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Deception in Weight Loss Product Advertising: Impact on Consumers

Info: 11518 words (46 pages) Dissertation
Published: 10th Dec 2019

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Tagged: MarketingFood and NutritionAdvertising


As of 2014, more than 35% of American men are obese and 40% of the obese population is women (Flegal, Kruszon-Moran, Carroll, Fryar & Ogden, 2016). The desire of controlling body weight in the United States is well observed in many studies. A CDC survey conducted in 1996 revealed that the number of Americans trying to lose weight has been close to 66% and the figure is expected to increase (Serdula et al., 1999). As Guth (2014) pointed out, a key to healthy weight loss is having a nutritious diet with a combination of regular exercise. Experts agree that the ideal weight loss is 1 or 2 pounds per week. As much as the guidelines provided by the experts sound doable, people rarely have the patience or endurance to follow the health routine. When people are determined to lose weight, most people desire to achieve their goals quickly. As a result, one of the most popular and common regimens for people with weight problem is taking non-prescription drugs or over-the-counter weight loss products (Pilliteri et al, 2008). Supported by the statistics, the market for dietary supplements is growing rapidly. People spend approximately $33 billion dollars on weight loss products in the United States annually (Nutrition & weight management, 2014).

It is the accessibility and availability of dietary supplements in comparison to the prescription drugs that made dietary supplements more appealing (Austin 1998; Miller et al., 2000). It is suggested that prevalence of dietary supplements contributes to the increasing rates of overweight and obese population for the past few decades (Ogden et al., 2006). To investigate the status of weight loss products and their portrayals in media, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) conducted a study on different platforms that feature advertisements for the weight loss products. The results are somewhat alarming showing that nearly 40% of the advertisements are determined to be deceptive or misleading (Deception in weight-loss advertising workshop, 2003: refer to FTC 2003).

Due to the nature of product category and the choice of media channel the advertisers choose (i.e., print magazine and newspaper), magazines have been a popular medium among advertisers for promoting weight loss products (Cutilli, 2010; Maibach et al, 2006; Dutta-Bergman, 2004). Although the ads featuring weight loss products can be found in different platforms, magazines use visual images most for attention (Cutler Javalgi & Erramsilli, 1992; Bulmer & Buchanan-Oliver, 2004). As a result, deception is often found in forms of visuals. Using various visual tactics, advertisers could manipulate the images in the ad. In fact, it is a common practice for advertisers to use before/after photos to show a dramatic change of the bodies or use a celebrity showing off their perfectly toned body claiming that such results are byproducts of the advertised product (FTC, 2002). It is suggested that impact of magazine ad exposure is particularly detrimental on consumers indicating that that there is an inverse relationship between the number of exposures to weight loss product ads and the likelihood of attempting to lose weight with exercise (Cawley, Avery & Eisenberg, 2013). When investigating the visual deception found in weight loss product advertisements, there were two elements that are prominent yet rarely explored; visual complexity and visual contrast.

The purpose of this study is to investigate visual deception commonly found on weight loss product advertising and how such deception affects consumers’ (visual) perception, attitude and behavior toward the products.  Based on previous literature, perception, attitudes and behavior can change after exposure to an advertisement that is often designed to persuade people using some type of deception (Moore & Hutchinson, 1983). In other words, when no additional information is given in the ad, visual deception implemented in the ad can send meanings luring consumers to think that drastic change can be easily obtained using the advertised products. More specifically, a presence of visual manipulation (with different combination) can make people think the visual claims (i.e., before/after photo) perfectly match the verbal argument or that claim sounds realistic even if supporting information is lacking. Other visual manipulations are also possible including using specific layout, deliberately implementing a specific level of visual complexity or visual contrast (Pilelienė & Grigaliūnaitė, 2016).

Despite the prevalent usage of visual cues in advertisements, the importance and necessity of regulating visual information is often disregarded. The emphasis of regulation on visual information is based on the argument that visual messages are often superior to verbal message in persuading people and promoting products (Richards & Zakia, 1981). According to Richards and Zakia, it is also important to note that consumers can be influenced more by visual cues than verbal cues because visual elements are closely related to psychological values. As we have witnessed from the ephedra supplement incident, scholars argued that the number of misleading and false advertisements has increased due to the absence of strict regulation on weight loss products (Sopher, 2004).

Studies have shown that repeated exposure to a stimulus can influence consumers’ behavior that is line with the messages (Zajonc, 1968). In other words, audience’s behavior can be influenced by mere exposure to an advertisement. This study will offer insight to visual manipulation used in weight loss product advertisements and the impact of this manipulation on people’s perceptions, attitudes and behavior. The findings from the study will offer several implications. The study aims to provide the mechanism of visual deception found in weight loss product ads that can easily be dismissed by public when exposed to the ads without scrutiny. By doing so, the public can be better educated regarding deceptive advertising promoting weight loss products as studies have shown that educating the danger of deceptive advertising is beneficial to many consumers (Cawley, Avery & Eisenberg, 2013). In addition, the study can also be used to inform policy makers regarding advertising for weight loss products or non-description over-the-counter drugs as the current policy and regulation is oriented more toward the verbal message rather than looking in to the overarching messages including visual messages.

The characteristics of weight loss products that are different from other supplementary products will be closely examined to provide basic information about the product being advertised in this study. The current status of regulation about the product sales and advertisements will be discussed to give an idea why the advertisements about weight loss products pose many problems. The role of media regarding the exposure to the weight product advertisements will offer insights as to why print magazines are chosen and how the medium will utilize visual deception deliberately. After the description of product category and background of media heavily used by advertisers, the paper will introduce visual manipulation often used in weight loss product advertisement. A list of elements discussed in literature about visual deception will guide how the researcher came up with two independent variables, visual complexity and visual contrast. Several elements including gender and individual differences that influence the extent to which the independent variable has impact on the dependent variables will be followed. Finally, the paper attempts to provide the relationships between visual deception and consumers’ perceptual, attitudinal and behavioral decisions by examining evidence found in literature.

Literature Reviews

Weight loss products

According to FDA, using a definition by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, dietary supplement refers to products that include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, herbs, animal extracts and probiotics in forms of pill, power or liquid (Dietary supplements, 2017). A study about weight loss products collected from retail stores revealed that although the details of claims vary by products, the top ten claims found among the samples can be classified as followed: weight loss/burning fat/cellulite reduction, accelerated metabolism/energy burning, appetite reduction, blocks fat/accelerates transit, blocks carbohydrates/enhances glucose metabolism, preserves muscle mass/increase definition, all other assorted claims, improve digestion or pH and diuretic, respectively (Sharpe et al., 2006, p.2047).  In addition, out of 402 samples collected, about two-third of the samples had some types of warning labels on the products.

A study by Blanck et al. (2007) suggested that majority of people who have been a long-term users of weight loss products do not consult with their physicians. This finding is particularly disturbing given the fact that many of the weight loss products contain substances that stimulate.  It is possible that people might get most of the relevant information about the weight loss products from the materials they read from the magazines or at a point of purchase. Although extensive research shows that there is no conclusive evidence pointing a short term or long term of risk using dietary supplements for weight loss (Blanck et al., 2007), usage of certain words including “natural” can mislead consumers regulating the safety of the weight loss products (Saper, Eisenberg & Phillips, 2004)

Out of the seven percent of adults who have used over the counter weight-loss products, 28% of the users were identified as young women who are overweight (Blanck, Khan & Serdula, 2001). Saper et al. noted that the reasons people use dietary supplements vary including “appeal of a natural remedy, less demanding lifestyle changes, easy accessibility, availability and quick solution”.


The two key organizations that take legal responsibility over weight loss products are the Federal Trade Commissions (FTC) and the Food Drug Administration (FDA). While the FTC is responsible for advertising regarding the over the counter drugs (OTC) and dietary supplements, the FDA holds firms accountable for labeling OTC and dietary supplements along with prescription drugs (FDA, n.d.). Mainly, the FTC has authority to intervene in a situation when advertising is deemed to make claims that are false or deceptive. Expected measures taken by the FTC can be temporary suspension or permanent cessation of the ads along with stop on production of the advertised products (Lellis, 2016). From the investigation from FTC about misleading advertising of weight loss products, there are seven claims commonly found on the advertisements (FTC, 2003b). Many of the claims include statements suggesting the possibility of substantial amounts of weight loss without exercise or healthy eating while the weight loss is permanent and easily obtainable for everyone.

According to the FTC, the organization’s goal is to protect consumers. Its mission statement claims that it aims to protect consumers from deceptive and unfair business practices (What we do, 2004). The defined statement provided by the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTCA) states that the jurisdiction of the act includes not only the false advertisements themselves, but also the media that carry the problematic advertisements (Galloway, 2003).

Scholars have argued that print magazines have been a prominent medium for delivering information of weight loss products as people often refer magazines for health information (Cutilli, 2010; Maibach et al, 2006; Dutta-Bergman, 2004).  The strength of magazine on influencing people about their evaluation of body and body satisfactions are well described in a study by Turner, Hamilton, Jacobs, Angood and Dwyer (1997) that exposure to magazine ad made people feel less satisfied with their body than when they were exposed to ads in newspapers.

Since dietary supplements that include weight loss products are classified as food by the FDA, the regulation of weight loss products is not as strict as prescription drugs (Dwyer, Allison & Coates, 2005). As Dwyer et al. argued, weight loss products are considered safe unless evidence supports otherwise. It is the manufacturers who hold a sole responsibility of securing safety regarding the products they are marketing. The risk associating with consuming weight loss products that contain unknown and untested botanical ingredients has been raised by many scholars (Dwyer et al., 2005). In fact, Ephedra, a popular ingredient that was used in many of weight loss products in the United States, contains “ephedrine alkalodis”, a form of active ingredient extracted from plants (Soni, Carabin, Griffiths & Burdock, 2004). According to Samenuk et al. (2002), more than 900 cases with toxicity regarding ephedra were reported from 1995 to 1997 with 80 deaths caused by the ingredient from 1997 to 2004.

Despite the need of consolidated organization to regulate weight loss products, the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) attenuated the power of the FDA (Galloway, 2003). The act separates the regulation of dietary supplement from the FDA’s jurisdiction by removing a pre-approval process required before launching a dietary supplement in market. In other words, before the DSHEA, manufacturers producing a dietary supplement, including weight loss products were required to get an approval by the FDA prior to launching. That way, consumers’ safety was more protected by the FDA as the organization goes through a series of steps before approving the product. However, after enacting the DSHEA, the FDA has no control over safety before the products make to the market. It is only after the products are proven or suspended of being dangerous that the FDA can step in to take an action making consumers more vulnerable to the risky products.

Exposure to weight loss product advertisements

Studies show that only small number of people in America has faith in health claims made in advertisements (Sugarman & Morin, 1992). In addition, less than one-fifth of people in America find the health claims in advertising accurate (Mueller, 1991). However, scholars agreed that such skepticism toward health claims contradicts with the public’s purchase behavior that many people are manipulated by the inaccurate information provided by the advertisers (Mazis & Raymond, 1997). The prevalence of advertisements about diet and weight loss products poses a great danger even to the people with average weight who were exposed to increasing number of adverting promoting unrealistic goals for many people (Kim & Lennon, 2006).  It is because advertising can create hope by enhancing perceived importance of something (Rossiter & Percy, 1991). In other words, it is suggested that people who are exposed to advertisements claiming that slimmer body can make them healthier can perceive losing weight more relevant and important as the hope creates possibility of achieving higher level of goals (MacInnis & De Mello, 2005).

The current trend in Western culture shows a shift of idealized body championed by most women from being curvy, yet more realistic body shapes to slim, ill looking body shape (Garner & Garfinkel, 1980) that are rather unrealistic and unhealthy. Such a shift in perception of perfect or desirable body shape is attributed to women’s desire for slim figures (Koenig & Wasserman, 1995). In turn, such desire often results in extreme measures of losing weight through diet pills and other quick solutions using dietary supplements. Women’s desire to be thin and socially acceptable has a strong association with their dissatisfaction with their bodies. Their willingness to achieve the goals that are rather hard to obtain especially in a short term made the consumption of weight loss product more appealing and desirable. For scholars, trying to lose weight or dieting is natural for many Americans who find having bodies that are socially acceptable is a way of fitting in a society they live in (Emmons, 1992).

Role of media

Despite the inconsistent and inconclusive evidence pinpointing a direct link between role of media and misleading information about weight loss product, scholars concur that to some extent, media should share the blame for promoting unhealthy behavior of women who desire to lose weight (Harrison, 2001). A report by FTC (2002) showed that approximately 40% of the ads in their samples could be classified as false advertising with certainty while a greater rate (55%) was reported for advertisements with a high likelihood of the claims being false or lacking substantial evidence. In a similar vein, approximately 40% of all magazines featuring weight loss products from 1985 to 2007 are believed to have at least one deceptive statement (Cawley, Avery & Eisenberg, 2011).

One of the examples of negative effects of media messages is that many of commercials and advertisements about weight loss products claim that rapid change to body shape is easily attainable making a false claim about body transformation (Palmer, 1999). Another aspect is that exposure to a greater number of articles in the media about dieting increases a sense of social pressure and sends a message that losing weight and having a thin body is socially desirable (Fallon & Rozin, 1985). This suggests that even without deceptive statements found on weight loss product advertisements, increasing the frequency of such exposure negatively influences the perception toward their body and ideas about losing weight. In other words, media has direct and indirect impact on public’s ideas about ideal body shape and dieting.

Medium for Weight loss products

Print magazines. Despite ever growing popularity of newer medium such as the Internet and SNS, print magazines still hold a strong position as an important medium. It is estimated that the revenue of print magazine ads in 2017 was approximately $ 7.8 billion dollars (Pivotal Research, 2017). In their study, Ryu, Suh and Dozier (2009) examined five design elements of print advertisement including brand logo, headline, body text, image of product and human model. Their findings showed that the longest fixation was observed for the image of human model followed by the product image, headline, body text and brand logo. However, the study also found that the headline received the highest score for looking time and numbers of fixation when the surface size of each design elements was taking into a consideration. In sum, the researchers suggested that pictorial information (e.g., the image of model and product) was effective at grabbing attention, while textual information such as headline still serves as an important role when the surface size was considered.

Out of 647 magazine advertisements tested from 1985 to 2007, 421 ads featuring weight loss products contained at least one deceptive statements (Cawley, Avery & Eisenberg, 2011). The authors found that the vast majority of the advertisements came from major fashion/lifestyle magazines specifically targeting female audience. For example, the top two magazines account more than 70% of the deceptive statements are Cosmopolitan (49.2%) and Glamor (21.9%). Scholars frequently choose print magazine to examine the portrayals of weight loss product advertisements for various reasons. One of the reasons is that magazine is an excellent medium to target specific audience with specific messages that are structured and maneuvered by advertisers (Slater & Roche, 1995). The consistency in message frame and advertising techniques makes print magazine a great tool for advertisers. Repeated exposure to weight loss products contribute to influence consumers’ behavior regarding health lifestyle as mere exposure to such advertisements have a manipulative power on audience as people tend to follow the similar behavior suggested by the ad (Zajonc, 1968).

A meta-analysis done by Abernethy and Franke (1996) explored categories of information content provided on advertisements. Their study found that out of major media explored including TV, newspaper, magazine, outdoor and radio, magazine advertising provided the highest number of information cues. The cues include price, quality, availability and so on. Despite the information richness of magazines in comparison to the rest of the media, magazines were not different from other media in terms of information about safety and nutrition. In other words, there are plethora of information about other aspects of products in magazine, the amount of risk information about the product is not statistically different in magazines suggesting that although magazines provide much product information, this is not necessarily risk information that indicates hazard of using or abusing weight loss products.

The credibility of the message delivered in each medium is perceived with varying degrees of persuasion (Choi & Rifon, 2001). Moore and Rodgers (2005) found that print media (e.g., newspaper and magazines) are perceived most credible. The authors attributed the reason to the magazine being a highly visual medium. They argue that the reason print medium are viewed more favorably in terms of credibility is perceived attempt to persuade the audience. In other words, people find television and Internet advertising trying harder to persuade consumers as they both use visual and auditory while print medium rely heavily on visual aspects.

Unlike a prevalent belief that a higher number of ideal female body type will be featured in health/fitness magazines (including cover and editorial contents), Conlin and Bissell (2014) found that the representation of ideal female body was equally spread out on both types of magazines. Even on the health/fitness magazines, being thin and slim was portrayed as healthy. The authors also suggested that exposure to the contents of the magazine that consumers actively chose based on their interest and lifestyle can send negative message to those audience that thin and slim bodies are more desirable although the goals are unrealistic and not easily obtainable.

Visual study in relevant fields

It is apparent that we are living in a world where visual orientation is dominant (Chang, 2013; Messris, 1994).  Research topics related to visual orientation in communication are not new, but there is growing popularity among health communication scholars (Rootman & Hershfield, 1994). The increased popularity is partly because pictures have been dominant elements in health campaigns promoting healthy behaviors (Berry, McCarville & Rhodes, 2008; Gold, Cohen & Shumate, 2008). Babin and Burns (1997) suggested that pictures possess the ability to evoke more vivid mental imagery in comparison to verbal information stating that advertising can be more effective if it has pictorial information that generate experience of using the product through the pictures.  Similarly, Chang (2013) argued that pictures can serve as a great tool to help people to image things when the imagery involves health problems that are either unpleasant or hard to imagine. She also noted that variety of images including pictures and photography made appearance in print advertisements in a form of brochures or flyers for education purpose.

The use of visual images in health communication can vary from increased attention to perceived risk and self-efficacy. Literature suggests that when health information is displayed in a form of picture of visual set, it is effective in creating imagery of negative effect for not following a healthy lifestyle (McCaul, Mullens, Romanek, Erickson & Gatheridge, 2007) indicating that pictures increased one’s perceived risk perception in comparison to textual information (Lee, Cameron, Wünsche & Stevens, 2011). Other scholars also support the impact of pictorial information on risk perception and a belief that it is easier for people to assess the health risk when the information is presented visually rather than verbally (Zillmann & Brosius, 2000).

While various forms of pictorial information are available in print advertisements including illustration, photographs and animation, it is the photographic images that are believed to trigger most vivid imagery in people’s mind making the ad with photography more favorably (Miller & Stoica, 2003). It is rare to find print advertisements of weight loss products using visual images other than photography of real people. Considering most pictures found in weight loss product ads carry pictures of human model (e.g., before/after) or parts of body with problematic areas, the intention behind the vividness of such images is apparent. Due to the nature of weight loss products, using detailed and real-life figures rather than abstract and non-human model are common practices in the industry. The concern regarding such practice is that such photography is more powerful in triggering imagery about health benefits or claims made by advertisers than abstract or less concrete images (Chang, 2013).

As discussed earlier, pictures are often utilized to help people to imagine things that are less pleasant. For example, when negative consequences are expected from unhealthy behaviors, showing pictures of such outcomes may help people realize how risky the behavior can be. Chang’s study supported the argument that pictorial information can increase the perceived level of severity as well as perceived efficacy. This suggests the possibility that seeing the advertisements of weight loss products before taking the product in a form of unpleasant photo, the readers might think the problem presented there (being overweight) is much more serious than they thought and urge them to use the product to avoid the unpleasant and risky situation. At the same time, the ad can manipulate the readers to believe that such rapid transformation of the body can be easily achieved.

Chang’s (2013) study found that heavy reliance on visual was observed among certain population such that people with less education had greater preference for visual information than textual information and the tendency was more prominent when the information presented becomes more complex.  For the last few decades, there has been a growing emphasis on visual communication among communication scholars (McQuarrie & Mick, 2003). Many scholars believe that we are in an era where a form of communication is more leaning toward visual and less of textual (or verbal). It is because equal or greater effectiveness was found in visual communication in comparison to verbal communication in terms of communicating health information (Messaries, 1994; Rootman & Hershfield, 1994). In this regard, advertising campaigns promoting healthy behaviors often feature visual images as dominant message frames (Gold, Cohen & Shumate, 2008).

According to Moriarty (1985, 1986), visuals can be used in two ways and each group has sub-categories. First, visuals can be categorized as either literal or symbolic visuals.  In Donis’s (1973) definition, literal visuals are obtained from experiences while symbolic visuals are designed to replace complex ideas with a simpler visual form (Moriarty, 1985). Moriarty suggested that when visuals are used as brand or on the package, it serves as an identification and when visuals used as attributes or parts, it is called description. Using before and after is a way of using visual as comparison and testimonials of showing how products are used via visuals. Such practices are denoted as demonstration. Unlike the literal usages of visuals, they can also hold symbolic meanings. In this line of classification, visuals can serve as association (a link between the products with lifestyle), association with a character (i.e., celebrities), metaphor, storytelling and aesthetics (a form of art and aesthetic pattern).

While presence of before/after photos seems a mere addition of visual cue in the advertisement, studies have shown that by using before and after framing, advertisers can gain more than visual attention to the information. For instance, after people are exposed to the advertisement with before and after photos, the perceived level of efficacy of controlling body weight was increased (Geier, Schwartz & Brownell, 2003).  In other words, the exposure to the visual contrast of before and after photos made the respondents believe that they can control the body weight more easily than those who haven’t been exposed to such contrast.

Visual Information Processing

Visual perception. Visual deception starts from understanding how humans see and perceive things visually. The importance of vision in acquiring information about his or her environment is underscored by the fact that man acquires approximately two thirds of total information about their environment through the visual process (Overington, 1976). The acquisition of visual information is characterized by a series of processes including detection, recognition and identification. Overington also added that additional stimulus parameter such as size, shape and textures can affect the ability of man to detect and recognize the visual features. The complexity of visual cues is also believed to influence the duration of recognition as well as accuracy of recalled information (Intraub, 1979).

Based on more than three decades of research on the physiology of visual perceptions, Pieters and Wedel (2008) proposed six principles of eye tracking that are relevant to visual perception. Some of the key concepts to the principle are the relationship between eye movement and visual perception. They argue that the movement of eyeballs indicates that information sampling is active, but our awareness of such movement is limited. In addition, the perceptual field during eye fixation is narrow. Since such fixation is limited and narrow, such movements are highly associated with attention. According to Pieters and his colleague, attention is a key to ad processing. The key aspect of eye movement pertinent to visual perception and ad processing is that all the information in visual field is not attended to, and people are not necessarily aware of the aspect of information they attend to and as result, some elements are ignored. The authors claimed that it is the first fixation that gives most of the information contained in an ad supporting the importance of first glance or attention grabber.

In a similar vein, Spoehr and Lehmkuhle (1982) noted that our visual information processing system processes complex arrays of three dimensional objects. They also noted that we can recognize complex scenes and objects from pictures of them. A picture is a two-dimensional surface of limited sizes that represents or symbolizes three dimensional objects that may be of quite different sizes than their representations in the picture.

Picture superiority. The prevalence and preference of using pictures over verbal messages are well explored in communication. According to Paivio’s (1971;1978) dual coding theory, one of the earlier works of theories that support the notion of picture superiority effect, pictures can be coded and retrieved in a form of visual and verbal (dual) while verbal (texts) can only be stored and retrieved in the same form of initial coding. Therefore, information coded visually tends to be superior. Studies have shown that when people are exposed to advertising with pictures, the advertisements were remembered better (Starch, 1966; Shepard, 1967). Others also strived to explain the effect of pictures by looking at the emotional transfer through pictures. Mehrabian (1980) argued that pictures superiority exists due to their ability to deliver emotions when people evaluate brand attitudes.

Studies have shown that in comparison with verbal information, people can process information in pictures faster and the processing occurs more automatically (Luna & Peracchio, 2003; Paivio, 1971). This in turn results a faster association between pictures and their meanings making the information processing through pictures more direct. In addition to the difference in processing time, the way images or pictures are processed is distinct from verbal information. Hart (1997) suggested that images can be processed as a set or a unified form while verbal information is required to be processed in a certain order or sequentially. In a similar vein, pictures affect people’s ability to recall information such that including a visual stimulus in the advertising helps people to recall verbal information that is rather difficult for them to generate an imagery in their mind (Unnava & Burnkrant, 1991). In other words, pictures assist audience to recall verbal information that is relatively difficult to retrieve from single encoding. Pictures’ dual coding enabled people to assist recall of verbal information.

Although there are many forms of pictures available and used in the form of communication, more detailed pictures or pictures that evoke high imagery are believed to be more effective (Rossiter,1982). Rossiter also argues that there are a few rationales as to why more concrete and realistic pictures are more effective. According to him, the realistic pictures enable people to relate to the pictures they are seeing. By doing so, people can associate with more complex verbal information when relevant visual information is given.

Visual imagery. The role of vivid image and pictures demonstrating the plausible outcome of using the advertised product (i.e., losing weight rapidly) can also be explained by the evidence that visuals work conjunction with verbal image via dual coding process. While various forms of pictures can be used in the ad, pictures depicting concrete details of outcome (e.g., noticeable body weight around waist and thigh) have several benefits over less detailed and abstract images. It is suggested that concrete images are beneficial to create higher level of recall and association with real people (Paivio, 1969). A study by Babin and Burns (1997) revealed that using concrete images evoked vivid mental imagery. This in turn influenced consumers’ attitude toward advertising and brand. Studies support the notion that individual’s ability to process visual information can vary and it affects their ability form visual imagery as well as learning (Ernest, 1977). The significance of visual imagery in print advertisements is explored by many scholars stating that one’s preference to process information visually has a positive relationship with the attitude toward visually oriented information (Rossiter & Percy, 1978). It is partly due to the fact that visual imagery can serve as an argument when consumers are highly involved and motivated (Miniard et al.,1991).

ELM. The elaboration likelihood model (ELM) provides an organizing framework that is argued to be applicable to various source, message, recipient and context variables (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). The basic tenant of the model is the presence of two routes to persuasion: central and peripheral. Depending on a person’s motivation and ability, their elaboration likelihood will be either low or high, which in turn will determine a specific route through which persuasion may occur (Petty & Caioppo, 1983). The effect of the persuasion process is typically measured by attitudinal and behavioral effect. The premise of ELM is that when elaboration likelihood is high, information processing will occur via the central route. Resultant attitude formation, change or endurance is derived from extensive consideration of the message argument and will be more persistent and predictive of an individual’s subsequent behavior (Haugtvedt & Petty, 1989). On the other hand, when elaboration likelihood is low, information processing occurs vis the peripheral route. The peripheral route to persuasion requires little cognitive effort relying on peripheral cues such as source credibility and heuristics. As such, attitudes formed via the peripheral routes are relatively unaffected by message argument quality, are temporary in nature and are not as predictive of subsequent behavior as those formed using the central route (Petty & Cacioppo, 1983).

A tie between ELM and involvement lies on the fact that personal relevance to the product is highly associated with the extent of thought process for purchasing (Pettey & Cacioppo, 1983). In regards with visual attention, ads with more pictures are evaluated more favorably by low-involved viewers (Singh, 2006). There is also evidence that pictures are processed similarly to verbal information that both generate the same types of inferences (Smith, 1990). In addition, it is suggested that the gazing time on the product is a strong indicator of purchasing behavior as visual attention drawn from visual elements featured on product display is more likely to affect purchase intention (Armel & Rangel, 2008; Clement, Kristensen, & Grønhaug, 2013). More specifically, a study investigating the effect of involvement on visual attention revealed that all visual elements were viewed and evaluated by highly involved customers as those elements were served as central cues (Behe, Bae, Huddleston & Sage, 2015). In contrast, less involved customers spent less time looking at the information. This in turn indicates that visual elements are important to both highly involved and less involved people for different reasons. In other words, for those who are highly involved (e.g., those in market for weight loss products), visual information is as important as other information such as product detail written in verbal forms. To those who are less involved and are more likely to spend a few seconds on the information, visual information that is more noticeable and memorable at any given time is more likely to be read and recalled.

Taking the level of involvement into consideration in regards with visual information processing and visual perception, it is important to acknowledge that people are attached to products for different reasons (O’Class, 2000). The role of involvement in consumers’ behavior has been studied in the realm of media exposure and advertising messages (Park & Mittal, 1985; Mittal & Lee, 1989). A variety of conceptual definitions of involvement are available. For example, Greenwald and Leavitt (1984) suggested that when involvement is high, it refers to high personal relevance or importance while Mittal (1983) defined it as the one’s state of mind that determines the level of interest in a product. Since the conceptual definitions mentioned above are general, it is essential to make a distinction with product involvement and purchase involvement, two types of involvement. According to O’Class, product involvement is strictly related to product while purchase involvement is highly associated with the selection of brand. More specifically, product involvement is derived from consumers’ perception toward the product of interest. If consumers find the products that satisfy their needs and values, the level of product involvement is high and vice versa. In contrast, one’s effort and deliberation of brand selection determines the level of purchase involvement.

The literature supports a need for a clear distinction between product involvement and purchase involvement as they often occur separately or one can occur with the absence of the other (Mittal, 1989; O’Class, 2000). In addition, Mittal and O’Class noted that the relationship between the two involvements that usually product involvements occurs before purchase involvement making product involvement an antecedent. It is suggested that involvement can have important roles in many consumer behavior including interest in advertising and purchase behavior (Mittal 1983 and 1989; O’Class, 2000). The impact of two involvements, product and brand, can vary depending on the type of thought process required. For instance, the products that require more deliberation for purchasing or extensive thought process (O’Class, 2000). The thought process to trigger interest in advertising message, however, is more influenced by product involvement. A theoretical framework that is pertinent to the relationship between involvement and consumer behavior is the elaboration likelihood model (ELM).

Relevant pictures can increase issue-relevant elaboration (Childers & Houston, 1984) and have a greater impact on brand attitudes as involvement increases (Scott, 1994). The influence of both relevant and irrelevant pictures seemed to be heuristic or peripheral for low-involvement consumers while for highly involved consumers, relevant pictures can also prompt product-irrelevant thoughts which may undermine the persuasion effect (Peracchio & Meyers-Levy, 1997).  Since the presence of images or pictures or additional visual cues suggesting possible outcomes of using the advertised products can enhance relevance of products for consumers, the number of visual objects included in an ad can influence the information processing route.

Independent variables

For current study, the research includes two independent variables, visual complexity and visual contrast.   The results from Pilelienė and Grigaliūnaitė’s study (2016) show that more positive attitude toward the advertising was found when the respondents were exposed to the advertisements with high visual complexity while lower brand recall was found with high visual complexity. In turn, lower purchase intention could be expected with high visual complexity as brand recall is highly related to brand attitude as well as purchase intention. The authors suggest that the appropriate level of visual complexity can be determined by advertisers’ aim for the advertising. For example, if the aim is to increase brand attitude or brand awareness, lower visual complexity is more desirable while high visual complexity can be beneficial if consumers have positive attitude toward the brand.

Visual complexity.  Literature suggests that one’s looking time or gaze duration does not exceed more than 3 seconds for printed materials (Hutton & Nolte, 2011). Understanding the limited time for grabbing attention and competing with information clutter, advertisers need to make sure that their ads stand out from the crowd. Based on Berlyne’s (1971) theory on visual complexity, it is suggested that an intermediate level of visual complexity is most desirable and believed to yield the greatest effect for visual stimuli. However, other studies afterwards Berlyne’s work suggested that the preferred level of visual complexity can vary depending on stimuli and individual’s characteristics. For example, Nadal, Munar, Marty and Cela-Conde (2010) found that it is the type of visual stimuli that determines one’s preference for visual complexity. More specifically, Nadal and his colleagues used different types of stimuli, artistic images and non-artistic images. In their study, participants rated highly of the images with high visual complexity disputing the preference of intermediate visual complexity suggested by Berlyne. Despite the disagreement on the level of preferred visual complexity, Berlyne and Nadal et al.’s studies agree on the determinants of objective visual complexity. Nadal and his colleagues also confirmed that the number of elements is the most important and prominent predictor of visual complexity. In contrast, presence of diverse colors, elements or layout of objects did not have significant effect on ratings for visual complexity, which were predictors of visual complexity in Berlyne’s study (1968).

When design is considered, scholars often associate the concept with several elements such as complexity, unity, balance and symmetry (Creusen, Veyzer & Schoormans, 2010).  Complexity, for example, is one of a few elements that is considered to influence people’s first impression from visual stimuli. Berlyne (1971) and other scholars (Veryzer & Hutchinson, 1998) suggested that people prefer low complexity. The importance of design element is well observed from literature suggesting that the impact of aesthetic value of products go beyond the presentation of appearance. Studies have shown that appearance also influence how the product is perceived for its value and function (Creusen & Schoormans, 2005).  In other words, depending on the aesthetic value of the product design, the perceived value and easiness to use the product vary.

Along with visual complexity, the layout of visual objects serves similar functions to visual perception. A sense of symmetry is one of few elements that received great attention. According to Murdoch and Flurscheim (1983), symmetry can be defined as a state of order while Lauer (1979) sees symmetry as an equilibrium where both sides of an axis share the same balance. When symmetry is applied, it is believed to add a sense of uniqueness and appeal (Berlyne, 1971; Schmitt & Simonson, 1997). Although Creusen and his colleagues’ study (2010) found that people prefer low visual complexity with high symmetry, the study deals with complexity and symmetry, the visual complexity and symmetry in their study related to products rather than in advertising perspective. However, the study found that the importance of product values and preference for visual complexity and symmetry.

More specifically, the author found that when people value function and quality of the product more, they tend to prefer higher complexity while the opposite was true when aesthetics and other features such as ease of use were more valued. Similarly, when ease of use was priority for the subjects, the preference for lower symmetry was found. The findings suggest that one’s preference for symmetry and visual complexity depends of their priority over product value. In regards with weight loss products, it can be suggested that the female audience who read magazines for specific weight loss products that promise a quick aid for their weight loss are less concerned about having simple visuals or symmetry in layout. Rather, having before and after photos along with many other design elements coupled with false claims with added visual complexity and asymmetry might win the audience’s favor as their product value for the weight loss products is for functionality rather than aesthetic values.

Based on Attneave (1954) and Donderi (2006), visual complexity is highly related to the degree of redundancy in term of information embedded in advertisements. The less redundancy, the more complex the images get. Understanding difficulties of understanding and defining visual complexity, Pieters, Wedel and Batra (2010) classified visual complexity into two categories: feature complexity and visual complexity. In their study, feature complexity is defined by a number of elements including amount of visual detail, color and variation of details. The authors measured the feature complexity by looking at the amount of pixels in an image as a computer file with more details and variations in images require more memory and it has a larger file size. Depending on the presence of colors and variations of details including edges and background image, the feature complexity was measured in three levels: low, medium and high.

The second category of visual complexity is design complexity. A clear distinction between feature complexity and design complexity derives from the nature of image variation. While feature complexity is focused on unstructured variation, design complexity is associated with structured variations including presence of visual objects or layout of images in an advertisement. The authors noted that advertisers have a complete control over design complexity from the beginning of the advertising development. Berlyne (1958) and other scholars (Wertheimer, 1923; Attneave, 1954) suggested that there is a positive relationship between the level of design complexity and dissimilarity of visual objects featured in advertisement. The less similar of colors, size or shape of visual objects, the more complex the advertisements gets. In addition, Berlyne (1958) also added that similar relationship is found for irregularity of image and arrangement.

While the role of visual complexity on consumers’ evaluation of objects has been proven to be important by many studies (Reinecke et al., 2013), there are conflicting arguments as to which level of visual complexity is more desirable by consumers. For instance, Berlyne (1974) noted that an inverted U pattern describes the preference of visual complexity. More specifically, he argued that rather than extreme complexity, either high or low, moderate level of visual complexity is most preferred. Similar findings suggest that people find a moderate level of visual complexity more appealing (Geissler, Zinkhan & Watson, 2006). On the other hand, another study reported a linear relationship between positive impression and visual complexity stating that the respondents showed least favoritism toward websites with high visual complexity (Tuch, Presslaber, Stoecklin, Opwis & Bargas-Avila, 2012). Contrary to the findings above, Reinecke et al found that while high visual complexity was least liked by respondents, there were no difference between moderate and low visual complexity. In sum, it is safe to assume that high visual complexity is not desirable by consumers although more evidence is required to determine the clear distinction between and low and moderate visual complexity.

Advertisements for weight loss product often focus on persuading people about rapid weight loss by providing different types of claims including testimonials, statistics and before/after photos (FTC report, 2002), the variation in details may not be the focus of advertisers. Instead, the presence of certain images (e.g., before/after and celebrity endorsers) and layout might be treated more importantly by the advertisers. Therefore, the current study mainly focuses on design complexity as we are interested in identifying deliberate manipulation by advertisers to lure customers. The size of JPEG file with compressed pixel will be used as a part of visual complexity, added from feature complexity. The visual complexity is measured using the following elements developed by scholars in the early 20th century and adapted by Pieters, Wedel and Batra (2010).

1. Number of visual objects: As the number of visual object increases, the visual complexity gets higher (Palmer, 1999). However, the literature did not specify which specific number is used to distinguish the level. Since studies revealed that the maximum capacity of processing visual objects at once is three to four items, we set one visual object (except for the product) as low, 2 as medium and 3-4 items as high.

2. Arrangement (Symmetry vs. Asymmetry).Here, arrangement refers to the organization of visual information in an advertisement. Scholars have argued that the way information is arranged has a huge impact on persuasion. The order of arrangement is believed to influence the layout of visual elements and ultimately the flow of visual context (Scott, 1994). When images are arranged with asymmetry, the level of visual complexity increases. The basic principle of symmetric arrangement derives from the gestalt principle of symmetry (Wertheimer, 1923). Applying this concept, the arrangement of visual images even if the identical images are used will determine the level of visual complexity. In regards of preferred arrays, Berlyne (1966) argued that it is in our human nature that we find more complex or asymmetrical arrangements more appealing than simpler arrangements.

3. Color. Colors can affect people’s evaluation of objects in various ways. Emotional association, for instance, is one way of utilizing color in advertising. Adding specific colors, blue or green are said to add special meanings to advertising claims of cleaning power (Cohen, 1972). This in turn suggests that using certain colors can be used as means of misleading people at a subtle level. Aside from their roles in affecting people’s emotional state, it is suggested that color is an important element in influencing the level of visual complexity. Usage of various colors in a stimulus is believed to increase perceived level of visual complexity especially when the colors are contrasting in nature (Rosenholtz, Li & Nakano, 2007). Evaluation and impact of colors have been proven to be highly associated with demographic variables such as age and education level when a model taking visual complexity and colorfulness into consideration to predict consumers’ evaluation of website appeal (Reinecke et al, 2013). Many scholars believe that each color has a meaning and a different effect on individual’s feeling (Bellizzi & Hite, 1992). There are many ways to categorize colors, such as primary colors vs secondary colors and warm vs. cool colors.  It is suggested that warm colors generate to the feeling of excitement while the feeling of relaxation is expected when using cool colors (Kwallek, Lewis & Robbins, 1988). Although it is a common belief that choosing colors for advertisements are not based on theoretical frameworks, it is suggested that there is a logic behind why specific colors are chosen for advertisements. Kleppner (1979) believed that colors in advertisements are carefully chosen by advertisers in hopes of delivering symbolic meaning that coincides with the product.

Contrary to scholars who believe moderate visual complexity is most desired by consumers (i.e., Berlyne), Pieters, Wedel and Batra (2010)’s study suggests

Visual Contrast (Before/After photos). The power of photographs is well appreciated by Messaris (1997) stating that use of images in a form of photographs serves an essential role for advertisers to persuade consumers that the image they are seeing accurately reflects by reality. In addition, the visual cues were used to support the claims made by verbal information and added credibility to the overall claims (Hobbs, Broder, Pope & Rowe, 2006).

At the same time, Messaris also warned of potential danger or the possibility of visual deception. He argued that many of the photos people see in the advertisement can be either staged or altered without consumers’ knowledge of such manipulation. If that happens, perspective consumers can be deceived or mislead.  Messaris and his colleagues, Alison and Andrew and Jennifer Khoury conducted a telephone survey asking the public about awareness of computer manipulation of photographs often used in advertisements. The results suggest that more than 40% of the respondents were aware of such practices by advertisers. However, the authors concluded that the seemingly high rate of awareness is not tied to a specific manipulation of photographs. Rather, it was their skeptical attitude toward the general images used in advertising as the respondents failed to provide specific examples of perceived manipulation of photographs. In a similar vein, more than two thirds of respondents who are young girls could identify before/after photos persuasive techniques implemented by advertisers (Hobbs, Broder, Pope & Rowe, 2006). In addition, many respondents expressed their concerns toward the accuracy of information in the ads featuring weight loss products. However, Hobbs et al. (2007)’s study used a qualitative interview using an existing brand for advertising analysis. As indicated in the study, many of the respondents have reported to have seen the ad prior to the study. This, in turn, suggests that their perceived ability to discern the before/after photos as tactic used by advertisers may have been tarnished.

One of the most popular visual tactics used by advertisers is visual contrast. Visual contrast can be done for either product comparisons (rivalry brands) or before-and-after comparisons (Messaris, 1997) and serves to function as evidence of advertising claims making the comparison more believable and closer to a fact. This type of visual contrast is designed to communicate the advertising claims directly accompanied by verbal information in the advertising. Usage of before and after photos is especially common in advertisements promoting weight loss products and a typical way of using the framing is to display two photos side by side (Geier, Schwartz & Brownell, 2003).  In their study, Putrevu, Tan and Lord (2004) classified advertising complexity into four levels: visual complexity, technical complexity, lexical complexity and information complexity. Many of recent studies focusing on visual complexity are based on Berlyne (1958)’s definition of visual complexity. Literature on consumers’ preference of visual complexity in the advertisement is mixed. While scholars argue that more complex stimuli generate longer gazing time (Morrison & Dianoff, 1972; MacInnis, Moorman & Jaworski, 1991), others suggest that less complex and simpler advertisements are more preferred for generating vivid imagery (Rossiter & Percy, 1983).

As discussed earlier, before and after photos are one of a few visual tactics commonly found in weight-loss product advertisements (FTC, 2002). The usage of before and after photos in the ad can be explained by utilizing affective response to images (Chowdhury, Olsen & Pracejus, 2008). It is a part of advertisers’ tactics that is designed to tackle the audience’s emotion and affective responses.  The findings about the effect of using a single image versus multiple images such as before and after photos are mixed. Chowdhury and his colleagues concluded that there is no difference when using multiple pictures or combination of using negative and positive images and using a single dominant image when additional affective impact was desired. According to FTC report published in 2002, out of 300 weight lost product advertisements sampled, 42% of the ads included before-and-after photos (FTC, 2002). The report showed that the photos used for the before and after often unrealistic to achieve.  In addition, the FTC report stated that before/after photos can either show the illustrated personal testimonial or body parts for clinical comparison. More specifically, the way before pictures were presented also attributes the negative portrayals of the unsatisfied body including poor poster, untidy hair or washed out tones along with poor lighting to emphasize the negative aspects of the testimonials.  On the other hand, after photos are shown in a more positive manner such that the human model in the photos have smiles, more presentable hair styles and light make-up with relatively bright lighting.

When the isolated body parts are used for the testimonials, the body parts that many people struggle to lose often make an appearance such as waist and abdominal pats. One-tenth of testimonials with before and after photos utilized the pictures of body parts as clinical comparison.  The FTC report states that even with the distinction in labeling the photos as before and after, the only visible difference is a different posture and photo setting (e.g., lighting and make-ups). The report also speculated that some of the before/after photos are deliberately altered luring people to believe that the visible difference was an actual outcome of using the advertised products when professional alteration was made on the photos.

In a study that examined the extent to which weight stigma exists when exposed to before and after diet advertisements, researchers found that people in the Before and After condition tend to hold a strong belief about one’s ability to control weight while the belief was weak and considered not controllable by people in the after picture only condition (Geier, Schwartz & Brownell, 2003). The researchers argue that such results indicate the potential danger of exposure to the before and after diet advertisements due to increased frequency and prevalence of the ads. In addition, their study also found that there is an inverse relationship between one’s life satisfaction and his/her attitude toward individuals who are overweight. In other words, those who are satisfied with their lives tend to be less critical toward weight control.

In that regard, the same study shows that young females with lower life satisfaction tend to be influenced by the before and after pictures making them more vulnerable targets for such ads. Lastly, the researchers argue that the before and after pictures featured in diet advertisements can serve different functions depending on the viewers. For example, it is possible that some people use the model featured in the after photo as an ideal role model while others will find the same model with a more critical perspective thinking that the body is not realistic thus unattainable. A study shows that many college women tend to be dissatisfied with their body weight (Klemchuk & Hutchinson & Frank, 1990). As a result, college women have reported using diet pills and other dietary supplements to fulfill their goals for weight control. The same study showed that the risk of being exposed to excessive number of advertisements is considerable given the fact that many of the advertisements often exaggerate the results and effects without informing risks involved in using the products. The authors warn that female college students are at a greater risk of being influenced by the advertisements featuring weight loss products and in turn develop eating disorders.

Dependent variables

The significance of visual deception on consumers’ decision making, purchasing behavior is that consumers go through a series of thought processes that leads to their buying decision. When adequate information is not given, consumers tend to use the information that is readily available. To understand how visual deception affects consumers’ perception, attitude and behaviors on weight loss products, each variable comprising of sub-set of measurements is examined.

Attitude toward the product

As discussed earlier, design (visual) elements in print advertisements serve as attention grabber. Ultimately, advertisers want the attention derived from visual stimuli to move to a next stage of information processing, attitude toward advertising, product and brand. According to Mitchell and Olson (1981, p.318), attitude toward the brand is an “individual’s internal evaluation of the brand.” Taking the definition further, Spears and Singh (2004, p.55) conceptualize attitude toward the brand further by stating that “attitude toward the brand is a relatively enduring, unidimensional summary evaluation of the brand that presumably energize behavior.

As Gardner (1985) pointed out, examining the relationship between attitude toward advertising and attitude toward brand has been a scholarly interest in recent decades. Attitude toward brand and purchase intention have long been a focus of study in advertising and the popularity of studies developing the scales attempting to measure the concepts suggests that no consistent and unified measure has been settled by scholars. For example, some scholars use four-items (use/useless, important/unimportant, pleasant/unpleasant, nice/awful) to measure consumers’ attitude toward ad (Batra & Ray, 1986) while other (MacKenzie, Lutz & Belch, 1986) used three items (favorable/unfavorable, good/bad, wise/foolish). Except both types of scales used a seven-point scale for the measurement, the items they used do not share much similarity. Similarly, other researchers used a seven-point semantic differential scale with the items including bad/good, unappealing/appealing, unpleasant/pleasant, unattractive/attractive, boring/interesting, and dislike/like (Bruner, 1998). Even in more recent decades, the number of scales attempting to measure the attitude toward brand and purchase intention has been growing.

Since the current study is using a fictitious brand, having a loyalty or establishing a relationship with a brand is not feasible. Rather, the researcher aims to examine if an exposure to ad that is visually manipulated influences how people respond to the advertised product. Therefore, this study is more interested in investigating the aspect of attitude toward product. However, the same approach of attitude toward product was used there. As Mitchell and Olson (1981) pointed out, brand (product) attitude can be influenced by visual stimuli. They suggested that consumers’ beliefs about the product can be based on the visual stimuli they are seeing because the visual image serves as a referencing tool when evaluating the product. In addition, the evaluation of visual stimuli can determine the direction of product evaluation that the positive attitude can be expected if people perceive the visual positively. The same results were found by Mitchell (1986) that visual elements in ad influences the attitude toward product by affecting the way people perceive the product attributes.

More specifically, Pracejus, O’Guinn and Olsen (2013) noted that the amount of white space (less clutter thus less complex) has different connotations depending on cultures. For instance, it is suggested that while an ad with a large white space refers to an ad by a large market share, an ad with a large white space made in North American is perceived as high and trustworthy. In sum, the researchers argued that complexity caused by visual stimuli can impact the perception of brand. Similar results were found in studies examining the effect of visual complexity and evaluation of information or product. A study by Stevenson, Bruner and Kumar (2000) on webpage background and viewer’s evaluation revealed that the lowest level of visual complexity outperformed the highest visual complexity on several measurements including brand attitude. However, the researchers noted that intended usage of ad and viewers’ expectation of seeing the ad multiple times might determine the desired level of visual complexity.

Some literature suggests that either simple or moderate level of visual complexity is preferred by consumers. However, the nature of weight loss products ad being mainly information heavy and its tendency of using contrasting and multiple images to reinforce the verbal messages might influence how consumers are evaluating the product. In addition, a study by MacInnis, Moorman and Jaworski (1991) suggests that consumers tend to be highly attentive to visually complex advertisements because the ads evoke more motivation. The findings support the idea that pictures used in the ads serves as a central cue for consumers who are highly involved (Miniard, Bhatla, Lord, Dickson & Unnava, 1991). Paying more attention to the visually complex advertising indicates longer gaze time, which in turn, can result better recall and positive attitude toward the ad and advertised brand.

As stated in a study by Chowdhury and his colleagues (2008), advertisers often use contrasting photos of before and after in weight loss product as they believe that the pictures affect how people respond to the visual stimuli and the ad.  The role of visual demonstration from before and after photos or outcome of taking a diet pill is providing a vicarious experience to consumers. Taking the findings from literature that visual complexity and visual contrast have impact on the evaluation of the ad and product, the following hypotheses were proposed.

H1a: Visual complexity positively influences attitude toward product in weight loss product advertisements.

H1b: Visual contrast positively influences attitude toward the product in weight loss product advertisement.

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