In this paper, I examine a popular yet under-investigated aesthetic/sensory cue in the commercial setting, i.e., glossy versus matte imagery, with a focus on how it influences consumers’ optimistic perception of the product/service in question. To this end, I rely on the theory of grounded cognition and hypothesize that exposure to glossy imagery, relative to matte imagery, is likely to activate two diverging abstract concepts—optimism and risk—through metaphorical associations (e.g., glossyàsmooth perceptionàoptimism; glossyàslippery perceptionàrisk), which in turn would increase or decrease consumers’ purchase behavior, depending on the context. Further, drawing on prior research that has shown that the valence of embodied stimuli determines automaticity of activation, I hypothesize that the positive concept of optimism is likely to be automatically activated upon exposure to glossy imagery, yet the negative concept of risk would require additional priming to be activated.
Across a set of studies, I find results that empirically support my conceptualization. Using an Airbnb experimental setting, and the Photoshopped images that only differ in perceived glossiness, I discover that consumers exposed to a glossy Airbnb room image, as opposed to a matte Airbnb room image, tend to think that their stay in the room is likely to be hassle free (optimistic), and, thereby, report significantly higher booking intention. I also find that the effect of glossy imagery on higher booking intention is attenuated when consumers read an article about the danger of slippery floors prior to seeing the room image, since the article triggers the negative concept of risk. The effect of glossy imagery is also attenuated when consumers are conceptually primed with optimism by a scrambled sentence task, as their level of optimism is already boosted by activation of optimism irrespective of the image glossiness. The findings of this paper contribute to the literatures on glossiness, grounded cognition, and aesthetics, and have practical implications for managers dealing with marketing communications.