Skip to main content

The Design of Gift Cards May Influence Purchasing Behavior

Researchers find a colorfully dotted card puts people in a playful state of mind, which can influence what they buy.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
(Photo: Cora Mueller/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Cora Mueller/Shutterstock)

Feel like seeing a movie this holiday weekend? Would you prefer something serious and thought-provoking, or a bit of mindless entertainment?

New research suggests that, if you’re buying or streaming that film online, the answer may depend upon the look of the gift card you are using to pay for it.

Writing in the Journal of Consumer Research,Gergana Nenkov of Boston College and Maura Scott of Florida State University report that whimsical cards put us in a playful state of mind, influencing us to make more self-indulgent choices.

These results suggest that "whimsically cute products prime mental representations of fun," the researchers write, "(ultimately) leading to more indulgent choices."

Indeed, they present evidence that “cute” products of all sorts push consumers in that direction—so long as designers avoid depicting human infants. The researchers find such images have the opposite effect, inspiring responsible behavior that is consistent with caretaking.

Nenkov and Scott describe four experiments, but their thesis is best illustrated by the one involving gift cards and film choices. The participants—109 adults recruited online—were told “they would be entered in a drawing to win a $25 gift card that could be redeemed for five downloadable movie rentals of their choice.”

They were randomly assigned to see one of three gift cards. One had a plain, neutral design; another was covered with colorful polka dots; and a third featured an image of an adorable baby.

They were then presented with a list of 22 movies—13 box-office hits, and nine considered more offbeat and challenging. The “lowbrow” list included The Avengers, Ted, and The Hangover Part III; the “highbrow” choices included The Artist, The Help, and Beasts of the Southern Wild.

The researchers report that those who “shopped” using the card with the colorful dots selected a higher percentage of lowbrow movies than those who used the other two cards.

In line with the results of their other experiments, these results suggest that “whimsically cute products prime mental representations of fun,” the researchers write, “(ultimately) leading to more indulgent choices.”

“Our findings suggest that the marketing of cute products can have potentially detrimental long-term effects by encouraging impulsive buying and increasing indulgent consumption,” they conclude.

Nenkov and Scott also make an interesting point regarding one well-known ad campaign. If whimsy puts people in a less-serious, more playful mood, they wonder if that perpetually irritated duck in the ads for Aflac insurance is really doing its job. Their research suggests chuckling at a duck doesn’t necessarily put one in an “I need more insurance” state of mind.

On the other hand, if that waterfowl is cast in The Hangover Part IV, I’m buying a ticket.