-imagery-evoking potential of selfie campaigns to participation and brand interest, with both variables being assumed to mediate the impact of mental imagery on brand attitude. Findings yielded by one qualitative pilot study, one field study and an online survey confirm our theoretical reasoning that selfie campaigns prompt mental imagery, and that brand interest (but not selfie-campaign participation) influences brand attitude.

Introduction

Social media sites, such as Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, have become common platforms for brand engagement. Brand-consumer interactions take place mainly through visuals (Ha et al. 2021), which aim to connect emotionally with consumers – through intrinsic enjoyment and pleasure – and to increase brand value (Bashir et al. 2018). More recently, marketers have noticed the power of user-generated content for generating positive word of mouth (Kim and Song 2018) and purchasing intentions (Mayrhofer et al. 2020). Compared to traditional marketing communication channels, brand-related user-generated content decreases inferences of manipulative intent and induces more favorable responses on social media platforms (Kim and Song 2018). Research acknowledges that consumers pay more attention to brand-related communication when it comes from friends rather than the company itself (Chen 2018).

As a special form of user-generated content, image word of mouth has emerged, describing user-generated images which shape consumers’ brand experiences (Bakri, Krisjanous, and Richard 2020; Yu and Ko 2021). One common way to share brand experiences is the selfie, which has become a major trend in the context of user-generated content (Hartmann et al. 2021). Farace et al. (2017) showed that selfies are messages that trigger viewers’ imagination of a story and encourage electronic word of mouth.

However, like other user-generated content on social media platforms (Crawford et al. 2020), brand selfies are usually difficult to control by a company. One way to provide more control over them is the launch of selfie campaigns. This strategy – pursued by many companies – encourages a firm’s target group to take a selfie with a brand and post it on social media sites (Hartmann et al. 2021). Prompting a direct response from consumers (Moriarty, Mitchell, and Wells 2015), selfie campaigns can be classified as an interactive marketing tool that trigger consumer engagement. In the context of selfie campaigns, participation (i.e. taking a selfie with the brand and posting it on the company’s social media site) represents one form of consumer engagement. Besides a behavioral reaction, selfie campaigns might also stimulate brand interest (Hartmann et al. 2021). In this context, research acknowledges that sharing brand-related photos can prompt consumers’ interest in a brand (Bashir et al. 2018).

Nevertheless, research on the effectiveness of user-generated content, and selfie campaigns in particular, is still scarce (Mayrhofer et al. 2020). Most research exploring the role of selfies in marketing has used text analysis, although going beyond the text content would allow a deeper understanding of the underlying motives that prompt the posting of selfies (Hartmann et al. 2021). Likewise, research on how companies can benefit from selfies by integrating them into their commercial (social media) advertising is scant (Lim 2016).

To fill this research gap, this paper relates the mental-imagery-evoking potential of selfie campaigns to participation and brand interest, with both variables being assumed to mediate the impact of mental imagery on brand attitude. In doing so, the findings of this research add important new insights to the extant literature exploring the mental-imagery-evoking power of various advertising tactics (e.g., Baek and Yoon 2020), and user-generated (non-commercial) photos (Farace et al. 2017) in particular. Findings yielded by one qualitative pilot study, one field study and an online survey contribute to the existing literature in at least four ways. First, the results confirm our theory that selfie campaigns prompt mental imagery. Second, we demonstrate that selfie campaigns evoke different mental imagery. Third, from a methodological perspective, the current study employs a mixed-method design which benefits from high internal and external validity and demonstrates the robustness of the findings. Finally, the results obtained from mediation analysis provide deeper insights into the relationship between mental imagery, brand interest, selfie-campaign participation, and brand attitude. More specifically, we identify brand interest as an important pre-requisite for selfie-campaign participation, as well as an important predictor of brand attitude. Accordingly, we encourage media planners to consider brand interest as a relevant outcome of selfie campaigns.

Literature review

Selfies in marketing

A selfie is a photograph taken of oneself with a smartphone or a webcam and shared via social media (Oxford Dictionaries 2013). This image-based user-generated content, which represents a photograph showing the curator (Yu and Ko 2021), is a ´powerful means for self-expression´ (Murray 2015, 490). Hence, selfies are often used to satisfy social and individual needs (Chen 2018). In other words, the selfie is used as a narrative tool that locates the user in a story (Hackley, Hackley, and Bassiouni 2018).

As such, a selfie can be considered user-generated content and has been acknowledged as a promising marketing tool (Ha et al. 2021). Self-expression represents one of the reasons for creating user-generated content (Mayrhofer et al. 2020) and also for posting selfies (Chen 2018; Eager and Dann 2016; Gannon and Prothero 2016; Kedzior, Allen, and Schroeder 2016). Sung, Kim, and Choi (2018, 14) note that ´perhaps one of the most effective ways to express one’s sense of self in digital environments is the selfie’. Likewise, Chen (2018) states that selfies represent a way to manage users’ self-impressions and social identities, which in turn fulfill social and individual needs. Integration and social interaction reflect other reasons for uploading brand-related pictures to social-media platforms (Mayrhofer et al. 2020).

Marketers and researchers alike have noticed the power of the selfie as a marketing tool. Although some research questions the positive impact of selfies by arguing that the act of taking a selfie makes consumers focus more on the self while distracting them from the brand (Bharti and Ng 2018), the literature agrees that there are a number of positive effects of selfie campaigns on brands. For instance, selfies are an important medium to demonstrate consumers’ everyday use of brands (Farace et al. 2017). This real-world perspective creates new brand experiences and enhances consumer-brand relationships (Presi, Maehle, and Kleppe 2016). Brand selfies help new consumers learn about the brand and brand-related activities (Sung, Kim, and Choi 2018), in addition to offering businesses the possibility to immerse consumers within a commercial world that is created by peers (for example, influencers) instead of the company itself. This has the advantage of communicating content from a first-person perspective and hence increases persuasiveness caused by higher identification with the peer (for example, the influencer; Feng, Chen, and Kong 2021). One reason for this positive effect might be the lower levels of manipulative intent associated with user-generated content (Mayrhofer et al. 2020; Kim and Song 2018). Research acknowledges that user-generated content decreases awareness of persuasion and so reduces any coping mechanism which helps consumers resist persuasive content (Mayrhofer et al. 2020).

However, selfie campaigns might not be suitable for targeting a broad audience as social media use decreases with age. In the United States, 90% of individuals aged 18–29 use social media platforms at least once a month. This decreases to 82% for the age group 30–49, while only 69% of 50 to 64-year-old individuals use social media sites. For the oldest age group, 65+, only 40% reported using social media sites once a month (Statista.com 2022a). Depending on the target age group, companies are well-advised to carefully consider which social networking site to use for the selfie campaign. Research confirms that young social media users (15–25 years) predominantly use Instagram and YouTube, while Facebook is used by people older than 26 years (Statista.com 2022b). Additionally, women have been identified as being more active in posting selfies than men. For instance, research conducted in Korea reveals that among 319 individuals who are identified as selfie-posters on social media platforms, 221 were female (Sung et al. 2016). Likewise, a study conducted with 3763 Norwegian social media users confirmed that women are more likely to take selfies than men (Dhir et al. 2016).

Nevertheless, in this regard, it also needs to be considered that the selfie itself is not always the ultimate goal of selfie campaigns as companies actively manage the campaigns for various reasons (Hartmann et al. 2021). For instance, selfies can reach a broad audience when consumed not in their traditional form as social media posts, but also when they are presented in the form of news stories reporting the active participation of users and their success (Hackley, Hackley, and Bassiouni 2018). Going beyond brand-related outcomes, the interactive character of selfie campaigns allows marketers to collect data not only on how individuals interact with brands but also about the personal characteristics of the individual user. This information can be used in turn to optimize targeting strategies (Magids, Zorfas, and Leemon 2015; Moe and Ratchford 2018). Interactive marketing campaigns like these can be further used as a relevant touchpoint which enhances customer engagement in an omnichannel customer experience (Wilson-Nash, Goode, and Currie 2020). As a digital touchpoint, the selfie can create a personalized and connected experience with the brand (Straker and Wrigley 2016). In addition to the direct effect selfies have on marketing outcomes (such as purchasing intention), selfie campaigns likely induce mental processes which explain their positive effects. Asking consumers to take a selfie attracts viewers’ attention and stimulates interest in the brand. Announcing a selfie campaign prompts consumers to think about the various ways a selfie can be taken and hence activates mental imagery. Hence, we propose that mental imagery plays a central role in both processes – participation in the selfie campaign and brand interest – as discussed below.

Mental imagery evoking power of selfie campaigns

Mental imagery is a holistic mode of information processing of the concrete sensory representations in working memory (i.e. it resembles perceptual experiences in the absence of factual stimuli; MacInnis and Price 1987). These representations can be very simple and vague or complex and clear (Bone and Ellen 1992; MacInnis and Price 1987). Research further acknowledges that mental imagery is a multidimensional process varying in quantity, modality, vividness, and valence. Quantity describes the number of images in consumers’ minds when processing a stimulus (Bone and Ellen 1992); it represents the number of activated memory structures. Some studies refer to this dimension also as elaboration, which describes the activation of information that goes beyond the stimulus (Babin and Burns 1998; Gavilan and Avello 2020). Modality expresses its sensory nature, i.e. whether the imagery is visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory, or tactile (Miller, Hadjimarcou, and Miciak 2000). Vividness refers to how the stimulus is experienced and how precise, clear, and intense the images are (Bone and Ellen 1992). Finally, mental images can have a positive or negative valence in describing the emotional meaning attached to concrete imagery, something often related to a specific memory (Paivio 1969). Past research reports that these four dimensions vary in their influence on consumer behavior. For instance, Babin and Burns (1997) report a positive effect of vividness on brand attitude while quantity did not exert any effect.

Research has already demonstrated the mental-imagery-evoking power of various advertising tactics (e.g., Baek and Yoon 2020). For instance, research reveals that user-generated (non-commercial) photos can trigger the imagination, especially when the pictures demonstrate actions directed at the viewer of the photo (Farace et al. 2017). Likewise, narrative elements evoke vivid images (Green and Brock 2000) and verbal statements, pictures, or interactive elements in advertising stimulate mental imagery (Park and Yoo 2020). Imagining oneself as the focal character in an advertisement leads to higher levels of mental imagery than for a situation characterized by somebody else as the focal character (Bone and Ellen 1992). To advance research in the field of mental imagery, our research question (RQ) asks: What different mental-imagery dimensions are evoked by selfie campaigns?

Mental imagery, selfie campaign participation, and brand attitude

Research notes that firms could host campaigns to create consumer engagement – participation – by sharing brand-related photos (Bashir et al. 2018). Drawing on prior studies confirming the impact of mental imagery on the intention to visit websites (Miller and Stoica 2004) and purchasing intentions (Burns, Biswas, and Babin 1993), we suggest that mental imagery prompted by selfie campaigns positively affects selfie campaign participation. In line with this reasoning, prior research suggests that mental imagery represents a quasi-sensory perceptive experience, which consumers are aware of, and is formed in consumers’ minds before developing behavioral intentions (Gavilan and Avello 2020). Consumers rely on mental imagery to simulate the use of products and services visually, which helps consumers to anticipate consequences before they purchase (Heller et al. 2019). This process is similar to the construction of mental representations triggered by the use of virtual reality tools. These images help users form positive attitudes and finally drive behavior (e.g. to visit a destination experienced through virtual tours; Kim, Shinaprayoon, and Ahn 2022).

Given the novelty of this research topic, it is not possible to define the mental imagery dimension that has a (stronger) positive influence on selfie-campaign participation. Extant research acknowledges differences in the imagery-evoking qualities of advertisements (Miller, Hadjimarcou, and Miciak 2000). For instance, it confirms that the reliance on pictures positively affects the quantity dimension of mental imagery by increasing the recall of information (Childers and Houston 1984). Likewise, sound effects have been shown to affect the quantity dimension (recall) and vividness of imagery (Miller and Marks 1997). In a travel context, another study confirms that pictures evoke stronger levels of mental imagery in terms of quantity and modality compared to narration or sound effects (Lee and Gretzel 2012).

While it is reasonable to assume that all dimensions have a positive impact on participation, the limited literature available prevents a theoretical derivation of specific hypotheses related to the four dimensions. Hence, identifying the influence of each mental-imagery dimension on selfie-campaign participation is another objective of this research. Therefore, we assume that:

Hypothesis 1. Mental imagery (quantity, modality, vividness, valence) evoked by selfie campaigns increases selfie-campaign participation.

Prior research theorizes that consumer participation likely increases brand attitude (i.e. ‘the summary of judgments and overall evaluations to any brand-related information’; Keller 2003, 596). Langaro, Rita, and de Fátima Salgueiro (2018) suggest that marketing campaigns change the associative network structure for a particular brand. Active participation in a marketing event can build new brand associations and hence enlarges a brand’s associative network by adding new product attributes. Similarly, active participation in a brand community (i.e. interacting with other community members through chats or newsgroups) increases members’ brand evaluations (Woisetschläger, Hartleb, and Blut 2008). Other research validates the finding that brand-community commitment increases brand attitudes (Wang, Cao, and Park 2019).

In line with these conclusions, we assume that participation in a selfie campaign creates new brand associations and accordingly increases brand attitude. The act of taking a selfie for a particular brand likely creates new brand experiences. Consumers associate themselves with the brands included in the selfie picture (Sung, Kim, and Choi 2018) making the brand a part of the consumers’ life (Eager and Dann 2016). Besides, the act of taking a selfie might be associated with fun and entertainment likely spilling over to the brand itself. Hence, we predict that:

Hypothesis 2. Selfie-campaign participation positively mediates the influence of mental imagery (quantity, modality, vividness, valence) evoked by selfie campaigns on brand attitude.

Mental imagery, brand interest, and brand attitude

Besides a behavioral reaction, selfie campaigns might also stimulate brand interest (Hartmann et al. 2021). Sharing brand-related photos can evoke consumers’ interest in a brand (Bashir et al. 2018), but researchers note that actual participation must be differentiated from interest (van der Werff and Steg 2016).

In advertising research, brand interest has been identified as a relevant outcome variable (e.g. Alvarado-Karste and Kidwell 2021; Zane, Smith, and Reczek 2020). For selfie campaigns, raising interest is one of the major objectives (Holiday et al. 2019; Menon and Soman 2002) because consumers select only a few advertising messages for information processing in a highly cluttered advertising context (Ha and McCann 2008). Brand interest is defined ´as the base level of approachability, inquisitiveness, openness, or curiosity an individual has about a brand´ (Machleit, Allen, and Madden 1993, 73). Consumers’ brand exploration is relevant to learning about a brand’s benefits, which in turn influences choice (Erdem et al. 1999).

Advertisements that score high on surprise, uniqueness, or originality increase attention (Callister et al. 2022; Pieters, Warlop, and Wedel 2002), a prerequisite for brand interest. Likewise, creativity and novelty in advertising campaigns stimulate and engage consumers (Cárdenas et al. 2022; Ang, Lee, and Leong 2007). Importantly, brand interest is also a driver for brand attitude as high levels of brand interest can cause consumers to search for information about the brand (Martínez-López et al. 2020). The new information enlarges the brand network structure by adding nodes and connections. As a result, brand interest fosters brand attitude change or development (Smith and Swinyard 1988). In support of these notions, research reveals that unexpected advertising stimulates interest and, in turn, increases brand attitude (Lee 2000). Against this background, we postulate that:

Hypothesis 3. Mental imagery (quantity, modality, vividness, valence) evoked by selfie campaigns increases brand interest.

Hypothesis 4. Brand interest positively mediates the influence of mental imagery (quantity, modality, vividness, valence) evoked by selfie campaigns on brand attitude.

Although the impact of brand interest on selfie-campaign participation has not been explored in depth, the related literature offers some evidence of a positive impact of brand interest on consumer engagement (i.e. participation). For instance, brand interest has been identified as an important predictor of interactions in brand communities (Cova and Pace 2006; Solem 2016). Likewise, Mirbagheri and Najmi (2019) report that consumers who are interested in a brand have higher engagement levels with an advertising campaign. Finally, brand interest has been acknowledged as an important driver of posting brand-related comments on social media platforms (Hartmann et al. 2021). Therefore, we propose that:

Hypothesis 5. Brand interest increases selfie-campaign participation.

Figure 1 illustrates the conceptual research framework that is validated by three studies. The pilot study relies on qualitative research and explores the potential of selfie campaigns to evoke different mental imagery dimensions. The subsequent two quantitative studies investigate how mental imagery contributes to selfie-campaign participation, brand interest, and brand attitude.

Figure 1. Conceptual research framework.

Study 1 – pilot study

Study 1 has the overall objective of exploring the relevance and extent of mental imagery caused by selfie campaigns to get insights into quantity, modality, vividness, and valence by using qualitative research, an appropriate approach for investigating advertising-evoked imagery (Branthwaite 2002). We aimed for a large sample size to gather data from a variety of respondents with different characteristics, such as age, gender, and educational background to avoid any sampling bias in our data. A small sample size bears the risk of erroneously concluding that one or some mental imagery dimensions are not relevant in the context of selfie campaigns. Testing the appropriateness of the concept of mental imagery in this context requires short interviews since the aim was not to gain in-depth knowledge about the content of the mental images evoked. Therefore, short personal interviews with three questions are considered a suitable research design to answer the fundamental research question of this study, namely What different mental imagery dimensions are evoked by selfie campaigns?

Respondents and procedure

A convenience sample of 61 respondents agreed to participate in personal interviews (Age: M = 32, SD = 13; 56% females; two respondents did not disclose their gender). Only 8% of respondents had previously participated in a selfie campaign.

Trained research assistants exposed respondents to either a selfie campaign for a zoo showing an image of several smiling animals standing together to take a selfie (n = 31) or a selfie campaign from a furniture store (n = 30). Both campaigns asked consumers to upload a selfie to a social media site and share it with others1.

We started the interviews with a very broad question by asking consumers ´what comes to your mind when you see this advertisement?´ We then briefly explained the concept of mental imagery and asked interviewees to describe their mental imagery in more detail (´What kind of mental imagery comes to your mind when you see this advertisement?´). Finally, we wanted respondents to ´describe the mental imagery that comes to your mind when you see this advertisement.´ These questions were related to the stimulus material respondents were exposed to during the interview. The interview ended with a question about respondents’ prior participation in selfie campaigns and demographic information.

Qualitative content analysis

The data analysis followed the pre-defined steps of content analysis outlined by Mayring (2000) and Krippendorff (2004). It started with the transcription of the audio recordings of the interviews which were then paraphrased into statements. This step resulted in 956 statements. However, several statements did not help answer the research question. For instance, respondents also commented on the design or appeal of the selfie campaign. Since the objective of this pilot study was to test the applicability of the concept, the next step reduced these statements to the unit of analysis by considering only statements that related to mental imagery. This step was conducted by two of the current authors, while inconsistencies resulted in discussions about whether the statement should be kept or not, resulting in a final data set of 390 statements.

After having defined the units of analysis, two co-authors independently categorized the data into the three main categories: modality (whether the mental imagery was of a visual, auditory, or tactile nature), vividness (the precision and concreteness of mental imagery focusing on the content; expressed as childhood memory, memory in general, plans for consumption, vivid description), and valence (whether the mental imagery was positive or negative). The quantity dimension was analyzed by counting the number of images in consumers’ minds (see Appendix A for the results for Study 1). The intercoder reliability (Krippendorff’s alpha) was 0.83 for modality, 0.71 for vividness, and 0.82 for valence. The multidimensional nature of the mental imagery construct (Miller, Hadjimarcou, and Miciak 2000) implies that one statement can address several (or all) mental-imagery dimensions at the same time. Figure 2 demonstrates the process of the qualitative content analysis.

Figure 2. Qualitative content analysis.

Results and discussion

The selfie campaigns used here evoked mental imagery related to different sensory modalities. Respondents to the zoo selfie campaign mainly imagined visual scenes like a trip with the family or with children, specific experiences from their childhood, or something they associate with a zoo. In contrast, the furniture store campaign triggered visual images of shopping experiences and moving to a new apartment in particular, and furnishing in general. Evoking the auditory sense, interviewees imagined specific sounds of animals or disturbing noises during shopping. Both campaigns also evoked sensory mental images that addressed the tactile sense, relating to the products and stimulating a sense of touch.

Other mental imagery triggered memories related to childhood, prior experiences, plans for consumption, or vivid descriptions. These images were very clear and concrete and thus provided insights into the vividness dimension. The zoo selfie campaign triggered several childhood memories (visit the zoo, film seen as a child, toys from childhood) or respondents remembered their last visit to the zoo or holidays. Similarly, the furniture-store selfie campaign prompted images relating to buying furniture, moving to a new apartment, or relaxing moments associated with furniture.

Mental images expressed mainly positive emotional meaning prompted by the selfie campaign (valence dimension). These images are related to positivity in general or very specific ideas such as open-mindedness, joy, a sense of family and belonging, or curiosity. Although both selfie campaigns prompted mainly positive mental imagery, some respondents experienced their images of the furniture-store selfie campaign negatively.

The quantity dimension can be analyzed by counting the number of images in the consumers’ minds. Our 61 respondents collectively mentioned 390 thoughts about their mental imagery. Thus, on average, the respondents reported 6.39 mental images, demonstrating the great variety of mental imagery that can be stimulated by the selfie campaign. Interestingly, the zoo selfie campaign triggers on average more mental images relating to sensory modality (Mzoo = 3.87 vs. Mfurniture = 2.4), vividnesss (Mzoo = 7.1 vs. Mfurniture = 3.57), and valence (Mzoo = 6.61 vs. Mfurniture = 2.67) per respondent compared to the furniture-store selfie campaign. Hence, these results suggest that evoking mental imagery in general and addressing a specific dimension depends to a certain extent on the stimulus material (i.e. the selfie campaign).

Given the stimulus and the scope of the interview, only a few statements provide insights into participation intention (e.g. too personal and embarrassing, but winning prizes increases the probability of participation) and brand interest (e.g. selfie campaigns appear innovative and a new approach stimulating consumers’ interest in the campaign and the brand). To summarize, the pilot study provides preliminary evidence that selfie campaigns address mental imagery, and that the campaign’s potential of evoking the four mental imagery dimensions depends on the campaign’s appeal.

Study 2 – field study

While Study 1 showed the relevance of mental imagery for selfie campaigns, the goal of the quantitative Study 2 was to test the hypothesized influence of mental imagery evoked by selfie campaigns on selfie-campaign participation (H1) and brand interest (H3). Study 2 further evaluated the mediating effects of selfie-campaign participation (H2) and brand interest (H4, H5) on the influence of mental imagery on brand attitude. To test this conceptual framework, we employed a descriptive field study with the Haarmania campaign as a real selfie campaign as a stimulus for data collection. The Haarmania, a trade fair for hairdressers (https://www.haarmania.at/), is an important event for hairdressers and informs participants about upcoming hairstyling trends. Shows with international star hairdressers entertain and attract the target group.

Respondents

The slogan ´Use your skills and show your Haarmania style’ invited visitors to use their skills to create a special haircut or a special hair color together with their favorite customer and/or brand and to post the photo with the hashtag #MYHAARMANIASTYLING on Facebook or Instagram. The criteria for selecting the respondents for the field survey included (1) exposure to the selfie campaign on Facebook or Instagram, and (2) participation in the selfie campaign or posting a comment without participation. There were 249 consumers qualified to receive an invitation (sent out via Facebook or Instagram) to answer an online survey. The survey was promoted with a prize draw for three €25 gift cards to encourage participation.

There were 37 hairdressers who fully completed the questionnaire (Age: M = 26, SD = 12; 65% females; eight respondents did not disclose their gender). Thirteen respondents were classified as participants of the selfie campaign (i.e. they uploaded a Haarmania selfie to Facebook or Instagram). In contrast, 24 respondents were non-participants in the selfie campaign. They were exposed to the campaign, i.e. they liked or commented on the campaign but did not participate.

Measures

The 17 items assessing selfie campaign-evoked mental imagery were taken from Miller, Hadjimarcou, and Miciak (2000) and adapted for the context of this study. Quantity of mental imagery was measured with two items on a 7-point rating scale: ´While I watched the Haarmania selfie campaign, many images came to my mind/a lot of images came to my mind.´ Respondents rated the modality of mental imagery with five items on a 7-point rating scale: ´While I watched the Haarmania selfie campaign, I imagined sounds/scents/the event/to visit the event/how it feels to visit the event.´ Five semantic differential items assessed the vividness of mental imagery with a 7-point scale. The items were ´The images that came to mind while I watched the commercial were vague-vivid, unclear-clear, indistinct-distinct, weak-intense, and fuzzy-well-defined.´ The valence of mental imagery was measured with five semantic differential items on a 7-point scale: ´The images that came to mind while I watched the commercial were unpleasant-pleasant, bad-good, awful-nice, negative-positive, and not enjoyable-enjoyable.´ Two items based on the work from Machleit, Allen, and Madden (1993) and van der Werff and Steg (2016) (measured on a 7-point rating scale) collected information about consumers’ interest in the brand stimulated by the selfie campaign: ´The Haarmania selfie campaign gets me to think about the event. The Haarmania selfie campaign stimulates my interest to learn more about the event.´ Finally, the brand attitude was measured with four semantic differential items on a 7-point scale (Holbrook and Batra 1987). The items were negative-positive, bad-good, unfavorable-favorable, and dislike-like. The descriptive statistics of the variables, the psychometric properties, and the correlations are summed up in Appendix B. The means of all four mental imagery dimensions are rather high, ranging from 4.20 and 4.63 for the modality and quantity dimensions respectively, and 5.22 for the vividness dimension and 5.41 for the valence dimension. These means provide initial evidence of the mental-imagery-evoking potential of selfie campaigns.

Results

To investigate H2 and H4, we estimated a serial mediation model with the four dimensions of quantity, modality, vividness, and valence serving as the independent variables. Brand interest was the first mediator and a selfie-campaign participation dummy (coded as 0 = no participation and 1 = participation) was the second mediator. Brand attitude was the dependent variable. While mental imagery, brand interest, and brand attitude were continuous variables, the second mediator of selfie-campaign participation was a categorical variable. Thus, the mediation model consisted of a logistic regression model (with selfie-campaign participation as a dependent variable) and two regression models (with brand interest and brand attitude as dependent variables). In doing so, we followed the procedure outlined by Baron and Kenny (1986) as well as Iacobucci (2012) in their suggestion for an analytical solution for analyzing mediations. The serial mediation model also offered answers for H1, H3, and H5 as part of the overall model. Global fit statistics for the overall models in terms of hit rate and R2 were statistically significant and satisfactory throughout.

A (binary) logistic regression model (, middle part) investigated the influence of different dimensions of mental imagery on selfie-campaign participation (H1). Respondents with a higher quantity of mental imagery (a2quant = 0.85, p = 0.04) were more likely to participate in the selfie campaign. The influence of modality, vividness, and valence of mental imagery was not significant (for a type I error of 0.05). Therefore, H1 is supported for the quantity dimension of mental imagery.

Table 1. Study 2: serial mediation model – results on M1, M2, and Y.

The positive influence of different dimensions of mental imagery on brand interest (H3) was analyzed using a regression model (, left part). The results revealed that evoking a large quantity of mental imagery (a1quant = 0.35, p = 0.05) and different sensory modalities associated with the mental images (a1modal = 0.54, p = 0.01) influences brand interest. The influence of vividness and valence of mental imagery was not significant. Therefore, H3 is supported for the quantity and modality dimensions of mental imagery.

In H2 (H4), we postulated that the four dimensions of mental imagery influence selfie-campaign participation (brand interest); this in turn has a positive influence on brand attitude. An additional regression model with brand attitude as a dependent variable completed the serial mediation model (, right part). The results showed no direct influence of the four mental-imagery dimensions on brand attitude. More importantly, brand interest (b1 = 0.30, p < 0.01) positively influenced brand attitude whereas selfie-campaign participation showed no significant influence.

To test for significant indirect effects, we calculated the zMediation test. This test is comparable to z scores (see Iacobucci 2012 for analytical details and proofs) and is significant if it exceeds 1.96 for two-tailed tests with α = 0.05. As hypothesized in H2, we expected indirect effects of all the mental-imagery dimensions via selfie-campaign participation on brand attitude (mental imagery → selfie-campaign participation → brand attitude). Contrary to our expectations, this path was not significant for any of the mental-imagery dimensions. However, the results revealed a significant indirect effect for the modality (mental imagerymodality → brand interest → brand attitude a1modalb1 = 0.16, p < 0.05) of mental imagery on brand attitude via brand interest. Hence, these findings do not support H2 but do support H4 for the modality of mental imagery.

Finally, we tested for the positive effect of brand interest on selfie-campaign participation (H5). This effect is not significant (d21 = 0.23, p = 0.53) and therefore our findings do not support H5.

Discussion study 2

Study 2 confirmed our main claim that selfie campaigns prompt mental imagery. However, not all dimensions of mental-imagery are evoked by the selfie campaign used in this study. Only the quantity and the modality dimensions prompted brand interest, and quantity influenced participation. The lack of a direct link between participation on brand attitude was surprising, but points to the relevance of stimulating brand interest as another important outcome variable of selfie campaigns. Brand interest mediates the impact of mental imagery (the modality dimension) on brand attitude. Contrary to our expectations, participation did not mediate the impact of mental imagery on brand attitude. An inspection of the mean value of brand attitude (see Appendix B) reveals that brand attitude has a very high mean value (M = 5.57; 7-point scale), which might explain why it is difficult to increase brand attitude further, especially when measuring participation with a binary variable which limits the tools for statistical analysis. The rather small sample size might also account for the lack of significance when measuring participation with a dichotomous variable which accounts for less variance when compared to brand interest, which was measured on a metric level. Study 3 overcomes this drawback by assessing participation intention using a 7-point Likert scale.

Study 3 – online study

The second study offered preliminary evidence for the importance of evoking mental imagery in selfie campaigns, but there remained some limitations which were addressed in Study 3. While Study 2 allowed us to assess real data from actual selfie-campaign (non)-participation, the narrowly defined target group (i.e. hairdressers) and the resulting small sample size and the strong focus on female respondents limits the general applicability of our findings. To overcome these limitations, Study 3 replicated our research framework for a different selfie campaign (i.e. a different product category), and a broader target group, by creating a fictitious selfie campaign for HelloFresh and through data collected in an online consumer survey.

Stimulus material and procedure

Our stimulus material announced a selfie contest for HelloFresh (a provider of meal kits). The general layout of the selfie campaign was similar to real-life selfie campaigns and asked consumers to post a selfie with a meal prepared from a HelloFresh box with the hashtag #MyHelloFresh. In an attempt to encourage participation a prize was offered (a monthly HelloFresh box for the next year). Additionally, the stimulus material displayed the logo of the brand, a HelloFresh box, and a picture of a woman taking a selfie while eating a meal.

A convenience sample of 150 participants (Age: M = 39, SD = 12; 52% females) was recruited through the online panel platform Clickworker in exchange for a small payment. After exposure to the stimulus, participants filled out a questionnaire. The survey automatically ended for those participants who could not remember the brand seen in the selfie campaign and who failed a second attention check (´Please select the midpoint of this scale´). The survey ended with a short debriefing, explaining the purpose of the survey.

Measures

We used the scales of Study 2 to assess quantity/modality/vividness/valence of mental imagery, brand interest, and brand attitude. One item (´I would participate in the selfie contest´) adopted from Füller, Matzler, and Hoppe (2008) assessed consumers’ intention to participate in the selfie campaign with a 7-point rating scale. The descriptive statistics of the variables, the psychometric properties, and the correlations are given in Appendix B.

Results

To investigate our research framework, we estimated a serial mediation model with the different dimensions of mental imagery as the independent variables. Brand interest was the first mediator, selfie-campaign participation was the second mediator, and brand attitude served as the dependent variable. Global fit statistics for the overall models in terms of R2 were statistically significant and satisfactory throughout.

A regression model (, middle part) investigated the influence of the different dimensions of mental imagery on selfie-campaign participation (H1). The influence of quantity, vividness, and valence was not significant. However, the modality dimension of mental imagery showed a positive influence on selfie-campaign participation (a2modal = 0.32, p = 0.02). Hence, H1 is supported for the modality dimension of mental imagery.

Table 2. Study 3: serial mediation model – results on M1, M2, and Y.

The positive influence of the different dimensions of mental imagery on brand interest (H3) was analyzed with another regression model (, left part). The influence of the quantity of mental imagery was not significant. The results revealed that evoking different sensory modalities through mental images (a1modal = 0.49, p < 0.01), vivid mental imagery (a1vivid = 0.26, p = 0.03), and a positive valence of the imagery (a1val = 0.23, p = 0.04) positively influence brand interest. Therefore, H3 is supported for the modality, vividness, and valence dimensions of mental imagery.

An additional regression model with brand attitude as a dependent variable completed the serial mediation model (, right part) investigating H2 (H4). We postulated that the four dimensions of mental imagery influence selfie-campaign participation (brand interest); this, in turn, has a positive influence on brand attitude. We observed that the valence of mental imagery (cval = 0.55, p < 0.01) positively influenced brand attitude while the other three dimensions of mental imagery showed no direct effect. More importantly, brand interest (b1 = 0.14, p = 0.01) and participation (b2 = 0.08, p = 0.04) positively influenced brand attitude. Furthermore, in support of H5, we observed a positive influence of brand interest on selfie-campaign participation (d21 = 0.40, p < 0.01).

As hypothesized in H2 (H4), we expected indirect effects for all the mental imagery dimensions via selfie-campaign participation (brand interest) on brand attitude (mental imagery → selfie-campaign participation → brand attitude). Contrary to H2 (but supporting the results from Study 2), the indirect path via participation was not significant for any of the mental imagery dimensions. However, in line with H4, the results revealed significant indirect effects via brand interest. More specifically, we observed an indirect effect for the modality of mental imagery on brand attitude via brand interest (mental imagerymodality → brand interest → brand attitude; a1modalb1 = 0.07, p < 0.05). Hence, these findings do not support H2 but do support H4 for the modality dimension of mental imagery.

Discussion study 3

Overall, the results of Study 3 replicated the findings of Study 2. Given the different stimuli, it is not surprising that different mental-imagery dimensions influenced brand interest. While the HelloFresh campaign used in Study 3 seems to promote more positive mental imagery, the Haarmania selfie campaign of Study 2 prompted a higher degree of mental imagery, which might be caused by personal characteristics (i.e. the target group was hairdressers and hence familiar with the scope of the campaign). Both campaigns stimulated the modality dimension, which positively impacted on brand interest. Corroborating the findings of Study 2, participation did not mediate the impact of mental imagery evoked by the selfie campaign on brand attitude, but brand interest did. Again, this result provides empirical evidence of the relevance of stimulating brand interest in the context of selfie campaigns and confirmed the robustness of Study 2’s findings.

General discussion

The overall objective of this research was to investigate the role of mental imagery (and its four dimensions) in stimulating selfie-campaign participation and brand interest, and exploring their influence on brand attitude. Having confirmed the applicability of the concept of mental imagery to selfie campaigns in a pilot study with personal interviews, one field study and one online study confirmed the mental-imagery-evoking power of selfie campaigns. Interestingly, not all four mental imagery dimensions (i.e. vividness, valence, modality, and quantity) were stimulated to the same extent. Study 2’s findings reveal that the campaign prompted the quantity and the modality dimensions, which in turn positively affect participation and brand interest, while we found a positive effect of modality (on brand interest and participation), vividness, and valence (on brand interest) in Study 3. Although this inconsistent result seems surprising at first glance, it replicates prior research in the field of mental imagery. Research exploring the persuasiveness of destination websites reports that – based on a factor analysis – only the quantity and modality dimensions of the mental imagery construct qualified for their analysis. Poor factor loadings required the elimination of the vividness and valence variables (Lee and Gretzel 2012). In a similar vein, different forms of mobile advertising have varying potential for prompting mental imagery. While MMS mobile ads stimulate vividness, SMS mobile ads prompt a larger number of mental images (i.e. the quantity dimension) (Gavilan, Avello, and Abril 2014). Other research confirms that the presence of specific advertising elements, (e.g. sound effects) positively affects mental imagery (Miller and Marks 1997) and that the mental-imagery evoking potential of advertisements also depends on the product type (i.e. utilitarian vs. hedonic) and personality characteristics (Babin, Burns, and Biswas 1992). Overall, all these studies demonstrate that various advertising, product, and personality characteristics determine the power to prompt different mental-imagery dimensions, a conclusion which is replicated in our research.

In addition, our studies offer several implications for research and practice. First, our findings emphasize the potential of selfie campaigns in stimulating the imagination. Therefore, we classify selfie campaigns as another advertising tactic that can trigger mental imagery. Second, we also add to the branding literature by acknowledging the positive influence of selfie campaigns on two important constructs: brand interest and brand attitude. In doing so, we make an important contribution to research exploring new ways of building a favorable brand attitude. Once consumers express their interest in selfie campaigns, they seek additional information about the brand. This new information leads to a richer brand network structure, which in turn, forms brand attitude.

Third, we differentiate between participation and brand interest. Most existing studies concentrate on consumers’ brand participation as a direct outcome of advertising efforts (e.g. Woisetschläger, Hartleb, and Blut 2008). In addition to participation, we identify brand interest as an outcome variable in selfie campaigns. Our results indicate that consumers’ first reaction to a selfie campaign results in interest, i.e. it stimulates thinking, and the desire to learn more about the event. Both constructs are relevant. Media planners want to stimulate participants to make a selfie campaign popular among the target audience. However, interest is also an important driver of brand attitude. It seems that the desire to learn more about the selfie campaign expresses a generally favorable way of thinking that then positively influences brand attitude.

Fourth, from a methodological perspective, these results highlight the relevance of using mixed-method research designs when exploring established constructs in a new context. The personal interviews were appropriate to gain initial evidence of the applicability of the mental-imagery construct to selfie campaigns, while the quantitative studies offer more detailed insights into the relationships between the various mental-imagery dimensions, selfie-campaign participation, brand interest, and brand attitude. Overall, the mixed-method approach in this research allowed the reliance on four different selfie campaigns as a stimulus, which resulted in robust findings and high levels of generalizability. In this regard, the mix of a field and an online study further supports the high levels of internal and external validity of the results.

Finally, our research offers implications for managers. A selfie campaign offers the benefit of making the brand a part of the consumer’s life (Eager and Dann 2016), especially if they participate in the campaign. In such a situation, consumers can actively produce and control images of the brand, e.g. selfies of the campaign are typically used for further marketing communication.

In line with the suggestions of prior research that brand managers should focus on initiating peer-to-peer brand-related discussions (Kim and Song 2018), we also recommend actively involving consumers in advertising strategies when using selfie campaigns. We also emphasize that participation is not the only outcome of interest in the context of selfie campaigns, but that prompting interest needs to be considered another important outcome variable. Both, participation and brand interest directly impacted on brand attitude in Study 3, a result which further highlights the importance of focusing on brand interest as a measure of selfie-campaign success.

Limitations and future research agenda

This paper was the first to explore the role of mental imagery in selfie-campaign participation, as well as the mediating effect of selfie-campaign participation and brand interest on brand attitude. Thus, replication studies with different selfie campaigns as stimuli, which may prompt other mental-imagery dimensions, are to be encouraged. In this context, a taxonomy of selfie-campaign appeals (e.g. sexual ad appeals, Choi et al. 2022; self-benefit versus other-benefit appeals associated with selfie-campaign participation, Kim, Choi, et al. 2021) that evoke the different mental-imagery dimensions would be worth developing.

Additionally, the present study did not consider possible moderator variables. However, consumers’ personality variables that consider the specific characteristics of social-media and selfie-posting behavior might influence the postulated effects in our conceptual framework. For instance, immersion (i.e. the degree to which consumers are absorbed in social media interactions and posting behavior) might amplify consumer’s willingness to participate in selfie campaigns (Jung and Im 2021). Additionally, self-brand connections (i.e. how strongly consumers integrate brands into their concept of self) and narcissism (Baek, Yoo, and Yoon 2018) might be promising variables to explain differences in consumers’ participation in selfie campaigns. In terms of outcome variables, the quantity of likes, comments and shares have been used to operationalize brand engagement in previous studies (Kim, Choi, et al. 2021) and might be worth to consider in future studies exploring the impact of selfie campaigns on brand engagement. Selfie campaigns might also be used to nudge healthy behavior. Posting selfies while eating healthy food or exercising in the gym might strengthen public image motives and helps group exercisers to satisfy their need to impress other people (Pan and Yoon 2021). Hence, it would be interesting to explore to what extent selfie campaigns can prompt socially relevant outcomes.

Finally, from a more critical perspective, user-generated content might not only prompt positive experiences. Recent research reveals that taking pictures for memory purposes or for sharing them with others undermines the enjoyment of the experience (Barasch, Zauberman, and Diehl 2018). Accordingly, it would be fruitful to explore the negative aspects of selfie campaigns for consumers as well. Going beyond traditional research methods in advertising, such a research could rely on a more visual research method, for example photovoice (i.e. participants discuss a particular topic on the basis of photographs taken) to investigate how consumers’ process creative and new advertising campaigns and messages (Rodgers and Belobrovkina 2022).

Acknowledgments

The authors thank the Associate Editor and the reviewers for very helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. They also thank Julia Isopp for her help in developing the stimulus material of Study 3.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Funding

The first author acknowledges financial support for this research by a Small Research Grant from the University of Vienna.

Notes for contributors

Elisabeth Wolfsteiner, PhD is research associate at the Department of Innovation, University of Applied Sciences Wiener Neustadt, Austria. Her main area of research is embedded marketing communication. Her research is published in academic journals, including the Journal of Business Research, Psychology & Marketing, Review of Managerial Science, and Journal of Sport Management.

Marion Garaus, PhD is associate professor at the Department of International Management, Modul University Vienna, Austria. Her main area of research is consumer behaviour with special focus on digitalization. Her research is published in academic journals, including the Journal of Business Research, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Psychology & Marketing, Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, and Journal of Travel Research.

Udo Wagner, PhD is full professor at the Department of International Management, Modul University Vienna, Austria. His main areas of research are marketing research, consumer behaviour, marketing models, marketing management, and pricing. His research is published in academic journals, including Marketing Science, European Journal of Operational Research, International Journal of Research and Marketing, and Journal of Marketing Research.

Alexander Girschick, MSc Alexander Girschick studied Business Administration with a specialization in marketing, e-business and strategic management at the University of Vienna. His areas of expertise are social media marketing and SEO.

Data availability statement

The data sets are accessible online: https://data.mendeley.com/datasets/rydxtbm7dr/1

Notes

1 The stimulus material used in Study 1, 2 and 3 is available upon request from the corresponding author.

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Appendix A. Coding schema and results for Study 1

Appendix B. Means, standard deviations, reliability indicators and correlations for all variables of interest (Study 2 and 3)

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