Pick up a magazine or turn on the TV and prepare for a flood of marketing messages about how you spend your time and money. Whether the product is beer or banking, Rolex watches or Ziploc bags, advertisers routinely invoke financial or time-related themes in their ad campaigns. Folgers coffee, for example, reminds you that “the best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.” Citibank recommends that customers “live richly.” Honda promotes a clearance event by asserting: “Feels pretty good when you save money, doesn’t it?” Yet with all this talk of time and money, little is known about how consumers’ attitudes and behaviors are influenced by a product’s association with these concepts, says Cassie Mogilner, a professor of marketing at Wharton.

A new paper by Mogilner and Jennifer Aaker, professor of marketing at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, argues that when companies weigh whether to go for an ad campaign with a time or a money theme, they should be aware that each evokes strong reactions from consumers. “One thing that was surprising,” she says, “was to see how consumers’ attitudes and behaviors toward products and brands can be shifted by something as subtle and as pervasive as mere mentions of time or money.”The concept of time, for example, evokes a personal connection with a product in terms of the experience the consumer gains while using it, she says. To illustrate her point, Mogilner cites a well-known phrase in beer marketing — “It’s Miller Time.” The ads are still remembered by many consumers from the 1980s because consumers associated the beer with the routine, end-of-day transition from work to leisure.

As for the different emotions that money and social status-related campaigns can conjure, Mogilner points to advertisements for Stella Artois, a premium beer from Belgium. One of the product’s ads shows a man struggling to earn money — whether by chasing pigs, hauling sticks or herding goats — so he can buy his grandmother a pair of beautiful, expensive red shoes. But, alas, just as he’s about to present her with the gift, he spies a pint of Stella, and makes a shoes-for-beer trade with the waitress. The commercial is funny, but it also captures the company’s “Perfection has its price” tagline, Mogilner says.

Both Miller and Stella are trying to sell beer. But using the concept of either time or money invites consumers to connect with a product — in this case, beer — in different ways. Of the two, the researchers found that a “Miller Time” connection typically leads to more favorable consumer attitudes and purchasing decisions because people tend to identify more closely with products they have experienced. “If you can dial up one’s thinking about time spent experiencing the product relative to thinking about the money spent to own the product, then you tend to get … beneficial effects,” Mogilner says.

But the “Perfection has its price” crowd is also important, Mogilner adds, even though there are fewer examples of consumers connecting to a product primarily because of its acquisition price. “There are cases where thinking about money can actually be a good thing for particular types of consumers, and particular types of products.”

Fungible and Ambiguous

Mogilner and Aaker reached these conclusions after running a series of experiments, whose results they discuss in an article titled, “‘The Time vs. Money Effect’: Shifting Product Attitudes and Decisions through Personal Connection,” published in the Journal of Consumer Research in August. Their work adds to a growing list of studies that have looked at the psychological impact of the notions of time and money. Researchers have found that because time is less fungible — or less easily replaced — than money, losing time tends to be a more painful event for people, particularly when they think about how they are not able to make up for it. Another difference is that people feel less accountable for how they spend their time because it can be more difficult to measure than monetary outlays. These two characteristics — fungibility and ambiguity — are important differentiators in how consumers think about time and money.

But Mogilner and Aaker’s research focuses on a third distinction: the extent to which each concept is linked to consumers’ personal experiences, identity and emotions. “We propose that activating the construct of time while consumers evaluate a product will lead them to focus on their experiences using the product, which generally will heighten their personal connection to that product — their feeling that the product reflects the self,” they write.”There may be particular instances, however, where the mere possession of the product feels more ‘me’ than the actual [time spent using] the product…. We predict that for [such] prestige possessions and materialistic consumers, priming money (vs. time) will instead increase feelings of personal connection by increasing focus on product possession.”

According to the authors, their initial test of these thoughts was conducted “in a context wherein many first learn effective marketing practices” — a lemonade stand.  

On a Saturday afternoon in San Francisco, Mogilner and her co-author’s six-year-old sons set out to sell lemonade along a path in a park. Every 10 minutes or so, Mogilner switched the sign that publicized the lemonade stand according to one of three messages: “Spend a little time, and enjoy C & D’s lemonade”; “Spend a little money, and enjoy C & D’s lemonade”; and “Enjoy C & D’s lemonade.” To further test the impact of the messages, customers were told they could choose to pay anywhere from $1 to $3 for the product. Forty out of 391 people who passed by the stand that day purchased lemonade, and customers were surveyed about how they were feeling while they sipped. When the results were tallied, Mogilner found that a greater proportion of passers-by bought lemonade when the sign mentioned time rather than money. What’s more, customers who viewed the time message paid more for their cup of lemonade, and enjoyed the product more.

To further explore why time-focused messages might foster happier thoughts and lighter wallets, Mogilner crafted a second experiment involving a group of Stanford University students and their iPods. Students were given one of three questionnaires, all of which depicted the iPod logo on the first page. One questionnaire began by asking how much time the students had spent using their iPods, while a second asked how much money they had spent on the devices. A third survey — administered to a control group — didn’t ask either question. Next, participants described their thoughts about iPods and their personal connections to the product. All three questionnaires, for example, asked students to react to such statements as: “Listening to my iPod represents who I am.” At the experiment’s conclusion, the results again showed that consumers who were asked about their time spent with the product expressed more favorable attitudes than those who were asked about money. In addition, statistical analysis of the results showed that students’ personal connection to the product seemed to be the driver of their positive attitudes — in other words, the attitudes didn’t subsequently create the connection, Mogilner notes.

While the iPod study confirmed key hypotheses, Mogilner concedes the research at that point came up against an important question. A colleague asked: Couldn’t the “time vs. money effect” be explained by the fact that consumers thinking about money are focused on the negative aspect of the product’s cost, while consumers thinking about time are focused on the product’s benefit?

Mogilner tested that idea by asking consumers about laptop computer repairs, a product experience that few would describe as fun. The researchers conducted a survey among 42 students at the University of California, Berkeley, asking one subgroup how much time they had spent fixing their laptops and another subgroup how much money they had spent on the task. Then, students were asked to share their thoughts about the computers. The key finding: Those who were asked about the time spent on repairs expressed more positive attitudes about their laptops than those asked about the money spent.

“Even if you hold the role of each resource constant as a negative cost, [spending] time is [perceived as] better,” Mogilner says. “Consumers think more positively about the product because, with time spent, one becomes more engaged with [it] — [the product] must say something about you. Spending money is less personally connecting.”

When Money Matters

While that’s true in many cases, Mogilner and Aaker conducted two experiments showing a different dynamic at play for certain consumers buying products such as handbags, sunglasses and expensive jewelry — items that could be described as status symbols. In one experiment, 142 Stanford students were asked about either the time or money they spent in the last year going to restaurants or buying designer jeans. Survey respondents were asked to rate their feelings of personal connection to the purchases and to respond to questions evaluating whether they viewed the purchases as “experiential” or “material.”

As expected, students described restaurant purchases as more of an experience, and they expressed more favorable attitudes about these purchases if they were primed to think about the time spent on the meal, rather than the money. But the reverse effect occurred among the respondents thinking about their more materialistic designer jeans. For the prestige possession, students reported greater feelings of personal connection when they were primed to recall the money they spent on the product.

Next, the researchers explored whether the dynamic persisted if consumers were asked about their cars, a product that can be valued for both experiential and material reasons. The experiment also evaluated whether the consumers being surveyed were “high” or “low” materialists. The findings showed that for both types of consumers, attitudes about their cars were the result of their feelings of personal connection. Those who highly valued the mere possession of the product had more favorable attitudes when prompted to consider the money involved in the purchase. For those who highly valued the experience of driving, prompting thoughts about time spent in the car increased their feelings of personal connection, which in turn bolstered attitudes.

Ultimately, the researchers conclude: “Brands can cultivate consumer relationships by first considering how consumers most identify with the product (through experience or possession) and then highlighting either their time or money spent accordingly.”

Research on the effects of time and money is far from over, Mogilner says. In fact, a related research project now underway is looking at whether getting consumers to think about time as opposed to money can change their behavior in ways that leave them feeling happier. In one experiment, Mogilner stood outside a coffee shop and asked people as they were about to enter the store to complete a word puzzle. Half of the patrons were given puzzles that included a number of time-related words, while the others were given puzzles that included money-related words.

“People who did the time [puzzle] wound up spending more time in the coffee shop, socializing,” Mogilner says. The results suggest that “by simply directing people’s attention to time, rather than money, you can actually make people make happier decisions.”