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Abstract

Virtual reality (VR) is gaining mainstream attention, but little is known about the effects of VR advertising (VR ad). This study examined 360-degree video-based advertising, which presented an entire view of the scene and allowed users to pan around the view interactively. In particular, the study sought to answer the following questions: (a) does the effect of VR ad vary when it is viewed with different media devices?; (b) what is the effect of virtual representation of the self (VRS) in VR ad?; and (c) does self-presence mediate the association between VRS and the user鈥檚 experience with an advertised brand? An experiment (N鈥=鈥203) was conducted using a 2 (VRS: present vs. absent) 脳 3 (media devices: smartphone vs. computer vs. head-mounted display) between-subjects design. Primary findings indicate that absence of VRS in VR ad had positive effects on users鈥 liking the ad and favorable attitude toward the advertised brand. Self-presence was found to be a significant mediator that explains why absence of VRS led to favorable experiences. The study did not find any significant difference on VR ad experiences across media devices. Theoretical and practical implications of VR ad were discussed.

As virtual reality (VR) devices are becoming more advanced and affordable, VR content with 360-degree views is gaining more attention and popularity. Both YouTube and Facebook have been supporting the adoption of 360-degree videos since 2015, and more than one million 360-degree videos have been posted on Facebook (Ayrey and Wong 2017). In addition, New York Times adopted VR technology and started releasing VR stories as part of the newspaper鈥檚 daily news feeds, beginning with free distribution of one million Google Cardboards for VR viewing to its subscribers (Hanlon 2016). Moreover, the worldwide spending on VR content/apps and location-based VR was predicted to rise from $2.54 billion in 2019 to $3.77 billion in 2021 (Petrov 2019). These statistics show that using VR could be a real life experience for ordinary people in the near future, given that most people have their own smartphone through which they can easily download and use VR content and apps. Further, in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, people may have to stay at home more, and therefore it is likely that VR content and advertisements are consumed in their lives (Taylor 2020).

Despite increased attention to VR content with 360-degree videos, little has been documented about the effect of 360-degree video-based advertising. Consequently, limited information exists with respect to how VR advertising (VR ad) influences user perceptions and behaviors and how to best adopt VR ad to maximize potential benefits. Until recently, only a few studies about the topic have been available. Gauquier et聽al. (2019) found that VR ad positively affected brand personality impressions, brand attitude, and purchase intentions, compared to traditional advertising. Similarly, Kerrebroeck, Brengman, and Willems (2017a) examined whether a VR experience in a shopping mall led to a more positive customer satisfaction and found that the VR experience enhanced attitude toward the mall, mall satisfaction, and loyalty intentions. In addition, Grudzewski et聽al. (2018) investigated how VR could be used as a marketing tool and how its usage affected the reception of individual components of a marketing message. They uncovered that VR positively influenced the marketing message perception and the reception of an offer provided to the study participants.

Although the aforementioned studies have examined the effects of VR ad in general, few studies have explored more specific aspects of viewing VR ad. For this reason, the present study proposes three goals to achieve. First, the study examines if the effect of VR ad varies when viewed with different media devices including smartphones, computers, and head-mounted displays (HMDs) such as Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard. While the household penetration rate of VR HMDs is still low, 360-degree videos are viewable through easily accessible media devices such as smartphones and computers. Second, the study aims to provide strategies for designing effective VR ad by highlighting the effect of virtual representation of the self (VRS: Bailenson, Blascovich, and Guadagno 2008)鈥攄igital representation of humans that looks remarkably like the self (Fox and Bailenson 2009)鈥攊n advertisements, an equivalent to a human model in traditional advertising. Extant research has consistently emphasized the importance of models in advertisements in building favorable brand attitudes (Andsager et聽al. 2006; Hilmert, Kulik, and Christenfeld 2006). In VR ad, on the other hand, the role of model could be quite different, as the main model represents the user in an interactive way. However, few studies have been conducted with respect to how these models representing the user would play a role in VR ad. Thus, by employing the notion of VRS, the study aims to discover the optimal strategy for developing effective VR ad. Finally, drawing from the theoretical concept of self-presence鈥攁 psychological state in which virtual (para-authentic or artificial) self/selves are experienced as the actual self in either sensory or nonsensory ways (Lee 2004, p. 46)鈥, the study examines the process through which VRS affects users鈥 experiences with an advertised brand in VR content.

The effect of different media devices on VR ad experiences

A variety of media devices are available for users to have access to 360-degree VR content. For instance, VR content can be experienced via smartphones or computers with which users can view VR videos from various angles by moving around their smartphone or computer mouse. Recently, HMDs are considered a sophisticated VR device because they display a simulated world much like a real world by responding to the user鈥檚 physical head movements (Psotka 1995). They also enhance spatial knowledge thanks to kinesthetic and vestibular feedback (Ruddle and P茅ruch 2004).

Researchers have attempted to understand the effects of media devices, yet the findings are somewhat inconclusive. Some studies report that simple devices tend to negatively affect users鈥 immersive media experiences in the virtual environment compared to HMDs (MacQuarrie and Steed 2017; Yim et聽al. 2018). For example, Adachi, Song, and Cramer (2019) found that individuals who watched a 360-dgree tourism video with a HMD reported a more positive destination image including cognitive, affective, and overall evaluations of the promoted location, compared to those who watched a video with a computer. Individuals who used the HMD reported that they felt as if they became the traveler and were actually in the promoted location.

However, other studies reveal insignificant differences in users鈥 physiological responses (Wiederhold, Davis, and Wiederhold 1998) and task performance (Slater, Alberto, and Usoh 1995) across different media devices. In the literature, some evidence suggests that media devices may work differently on different aspects of VR experiences. For instance, Santos et聽al. (2009) compared different types of media devices including high-end VR systems (i.e. HMDs) and low-cost devices (i.e. traditional desktops) in terms of users鈥 virtual experiences and task performance levels. They uncovered that users favored overall VR experiences through HMDs, but their performance was better when using a desktop.

Similarly, several studies showed that 3D ads are not necessarily more effective than 2D ads. Yim et聽al. (2018) explored how stereoscopic 3D dimensionality affected the process by which viewers鈥 memory of brand names embedded in a soccer game was formed compared to the memory process in the traditional 2D display. They found that as viewers paid more attention to the sports game in stereoscopic 3D display, the viewers were less likely to remember the brands embedded in the stadium, while the opposite pattern was found in the 2D display. Further, Breves and Schramm (2019) analyzed the impact of stereoscopy on brand placement effectiveness. They revealed that the viewers of 2D movies were more likely to remember the brands placed in the movies and to critically reflect the persuasive intentions behind the placements, compared to those of 3D movies. In addition, Visinescu et聽al. (2015) compared 2D and 3D shopping websites in terms of cognitive absorption鈥攁 state of deep involvement with technology (Agarwal and Karahanna 2000)鈥, perceived ease of use, and intentions to buy online using the website. They found that shopping websites using 3D environments were associated with lower perceived ease of use and lower cognitive absorption. Overall, these findings indicate that 3D technologies or high levels of vividness require more cognitive resources.

In sum, the extant body of literature has explored the effectiveness of media devices on VR experiences. However, the findings are somewhat indecisive. Further, in the context of advertising, little is known about the effect of using different media devices to view VR ad. Thus, the current study sets forth the following set of research questions:

RQ1a-c: How does viewing VR ad through different devices (smartphone vs. computer vs. HMD) influence VR ad experiences including (a) liking the ad, (b) favorable attitude toward the advertised brand, and (c) intention to purchase the advertised product?

Brand experiences through virtual representation of the self

The present study also aims to investigate how the concept of virtual representation of the self (VRS: Bailenson, Blascovich, and Guadagno 2008) could be applied in the context of VR ad. Bailenson, Blascovich, and Guadagno (2008) conducted an experimental study where participants interacted with virtual representations of themselves or of others in an immersive virtual environment. They found that participants maintained less distance between their physical selves and VRS than they did between their physical selves and virtual representations of others (VRO). This finding demonstrates that participants display more intimacy with VRS than with VRO. In a similar vein, Fox and Bailenson (2009) revealed that participants in the VRS-running condition showed significantly higher levels of exercise than those in the VRO-running condition and in no virtual representation condition. In an advertising context, Ahn and Bailenson (2011) uncovered that endorsing products using the customer鈥檚 own appearance is more effective for enhancing favorable brand attitude and stronger purchase intention than using VRO. These studies collectively imply that VRS has positive impacts on customers鈥 evaluation of and purchase intention toward products advertised via VR. The present study seeks to support these findings in the context of VR ad.

Virtual environments can be experienced as similar as real environments thanks to technologically synthesized sensory information (Blascovich et聽al. 2002). VR ad allows viewers to engage in content control and information adjustment based on their own preferences, by turning the device, dragging their finger, or moving the computer mouse to look around and to explore every angle within the content. The interactive process shifts the role of users from being passive to being active in a mediated environment as their decision and behavior in VR change the environment they view. Consequently, the level of control handed over to viewers offers content versatility, which enhances their feeling of connection and presence during VR experiences (Biocca 2006).

The ability to control the view in VR provides a strong connection with VRS. Unlike traditional advertising where a model is the center of the narrative, users are at the core of VR ad. In particular, structural features of VR support a strong feeling of identification with VRS, which can be similarly understood as a model in traditional advertising. That is, through VRS, VR ad provides customers with an opportunity to learn about the product and engage in experiential marketing.

Extant research drawn from social cognitive theory has documented the important relationship between customers and models. Social cognitive theory suggests that human beings have the ability to learn through observation (Bandura 1977, 2001), and behavioral modeling can be influenced by observers鈥 level of identification with models (Bandura 1977, 2001). Viewers should notice an adequate level of similarity with the models to believe that they can achieve the same anticipated results by engaging in the observed behavior. That is, to the extent customers perceive similar features (e.g. age, gender, race, ethnicity, etc.) to a model, they are more likely to be persuaded by the content and to show favorable responses to the ad (Andsager et聽al. 2006; Torres and Briggs 2007). For this reason, a significant number of studies have addressed the importance of tailoring ad content toward the target customers to enhance the feeling of identification with a model (e.g. Meyers-Levy 1988; Whittler 1991; Williams and Qualls 1989).

Persuasive effects of similarity have been well documented in the context of VR such that when VRS is perceived to be similar to users, the impact of persuasion is influential (Ahn and Bailenson 2011; Fox and Bailenson 2009; Fox, Bailenson, and Binney 2009). For example, individuals who viewed the VRS-featuring their own face in an exercise simulation reported more exercise than those who viewed the virtual self-featuring a stranger鈥檚 face (Fox and Bailenson 2009). In the same manner, the effectiveness of similarity has been reported in diverse contexts (e.g. Fox, Bailenson, and Binney 2009; Hershfield et聽al. 2011; Song et聽al. 2013). In all, empirical findings suggest that resemblance of VRS to a customer鈥檚 appearance would facilitate more favorable experiences in VR ad.

However, there could be a somewhat different perspective to this claim. Creating a personalized VRS for every customer may not be feasible due to limited resources (e.g. budget, information about customers鈥 traits). Moreover, considering that VR ad is widely distributed through YouTube and various social media platforms to reach a wide range of audiences, the use of a personalized VRS might be impossible. In addition, given that VR ads in 360-degree videos show real people as a model in the ad, customizing them with each potential customer does not seem feasible. In this case, an important counter-question is whether a non-personalized VRS, created for mass audiences, in VR ad would be effective. When people observe that VRS in an ad does not reflect characteristics of their own, they may experience psychological distance between their true self and VRS. In fact, research findings in traditional advertising have noted problematic effects when people perceive themselves to be different from the model in that customers experience a sense of incongruence with the cues in the ad (Aaker, Brumbaugh, and Grier 2000). The perception of disconnection may reduce persuasive effects and lead to negative attitudinal effects toward the advertisement such as distraction or irritation (Star 1989) and offense (Lipman 1991). In other words, rather than showing VRS that is incongruent with the user, absence of VRS might be more persuasive, given that the incongruent VRS could elicit psychological distance. These competing arguments and empirical evidence make it difficult to propose directional hypotheses. Thus, the following set of research questions is proposed.

RQ2a-c: Between absence and presence of a non-personalized VRS, which will lead to more favorable VR advertising experiences, such as (a) liking the ad, (b) favorable attitude toward the advertised brand, and (c) intention to purchase the advertised product?

The role of self-presence in the virtual context

VR ad naturally increases the feeling of being in the virtual environment, namely the feeling of presence, and consequently leads to positive psychological consequences. Tussyadiah et聽al. (2018) showed that, in a tourism context, the feeling of being in the virtual environment enhanced enjoyment of VR experiences. Further, the study revealed that the heightened feeling of being there resulted in stronger liking and preference in the destination. The study also found that positive attitude change led to a higher level of visiting intention. Also, Kerrebroeck, Brengman, and Willems (2017b) investigated the impact of VR in the context of transformational brand experience appeals. They found that VR ad generated higher perceptions of vividness and presence than a regular two-dimensional video, with vividness positively affecting attitude toward the ad, both directly and indirectly via presence. They also showed that vividness in turn elicited a positive effect on brand attitude which stimulated consumers鈥 purchase intention. Although these studies have offered some insights about the effects of VR ad, more studies are called for in order to pinpoint the impacts of VR ad on the feeling of presence and other psychological outcomes.

When experiencing VR from the first-person perspective, a user鈥檚 VRS may or may not be present in the virtual environment. Even when VRS is not present on screen, users may assume that their virtual self is present in the environment (Kilteni, Groten, and Slater 2012; Lee 2004) by observing and experiencing changes in the virtual environment corresponding to their own actions. For example, when users are walking around in the virtual environment, the view and environment change according to their actions. In this respect, self-presence is an important concept in understanding how one鈥檚 virtual self can be experienced in VR. Lee (2004) classified three types of presence based on the three domains of virtual experiences: physical, social, and self-presence. Although all three types of presence can be experienced in the context of VR ad, self-presence is of particular interst in the present study, given that VRS is closely related to the concept of self-presence.

Self-presence occurs when technology users do not notice the artificiality of the representation of the self in the virtual environment (Lee 2004). In other words, users may experience illusion that there is no divergence between their virtual self and their own physical self (Eastwick and Gardner 2009; Gee 2008; Lee 2004). Thus, self-presence is an inherent characteristic of a successful representation of the virtual self.

Two theoretical mechanisms may work to illuminate self-presence in virtual contexts (Behm-Morawitz 2013; Tamborini and Skalski 2006). The first mechanism refers to a connecting experience, which explains that users are mapping their actual self onto their virtual self to the extent that they feel present with the virtual self. The second mechanism concerns an evaluation process made by users in comparing and contrasting the virtual self with their physical self, especially when the virtual self adopts a dissimilar social role from that of the physical self. For example, in a virtual environment where a female user is assigned to a male virtual self, the first mechanism commences when the user starts to attribute the male virtual self to her physical body. In the second mechanism, the user may make an evaluation on the similarities and differences in terms of experiences and behaviors between her physical self (i.e. female) and virtual self (i.e. male) in her social environment. Users encounter a sense of self-presence at varying degrees while interacting with the virtual self (Lee 2004). Depending on the degree of self-presence experienced, the impact of virtual experiences may vary (Tamborini and Skalski 2006). When users put themselves in the role of a virtual self, they tend to let the mental presentation of their actual self be reshaped by the mental representation of their virtual self (Biocca 2006), which ultimately influences user experiences.

A significant body of research has suggested that self-presence contributes to favorable experiences in diverse virtual contexts (Jin and Park 2009; Song, Kim, and Lee 2014; Song, Peng, and Lee 2011). For example, Behm-Morawitz (2013) examined how self-presence experienced in a virtual environment affected users鈥 healthy behaviors in the physical world. The study found that users who experienced a stronger sense of self-presence tended to engage in more physical activities online and healthier eating offline than those who reported a lower level of self-presence.

In the understanding of the way technology use influences user experiences, self-presence, or presence from a broader perspective (see Lee 2004), has been identified as a significant mediator that facilitates effective virtual experiences. Supporting the argument, extant research has documented the mediating role of self-presence or other types of presence (e.g. physical and social presence) in diverse contexts (Jin 2011; Kim and Song 2016; Kim, Song, and Lee 2018; Kim and Timmerman 2018; Song, Kim, and Lee 2014; Song, Kim, and Park 2019). The present study examines the mediating role of self-presence between VRS and VR ad experiences.

It is assumed that seeing VRS, compared to not seeing, would lead users to feel stronger self-presence. However, it may not always be the case if a virtual self is not customized to reflect features of the user鈥檚 physical self and does not look similar to the user. As claimed earlier, observing a virtual self may not be effective when VRS is perceived as dissimilar to the user. In fact, some studies suggest that seeing VRS does not always lead to a strong feeling of self-presence (Hou et聽al. 2012; Jin 2010; Song, Peng, and Lee 2011). For example, Song, Peng, and Lee (2011) found that, when people see VRS during an exercise gameplay, those with high body image satisfaction experienced strong self-presence, but people with low body image satisfaction expressed weak self-presence. This finding implies that seeing VRS is not necessarily channeled into enhanced self-presence in some circumstances. In sum, the current study sets forth the following set of research questions.

RQ3a-c: How does self-presence mediate the association between VRS and VR ad experiences including (a) liking the ad, (b) favorable attitude toward the advertised brand, and (c) intention to purchase the advertised product?

Method

Participants

The experiment employed a 2 (VRS: presence vs. absence) 脳 3 (media device: smartphone vs. computer vs. HMD) using a between-subjects design. In total, 203 participants were recruited from a private university located in a metropolitan area of Seoul, South Korea. The sample included more females (n鈥=鈥107; 52.7%) than males (n鈥=鈥89; 43%). Seven individuals (3.4%) did not indicate their gender. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the six groups: VRS presence in smartphone (n鈥=鈥36), VRS presence in computer (n鈥=鈥35), VRS presence in HMD (n鈥=鈥26), VRS absence in smartphone (n鈥=鈥38), VRS absence in computer (n鈥=鈥35), and VRS absence in HMD (n鈥=鈥33). Some participants did not fully complete the survey questionnaire after the experiment, and those unfinished responses were not included in the final dataset. This resulted in unbalanced cell sizes.

A majority of participants (n鈥=鈥183, 90.1%) reported that they had not seen the VR ad, which was utilized for this experiment, before study participation. Neither previous experience with the VR ad (yes/no), 蠂2(2) = .47, n.s., nor previous experience with the brand advertised in the VR ad (yes/no), 蠂2(2) = .49, n.s., was significantly different across the six conditions. Thus, group equivalence was ensured. Power analysis indicated that the power was .99 indicating that the hypothesis test is good at detecting a false null hypothesis.

Materials

The VR ad adopted for the experiment was an advertisement of an alcohol beverage brand, 鈥淐heo-um-cheo-reom,鈥 made by Lotte, one of the big food and beverage companies in South Korea. Two VR ads, which employed the same model for the same brand, were selected as the stimulus because they were considered compatible in terms of contexts and narratives. Both ads illustrated a dating scenario of a young couple over the advertised beverage, and participants viewed the VR ad from the first-person perspective. The quality of the VR ads was as high as typical TV ads, and additionally 360-degree views were available in both VR ads. In both ads, the participant became a male dating a beautiful girlfriend sitting at a table to enjoy the advertised drinks together. As the female model mainly talked, the participant鈥檚 role was to listen to her but the participant could control the view of the ad.

With respect to the two conditions of VRS, in the absence condition, the VR ad did not display any part of the VRS. The absence condition could be likened to experience a floating head. The scene was viewed from the first person perspective and the participant could control the view. However, the participant鈥檚 body was not seen in the ad. In the presence condition, the VR ad displayed part of the VRS on the screen. Viewers became part of the content such that they could see their virtual body from neck to toe within the VR ad. In addition, the part of the body in the ad was a pre-set feature (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. VR ad used in the VRS condition. The users could see their VRS鈥檚 hands and legs. Source: Dr. Hayeon Song.

Apparatus

Smartphone

Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphones were used in the smartphone condition. Participants were instructed to watch the VR ad on YouTube in a full-screen mode.

Computer

A desktop computer installed with a VR media player named 鈥淕OM player鈥 was used in the computer condition. Participants were instructed to watch the VR ad on this particular media player in a full-screen mode.

HMD

Commercial VR headsets produced by Samsung, called Samsung Gear VR, were used in the HMD condition. The VR ad was played on the Oculus mobile platform, which was made available when a smartphone and the VR headset were connected.

Procedure

After approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB), participants were invited to an experiment lab in the university. Upon arrival in the lab, participants were assigned to one of the six conditions, and research assistants provided a brief description of the study and procedure. Research assistants followed a script to ensure that each participant received the same instruction. Participants were instructed regarding how to use the assigned media device to watch the 360-degree view of the VR ad in their assigned condition. To help participants view the ad in various angles, they were instructed to move the smartphone itself (the smartphone condition), to drag with a mouse (the computer condition), or to turn around their head (the HMD condition). Participants were also instructed to stay seated while the ad was playing and asked to raise their hand if they had any questions or problems. After watching the assigned VR ad, they were asked to complete a questionnaire about their experiences.

Measures

The questionnaire included items measuring the following variables. Liking the ad ( = .94) was measured with four items including one item from Aaker and Stayman (1990) and three items developed for the context of this study (鈥淚 think this ad is well made,鈥 鈥淚 want to recommend this ad to my friends,鈥 and 鈥淚 want to watch other similar ads.鈥). Attitude toward the advertised brand ( = .89) was measured with five items adopted from Mitchell and Olson (1981) (e.g. bad-good, dislike very much-like very much, unpleasant-pleasant, low quality-high quality, and unfavorable-favorable). Responses were obtained on a 7-point semantic differential scale. Intention to purchase the advertised product ( = .89) was assessed by three items adopted from Lee, Park, and Song (2005) (e.g. 鈥淚 will consider buying this product, 鈥淚 will try this product next time,鈥 and 鈥淚 am going to buy this product next time.鈥). Self-presence ( = .92) was measured with three items adapted from Jin and Park (2009) (e.g. 鈥淚 felt like as if I was sitting in the chair as the main model did,鈥 鈥淚 felt like as if I was there while watching the ad,鈥 and 鈥淚 felt as if I was there.鈥). Responses for liking the ad, intention to purchase, and self-presence were obtained on a 7-point Likert scale (1鈥=鈥塶ot at all; 7鈥=鈥塿ery much).

Results

The effects of media devices and VRS

A series of ANCOVA tests were conducted to examine the effects of media devices (RQ1a-c) and the effects of presence/absence of VRS (RQ2a-c) on VR ad experiences. Because the virtual self in the VR ads was set as a male, participants鈥 gender was selected as a covariate to prevent any potential gender effects. The presence/absence of VRS was dummy coded (0鈥=鈥塸resence of VRS, 1鈥=鈥塧bsence of VRS).

The first analysis was conducted on the outcome variable of liking the ad (RQ1a, RQ2a). The results showed no significant difference across the three media device conditions, F(2, 189) = .52, n.s., [smartphone (M鈥=鈥5.28, SD鈥=鈥1.55); computer (M鈥=鈥4.92, SD鈥=鈥1.50); HMD (M鈥=鈥5.15, SD鈥=鈥1.61)]. However, there was a significant main effect of VRS, F(1, 189) = 10.68, p < .001, p 2 = .053. Individuals in the VRS-absent condition (M鈥=鈥5.41, SD鈥=鈥1.44) reported stronger liking than those in the VRS-present condition (M鈥=鈥4.81, SD鈥=鈥1.60). No significant interaction effect was detected, F(2, 189) = .30, n.s. (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. The effect of media device and virtual self on liking the ad.

Another ANCOVA test was performed on attitude toward the advertised brand (RQ1b, RQ2b). Results demonstrated no significant difference across the media devices, F(2, 186) = .60, n.s., [smartphone (M鈥=鈥5.15, SD鈥=鈥1.18); computer (M鈥=鈥4.92, SD鈥=鈥1.14); HMD (M鈥=鈥5.18, SD鈥=鈥1.05)]. However, there was a significant main effect of VRS, F(1, 186) = 4.80, p < .05, p 2 = .025. Individuals in the VRS-absent condition (M鈥=鈥5.23, SD鈥=鈥1.08) reported a more positive attitude toward the brand than those in the VRS-present condition (M鈥=鈥4.92, SD鈥=鈥1.16). Additionally, no significant interaction effect was found, F(2, 186) = .94, n.s. (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. The effect of media device and virtual self on brand attitude.

The last ANCOVA test was conducted on intention to purchase the advertised product (RQ1c, RQ2c). No significant difference was found across media devices, F(2, 189) = 2.10, n.s., [smartphone (M鈥=鈥4.37, SD鈥=鈥1.74); computer (M鈥=鈥3.93, SD鈥=鈥1.71); HMD (M鈥=鈥4.58, SD鈥=鈥1.55)]. Also, there was no significant main effect of VRS, F(1, 189) = 1.16, n.s., between the VRS-absent condition (M鈥=鈥4.39, SD鈥=鈥1.71) and VRS-present condition (M鈥=鈥4.16, SD鈥=鈥1.67). There was no significant interaction effect, F(2, 189) = .13, n.s. (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. The effect of media device and virtual self on intention to purchase.

The mediation effects of self-presence

RQ3a-c investigated how self-presence would mediate the association between VRS and VR ad experiences: liking the ad (RQ3a), attitude toward the advertised brand (RQ3b), and intention to purchase the advertised product (RQ3c). In order to answer RQ3a-c, a series of PROCESS (model #4) (Hayes 2013) were performed. This method uses a bootstrapping approach, and the procedure is based on 5,000 bootstrap sample. Results were interpreted based on the 95% confidence interval (CI). As mentioned earlier, participants鈥 gender was controlled for in the analyses.

As for liking the ad (RQ3a), results showed that self-presence mediated the association between absence of VRS and liking the ad (indirect effect = .36, Boot SE = .13; CI = [0.13, 0.63]). Absence of VRS, compared to presence of VRS, fostered stronger self-presence (a = .73), with self-presence being associated with more liking of the ad (b = .50).

With respect to attitude toward the advertised brand (RQ3b), results revealed that self-presence mediated the association between absence of VRS and attitude (indirect effect = .23, Boot SE = .09; CI = [0.08, 0.42]). Absence of VRS led to stronger self-presence (a = .76), with self-presence being associated with more favorable attitude (b = .30).

As for intention to purchase the advertised product (RQ3c), results demonstrated that self-presence mediated the association between absence of VRS and intention (indirect effect = .33, Boot SE = .12; CI = [0.12, 0.58]). Absence of VRS led to stronger self-presence (a = .73), with self-presence being associated with stronger intention (b = .45). In all, the findings indicate the mediating role of self-presence. Specifically, absence of VRS increased the feeling of self-presence, and it led to stronger levels of liking the ad, favorable attitude toward the advertised brand, and intention to purchase the advertised product.

Discussion

The present study investigated the effects of media devices and VRS on VR ad experiences and the underlying mechanism in this association via a theoretical lens of self-presence. We discuss primary findings of the study, implications and contributions, and future research directions below.

Primary findings

The study found that media devices for viewing VR ad did not matter in participants鈥 VR ad experiences. As the results for RQ1a-c indicate, viewing with a smartphone, computer, or HMD did not reveal significant differences on liking the ad, brand attitude, and purchase intention. Some may assume that VR headsets (i.e. HMD) compared to smartphones or computers would lead to more favorable experiences, as they are more advanced technology and often presumed to provide more immersive media experience. Yet, the current study鈥檚 findings demonstrate that such assumption is not true. In fact, although the outcome variables are different, this finding is in line with previous studies which showed that media devices did not create any significant differences on users鈥 physiological responses (Wiederhold, Davis, and Wiederhold 1998) and task performance (Slater, Alberto, and Usoh 1995). It is true that extant literature has been inconclusive about the effects of media devices as conflicting findings have been documented in diverse sets of studies (Fonseca and Kraus 2016; MacQuarrie and Steed 2017; Yim et聽al. 2018). In this respect, a contribution of the present study to the literature is that it offers more sophisticated evidence suggesting that viewing a 360-degree video itself may provide immersive experiences, yet the device to view the 360-degree video is not as important as it is commonly assumed.

It is notable that the effects of media devices were somewhat different across the outcome variables. Although the score differences between the devices were not significant as described above, it is possible to see a general pattern (see Figures 2鈥4). In all cases, the computer condition had the lowest score, but for the outcome variable of liking the ad, the score of the smartphone condition was higher than that of the HMD condition. In contrast, for the outcome variable of intention to purchase, the score of HMD condition was higher than that of the smartphone condition. In the case of the outcome variable of brand attitude, the magnitude of the two conditions was different depending on the existence of VRS. These findings show that there could be still some room for VR headsets to further increase intention to purchase along with the technology鈥檚 future development and utilization.

Another primary finding of this study is that the use of VRS may not be an effective strategy in some cases. As found in the results for RQ2a-b, absence of VRS induced more liking of the ad and more favorable attitude toward the advertised product compared to presence of VRS. Bandura (1977, 2001) claimed that observational learning could be influenced by the observer鈥檚 perceived level of identification with the model. Specifically, when people perceive the model to be similar to themselves, they tend to have effective learning experiences (Fox and Bailenson 2009). However, in the present study, VRS was not tailored for each individual, which might create psychological distance between the individual and VRS. In this scenario, the study鈥檚 finding is in line with previous studies which demonstrated that customers in a non-targeted group were difficult to persuade and they tended to show negative experiences such as distraction, irritation, or offense (Lipman 1991; Star 1989).

Most VR ads create engaging content and experiences, which help users feel integrated into the experience rather than passively watching the content or others鈥 experiences. In this sense, one may consider inviting users into VR ads by incorporating VRS in the ad content. However, the current study suggests that if VRS cannot be personalized for each user to look similar to the user, it would be better not to use it. Although technology allows to create personalized VRS, this task takes much time, effort, and cost. Therefore, using a standardized VR ad without VRS would be a cost-effective marketing strategy, especially when targeting mass audience. It should be noted, however, that the present study is not incongruent with previous studies鈥 finding that resemblance of VRS to a customer鈥檚 appearance would facilitate more favorable experiences in VR content (Ahn and Bailenson 2011; Fox, Bailenson, and Binney 2009; Hershfield et聽al. 2011; Song et聽al. 2013). Rather, the present study highlights that VRS could be effective only when VR ads are personalized to each customer.

Lastly, the present study found that self-presence had a significant mediating effect on VR ad experiences, suggesting that the reason for VRS鈥 effect on people鈥檚 VR ad experiences is related to the feeling of self-presence. In fact, the mediating role of self-presence has been documented in the extant research, which addresses the connection between VRS and virtual experiences (Song, Kim, and Lee 2014). What is unique in the present study鈥檚 findings is that absence of VRS fostered to stronger self-presence, which consequently enhanced positive VR ad experiences. Put another way, the finding indicates that presence of VRS interrupted the feeling of self-presence. The finding can be understood by the association between self-presence and embodiment. Self-presence is the feeling of one鈥檚 self being located in a virtual environment, and it does not require a body representation in the form of an avatar. Lee (2004) indicates that virtual self can be either physically manifested (whole or partial body) or psychologically assumed (without body). When the virtual self is psychologically assumed, 鈥渁 virtual environment reacts to users as if they were in there (e.g. first-person perspective game, other people greeting you by name)鈥 (Lee 2004, p. 40). In this respect, the present study鈥檚 finding provides an important implication that the association between the feeling of self-presence and having a physically manifested VRS may not be always positive, especially, if VRS was not tailored toward the user. It is in parallel with the findings of previous studies (Hou et聽al. 2012; Jin 2010; Song, Peng, and Lee 2011).

Implications and contributions

The aforementioned findings have important implications. First, the finding that media devices do not matter in VR ad experiences suggests that ad companies may not need to invest in the advanced technology to promote their products in 360-degree VR ads. Although VR campaigns that provide customers with VR experiences with high quality HMDs may attract people鈥檚 attention, the present study鈥檚 findings show that VR experiences with a smartphone or computer would be as effective as VR experiences with a HMD, but at a lower cost.

The finding on VRS also implies that promoting in-store VR ad campaigns, as conducted by a shoes company, TOMS, could be a worthwhile strategy in order to maximize the positive effects of non-personalized VRS. That is, making an effort to be part of an in-store promotional event itself may create a stronger sense of involvement and engagement compared to watching an ad at home. Thus, although VRS might not be personalized to each individual, inviting people to a store for VR ad experiences would be an effective marketing strategy.

Additionally, a notable contribution of the present study is that it utilized various media devices enhancing ecological validity in conducting the experiment. There have been few studies thus far which employed available media devices to look into the impacts of VR ads. By providing ad practitioners with first-hand evidence regarding the effects of VR ads, the present study offers future directions of utilizing VR technology beyond untested assumptions in implementing VR ad campaigns.

Limitations and directions for future research

There are a few limitations to be noted. First, the current study examined VR ad with a 360-degree feature that can be viewed with different devices including smartphone, computer, and HMD. However, it is unclear whether the study鈥檚 findings can be also applicable to VR ad with a highly advanced technology that allows interactive tailoring for each user. Another important point to note is that VRS tested in this experiment was an actual human model in the pre-recorded 360-degree video. It is close to passive watching as a user had no control over movements or behaviors of VRS. However, having an animated avatar as VRS may lead to different experiences than passively watching a pre-recorded human model, as the user can often control an animated avatar鈥檚 body movement. Thus, it should be noted that the findings of the present study might be limited to human VRS in a 360-degree video only, not to animated avatars in VR content created with computer graphic design.

Second, the study鈥檚 findings are limited to the first-person perspective only. Past studies indicate that experiences with the third-person perspective and the first-person perspective would provide different virtual experiences (Petkova, Khoshnevis, and Ehrsson 2011). Thus, VR ad using the third-person perspective may not show the same patterns of the findings identified in the present study.

Lastly, it is important to consider potential individual differences drawn from experiences with 360-degree videos. Although varying degrees of technology have been incorporated in people鈥檚 daily life, some may not be still familiar with 360-degree videos and they may not be exposed to VR ads quite often. Thus, in-store, in-person based marketing strategies can be a good way to provide customers with opportunities to view 360-degree videos and to develop familiarity with this new method of experiencing ads. Perhaps, in-store campaigns can further incorporate a smartphone option in addition to a HMD to allow customers to use their own smartphone to view VR ads. It implies that media competency should be considered when VR ads are used. Given that little is known in this area, the current study calls for more empirical studies.

Conclusion

Despite these limitations, the present study contributes to the study of VR ads in relation to the effect of media devices and the theoretical concepts of VRS and self-presence. Unlike the common assumption that advanced technology, VR ad via HMD in the present study, would bring positive effects in promoting effectiveness of ads, the present study revealed that it might not be a universal proposition. More detailed customization, by and large, could play a more essential role in enhancing liking the ads, brand attitude, and intention to purchase than the advanced technology itself. These findings offer both theoretical and practical implications. In order to validate and elaborate the present study鈥檚 findings, more empirical studies are called for.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Hayeon Song

Hayeon Song (Ph.D., University of Southern California) is a professor in the Department of Interaction Science at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, South Korea. Her primary research interest is to investigate ways to use new media (e.g., artificial intelligence, robots, games, social media, mobile phones, etc.) as persuasive and educational vehicle for health promotion. Her broader research areas include media psychology, health communication, and human-computer interaction.

Jihyun Kim

Jihyun Kim (Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) is an Associate Professor in the Nicholson School of Communication and Media at the University of Central Florida, USA. Her primary research is focused on the effects and implications of new media/communication technologies for meaningful outcomes (e.g., education, health). Her research also explores human-machine communication in diverse contexts.

Thao P.H. Nguyen

Thao P. H. Nguyen (M.S., Gachon University) is a Ph.D. student in the Human Resource Studies program at Cornell University. Her major interests focus on discovering the impact of technology in the workplace on HR practices and employee experiences. She is particularly interested in virtual teams and leadership, especially how geographical dispersion and reliance on technological communication shape team dynamics and performance, and what virtual leaders should do to lead effectively.

Kwan Min Lee

Kwan Min Lee (Ph.D., Stanford University) is the inaugural Korea Foundation Professor in Contemporary Korean Society and New Media, and the Director of UX (User Experience) Lab at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). His research interests are UX (User Experience) innovation, social and psychological effects of ICT (Information and Communication Technologies), and human-machine interaction. He is an associate editor of Computers in Human Behaviors.

Namkee Park

Namkee Park (Ph.D., University of Southern California) is a professor in the Department of Communication at Yonsei University, South Korea. His research interests include social psychological implications of communication technologies including human-computer interaction (HCI) and computer-mediated communication (CMC).

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Appendix

VR ad with absence of VRS:

VR ad with presence of VRS: