Promotional Games: the Effects of Participation on Mood, Attitude, and Information Processing

James C. Ward, Arizona State University
Ronald P. Hill, The American University
Meryl P. Gardner, New York University
ABSTRACT - Participation in promotional games may influence mood and mood may influence reaction to promotional games. This paper discusses how the major stages of promotional game participation--the decision to play, the process of play, and the consequences of playC interact with mood. The discussion focuses on the affective consequences of game participation, and reports a test of a set of five hypotheses that predict that winning or losing a promotional game will affect mood, attitude toward the promoted product, attitude toward the vehicle that delivered the promotion, evaluation of the game, and intention to participate in a later game. The results confirmed that a win or loss could influence mood, attitude, and likelihood of further game participation.
[ to cite ]:
James C. Ward, Ronald P. Hill, and Meryl P. Gardner (1988) ,"Promotional Games: the Effects of Participation on Mood, Attitude, and Information Processing", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 135-140.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 135-140


James C. Ward, Arizona State University

Ronald P. Hill, The American University

Meryl P. Gardner, New York University


Participation in promotional games may influence mood and mood may influence reaction to promotional games. This paper discusses how the major stages of promotional game participation--the decision to play, the process of play, and the consequences of playC interact with mood. The discussion focuses on the affective consequences of game participation, and reports a test of a set of five hypotheses that predict that winning or losing a promotional game will affect mood, attitude toward the promoted product, attitude toward the vehicle that delivered the promotion, evaluation of the game, and intention to participate in a later game. The results confirmed that a win or loss could influence mood, attitude, and likelihood of further game participation.


The popularity of promotional games has surged in the 1980s. Marketers of products from automobiles to candy bars are relying upon games as crucial parts of their promotional strategy (Jagoda, 1984; Feinman et al., 1986). In 1986, Incentive Marketing estimates that marketers gave away over $240 million on promotional sweepstakesCa 7 percent increase from the year before (Borowski, 1987).

To a consumer researcher interested in affect, promotional games are interesting because of their similarity to mood manipulations which involve a win or loss, positive or negative feedback, or unexpected gifts (For examples of studies using such manipulations to induce mood, see Isen and Means, 1983; Isen and Shalker, 1982; Isen, Shalker, Clark, and Karp, 1978). Like these manipulations, the outcome of promotional games should be capable of creating a positive or negative mood which may in turn influence attitude toward the promoted product, the product's marketer, and the vehicle through which the promotion was conveyed (e.g., a newspaper, magazine, or store) Isen and Means (1983) found that a positive mood induced by false test feedback had significant effects on subjects' search and decision-making behavior in an automobile choice task. This suggests moods induced by promotional games may also affect brand selection strategies.

Despite the likelihood that promotional games affect mood, little or no research has investigated this issue. This paper will discuss how games might affect mood and the possible consequences of such effects. Although the paper will focus on how-games influence mood, the probable effects of mood on consumers' propensity to play games, their perception of games, and their reaction to the outcome of games will not be ignored.


A conceptual model of the interaction between mood and promotional games appears in the Figure. "Promotional games" include sweepstakes and contests. In a sweepstakes, the winners and losers are determined randomly. In a contest, the winners and losers are determined by judging the skill with which they have performed a task. As indicated in the Figure, a consumer's interaction with a game begins with a decision to participate or not. This decision is influenced by at least three factors: the perceived chances of winning, the value of potential prizes, and the value of play itself. Of course, in a particular situation, other factors (e.g., the convenience of entry) may be relevant; however, the factors noted in the diagram seem to be the most likely to interact with mood.

Once consumers decide to participate, they proceed to play. The process of play may take a few seconds (to rub off an "instant winner" panel), a few minutes (to do a puzzle), or months (to build a collection of winning tokens). In any case, the Figure suggests the process of play may have significant effects on mood.

After the game is played, consumers usually get feedback about whether they have won or lost, and may receive a prize. The Figure suggests that winning or losing is likely to influence the consumer's mood positively or negatively. The major issues suggested by the figure will be discussed in the next sections.




The decision to participate is the first step in playing a promotional game. Marketers deliver offers to participate in promotional games by virtually every advertising vehicle: direct mail, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and in-store. In each case, the delivery vehicle could be designed to affect consumers' moods. For example, in a direct mail promotion, a free gift could be enclosed with the offer to participate.

If the vehicle affects consumers' moods, it may influence their decision to participate in the promotional game. As the Figure shows, mood is likely to influence the perception of each major factor mediating participation: perceived risk of entry, perceived value of prizes, and perceived hedonic value of playing.

Perceived Chances of Winning or Losing

In general, positive affect appears to increase the perceived probability of positive events (e.g., winning) and negative affect appears to increase the perceived probability of negative events (e.g., losing) (Johnson and Tversky, 1983). However, if the consumer perceives the decision to participate in a promotional game as taking a risk of loss, the relationship between mood and the decision may be more complex. Participants may perceive entering a promotional game to entail the possibility of several kinds of loss including the loss of self-esteem, of time, and of the money spent to buy a product.

Mood and the degree of possible loss (small or large) appear to interact in influencing risk-taking behavior. Positive affect appears to encourage people to take small risks but not large risks. For example, Isen, Means, Patrick, and Nowicki (1982) and Isen and Patrick (1983) found subjects whose mood was elevated by such manipulations as being given a $ .50 McDonald's gift certificate were more willing than controls to take a relatively small gamble or a social risk. However, if a significant loss is possible, positive affect may appear to decrease the likelihood that people will incur the risk. In one of Isen and Patrick's (1983) studies, participants were given the opportunity to bet part of the points they earned for participating in the experiment. The only available bet was risky--a 17% chance of winning and an 83% chance of losing the points. In this situation, participants who had been exposed to a positive mood manipulation bet less than controls.

For marketers, the implications are that positive affect might be most effective in inducing consumers to play games in which they have a high probability of winning and the risk of a loss (e.g., to their self-esteem) is low.

Value of Prizes

Consumers who are feeling good may perceive potential prizes as better (e.g., more valuable) than those in a less positive mood. For example, this is suggested by Isen et al.'s (1978) finding that consumers who had received a small gift provided more positive evaluations of a variety of goods than consumers who did not receive such a gift.

Mood may also have less obvious effects on how consumers value prizes. For example, consumers in a positive mood may be motivated to continue having fun whereas consumers in a negative mood may be motivated to feel better. In either case, consumers might value a prize perceived as indulgent and fun (c.g., a box of imported chocolates) more than a utilitarian prize (e.g., a dictionary). The possibility that people rely on consumption activities as a means of affect control is supported by Berneman and Heeler (1986) who found that consumers sometimes shop for clothes to reinforce a positive mood or alleviate a negative mood.

Hedonic Value of Play

A consumer's mood is likely to influence the hedonic value he or she perceives in playing a game. Consumers in a positive mood might perceive playing an amusing game as a means of maintaining their mood. On the other hand, consumers in a negative mood might play a game to cheer themselves up. Thus, whether consumers are anticipated to be in a positive or negative mood, games should be designed so they look like they are fun to play. Practitioners appear to recognize this. For example; Feinman, et al. (1986), president of a major promotional games consulting firm, comments that, "of prime importance in creating game cards is that you make them look like FUN" (p. 109).


If a consumer decides to participate, the next stage is interaction with the game. The possible affective consequences of playing a game are illustrated in a study by Holbrook, Chestnut, Olivia, and Greenleaf (1984). In the study, MBA students played verbal or visual versions of a "lunar lander" game, the object of which was to safely "land" a "space vessel." The players received continuous performance feedback but no tangible rewards or penalties for success or failure. Nevertheless, players who performed better reported experiencing more "pleasure" on Mehrabian and Russell's (1974) P.A.D. scale than those who performed worse. Studies of gamblers also suggest the process of play, instead of outcomes per se, can be reinforcing. For example, Kallick, Suits, Dielman, and Hybels (1979) found that 86% of a sample of gamblers listed "a good time" as one of their three most important reasons for betting on horses at a track. However, only 15% mentioned "a good time" as a primary reason for buying a lottery ticket.

These findings suggest that the process of playing a game can influence mood, and raise a number of issues about how aspects of play affect mood. The subject of the game, the degree to which play is involving, and the structure of performance feedback might all be influential. Little is known about these issues at present.


The two principal consequences of playing a promotional game are winning or losing. Both outcomes may vary in degree and kind. In degree, a win or loss can be perceived as more or less important. For example, "winners" often receive prizes that are so insignificant that they may feel more like losers. In kind, the consequences of winning or losing may differ by the type of game. For example, participants might react differently to winning a game of skill versus a game of chance. Participants who win a game of skill might tend to attribute their success to ability, and thus feel a higher degree of self-efficacy, which in turn could affect their attitudes (e.g., toward purchase of an innovative product) and other aspects of consumer behavior.


Although most consumers lose promotional games, a few win and more could if the prize structure of games was changed. Thus, the consequences of winning a promotional game are interesting to consider. The results of studies that have used success/failure at a task or a free gift as mood manipulations provide a guide to the probable consequences of winning a promotional game (For examples of such studies see Isen and Means, 1983; Isen and Shalker, 1982; Isen et al., 1978). These studies indicate that subjects who receive success feedback or a gift are likely to feel more positive and thus rate stimuli more favorably than control subjects. Winners of promotional games also receive success feedback and usually receive money or a gift. Thus, winners are likely to feel better than losers, and have a better attitude toward the promoted product, the game itself, the odds of winning the game, and perhaps the vehicle that delivered the opportunity to play the game. Winners might also tend to feel better about themselves, and this feeling of greater self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977) might influence their information search and decision-making behavior. As suggested earlier, winning a game, particularly a game of skill, is likely to influence the winner's perceived self-efficacy (Bandura 1977).

A study by Hill and Ward (1987) supports the possibility that playing a game can have significant effects on mood, perceived self-efficacy and information search behavior. In this study, participants were asked to play and evaluate a promotional game. As part of the cover story, they were told the game, "Mutant Robots from Outer Space," was part of a promotion sponsored by an automobile dealer. Participants were randomly assigned to either a luck, skill, or control condition. Participants in the luck conditions were told that a win or loss would depend on chance; those in the skill condition were told that success or failure would depend on ability. After completing the game, participants in both the luck and skill conditions were told that they had performed better than usual at the task regardless of their actual performance. Participants in the control condition played the game but received no feedback.

After receiving feedback, subjects were asked to answer a series of questions that were introduced as measures of their reaction to the game. These measures included Peterson and Sauber's (1983) Mood Short Form (MSF), measures of their perceived self-efficacy, and a mock automobile decision-making task. In the latter task, subjects were asked to choose one of six automobiles for purchase. They were given an empty information matrix listing the alternative cars along the top and the attributes along the side, and told to request whatever information was necessary for their decision.

The results showed that subjects who won the promotional game had significantly more positive mood scores than control subjects, regardless of whether the win was attributed to luck or skill. Attribution of success to luck or skill resulted in DO significant difference in mood scores between groups. However, other differences between the luck and skill groups emerged. The skill group scored significantly higher than the luck group on measures of perceived self-efficacy in automobile purchasing ability and self-confidence in automobile purchasing ability. On the decision-making task, the skill group took significantly longer to decide on an automobile, checked more bits of information, and checked more attributes than the luck group. These results suggest that subjects' attributions about why they won or lost (e.g., because of luck or skill) can have significant effects on subsequent behavior.


Most consumers who play promotional games lose. Even in a chance drawing, the consumer loses something tangible, the effort of entering and the hope for a reward that motivated the entry. The loser of a contest, a game of skill, is likely to feel an additional loss of his or her sense of competence. These observations suggest that the loss of a promotional game may tend to create a negative mood. If so, the possibility arises that the conduct of a game might, in aggregate, generate more negative than positive affect toward a product. In terms of sales, the negative affect experienced by losers might not be immediately apparent because most lose after buying the product or service. But over time a loss or series of losses could undermine a consumer's image of a product and loyalty toward it. The negative affect created by losing a promotional game might also tend to lower the loser's perceived self-efficacy and thus effect search and decision-making behavior.

The negative effects of losing raise the issue of what can be done to lessen the problem. One possibility IS to design games that let everyone win at least a small prize or a chance to participate in a later drawing. Past studies suggest that even small prizes such as a pencil or notebook can have positive effects on mood. Such "consolation" prizes might lessen or cancel any negative affect resulting from a loss.


The issues reviewed so far have suggested several hypotheses about how promotional games interact with affect states. As a start toward addressing these issues, an exploratory study was conducted.

These hypotheses focus on the affective consequences of game outcomes. The first issue is whether winning or losing a promotional game effects mood. Prior studies in the mood literature suggest success feedback, a small gift, or a combination thereof should create a significantly better mood than failure and no reward.

H1: Winning a promotional game should result in a more positive mood than losing.

The mood resulting from a win or loss should color consumers' attitude toward the product the game promotes and perhaps the store or advertising vehicle used to deliver the game. Past studies have shown that mood can influence product ratings (Isen et al., 1978) and the evaluation of other stimuli.

H2: Winners will evaluate the product the game promotes more favorably than losers.

H3: Winners will evaluate the vehicle that distributes the game (e.g., a store) more favorably than losers.

Finally, the mood resulting from a win or loss may affect perception of the game itself. Winners are likely to be more satisfied with the game than losers, and perceive the odds of winning future trials of the game to be higher.

H4: Winners will evaluate a game more favorably than losers.

H5: Winners will perceive the odds of winning subsequent games to be higher than losers.



To test the above hypotheses, an experiment was designed that varied whether student participants won or lost a mock promotional game. As a cover story, the experimenter told subjects that they would be "evaluating a promotional game designed to boost the sales of Hershey's New Trail Granola Bars at convenience stores." The game was an "instant winner" promotion in which subjects could win or fail to win $2.00 cash. The win or toss of the game was intended to vary the participants' mood.

After playing the game, subjects filled out measures of their mood, their attitude toward the promoted product, their attitude toward convenience stores, and their evaluation of the game itself. Participants also indicated how likely they would be to enter a subsequent sweepstakes. Finally, as an exploratory question, participants were asked which of the following prizes they would prefer if they won the sweepstakes: 1) a $1,000 cash or 2) a savings certificate that would be worth $2,500 in 5 years but could not be cashed until then. The purpose of this question was to see whether participants in a better mood would be more likely to prefer a larger delayed reward to a smaller immediate reward. Previous studies of children suggest that a more positive mood encourages delayed gratification (Seeman and Schwarz, 1974; Fry, 1975; Moore, Clyburn, and Underwood, 1976). The alternative prizes were chosen so that the value of the $1,000 in cash would only be equal to the $2,500 savings certificate if students assumed they could invest the $1,000 at a 20% after tax rate of return for five years.


The participants were 51 undergraduate marketing students at a large southwestern university. All the students in two classes participated during regularly scheduled class time. They were not given any incentive to participate beyond the chance to win money.


To assign subjects to the win and loss conditions, the questionnaires were stacked in a randomized order and then handed to subjects sitting at classroom desks.

The first pages of the questionnaire simply repeated the instructions that will be described below. The second page was the "front" of a prototype game card that contained a slogan and the instructions, "Be an instant winner. Rub off the panel on the back. If you see '140 calories,' you win $: ." The third page was the "back" of the game card that either listed "140 calories" or "XXXXX." The fourth page of the questionnaire was an envelope that contained $2.00 cash or nothing. Questionnaires were sealed with tape to prevent students from looking ahead. The rest of the pages were rating scales designed to measure mood, attitudes, and reaction to the game.

The experimenter began the instructions by repeating the cover story noted earlier. He went on to say:

You will see a photocopy of a prototype game card. The game card will have a front, shown on the next page, and a back, shown on the page after next. The front instructs consumers how to play the game. The card tells consumers that New Trail Granola Bars have only 140 calories each--less than half a typical candy bar. The card goes on to suggest that consumers can be "instant winners" by rubbing off a panel on the back of the card. If the panel says "140 calories," the consumer instantly wins $2.00 cash (paid by the cashier). If the panel says -anything else, the consumer wins nothing. When you are asked to turn the page, read the front of the "game card," and then turn the next page to the "back" of the "game card" to see if you are an instant winner--the panel has already been rubbed off for you.

Of course, whether you win or lose is determined by chance.

If you win, an envelope enclosed in your questionnaire after the game card will contain $2.00 cash. The cash is yours to keep. If you lose, you will receive nothing. After playing, please answer some questions following the game.

The experimenter then instructed the students to break the seal on the questionnaire, play the game, and then answer the questions.

Dependent Measures

Mood was measured by Peterson and Sauber's (1983) Mood Short Form (MSF) which consists of four statements which participants responded to on a 5 point "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree" scale.

Attitude toward the promoted product, granola bars, was measured by four nine-point bipolar scales with endpoints "good-bad," "healthy-unhealthy," "high calories-low calories," and "poor taste-good taste." The overall measure of altitude toward granola bars was formed by summing ratings across the four scales.

Attitude toward convenience stores was measured by the sum of three nine-point bipolar scales with endpoints "friendly service-unfriendly service," "slow service-fast service," and "low prices-high prices."

Attitude toward the game was also measured by nine-point bipolar scales. The five scales had endpoints of "frustrating-soothing," "fun-boring," "unfair-fair," "worthwhile-worthless," and "irritating-relaxing." Once again, ratings across the scales were summed.

Next, the questionnaire asked "suppose that you could write your name and address on your game card and turn it in as a sweepstakes entry (regardless of whether you won or lost). How likely would you be to enter the sweepstakes?" Subjects indicated their likelihood of entering on a nine-point bipolar scale with endpoints "extremely likely-extremely unlikely."


Hypothesis one predicted that winning a promotional game should result in a more positive mood than losing. This prediction was strongly supported. Winners reported a mean score of 10.6 on the MSF in contrast to a mean score of 6.9 reported by losers, t(49) = 4.32, p < .01.

The difference in mood between groups is interesting to compare to the norms reported by Peterson and Sauber (1983). Across three mail panel surveys, they found that mean MSF scores varied between 7.8 and 8.2. By comparison, winners of the present study scored higher than these norms and losers scored lower. A univariate t-test showed that 10.6 is significantly higher than 8, the midpoint of the norms noted above, t(26) = 3.7, p < .05. Another univariate t-test showed that 6.9 is significantly lower than 8, t(23) = 1.80, p < .05. The comparisons to Peterson and Sauber's data suggest that winning created a "good" mood and losing created a "bad" mood.

As predicted, the between group mood differences were related to between group attitude differences. Hypothesis two predicted that winners of the game would have a more favorable attitude toward the promoted product than losers. Winners reported a mean attitude score of 27.9 in contrast to losers who reported a score of only 23.1, t(45) = 3.26, p < .01.

Hypothesis three predicted that winners would report a better attitude toward the store sponsoring the promotion than losers. This hypothesis was not confirmed. The mean attitude score of winners was 20.2, barely higher than the mean score of 20.0 reported by losers, t(49) = .24, p > .05. The failure to confirm hypothesis two has several plausible explanations related to the experimental situation and the measure of attitude toward the store. In the cover story, the experimenter mentioned that the promotional game was being evaluated for possible use in a major chain of convenience stores. (The chain was specifically identified.) However, the name of the chain was not mentioned again, in contrast to the name of the sponsoring product which was mentioned twice in the instructions and repeated twice on the "game card." Therefore, the association between the game and the sponsoring store may have been rather weak to many subjects. Furthermore, the game was conducted in a classroom, not a convenience store. Both these factors suggest that the effect created by winning or losing might have been less likely to color perception of the sponsoring store than the sponsoring product. The measure of attitude toward he store might also have been at fault. The measure asked participants to rate "convenience stores"--not the specific chain mentioned as the sponsor--on three bipolar scales, "friendly service - unfriendly service," "slow service -fast service," and "low prices - high prices." The connection between attitude toward the sponsoring convenience store and altitude toward convenience stores in general may have been too weak to reveal significant effects.

In contrast to this disappointing result, hypothesis four was confirmed. Hypothesis four predicted that winners would evaluate the game more favorably than losers. The results show that winners had a mean score of 35.4, significantly higher than 28.8, the mean score of losers, t(49) = 4.09, p < .01.

Hypothesis five predicted that winners would report a greater likelihood of entering a subsequent sweepstakes than losers. Once again, the results confirmed this tendency. Winners reported a mean likelihood of entering a later sweepstakes of 5.4. Losers reported a significantly lower mean likelihood, 3.6, t(49) = 2.32, p < .05.

A question included for exploratory purposes asked participants to indicate which prize they would prefer to win if they entered a follow-on sweepstakes. The choice was between $1,000 cash and a saving certificate that would pay $2,500 in five years but could not be cashed until then. The results show that participants, whether winners or losers, overwhelmingly preferred a more immediate reward. About 80 percent chose the $1,000 cash. This preference could not have been motivated by a formal appreciation for the present value of money. The $1,000 would have to be invested at an annual rate of return of 20 percent after tax to equal $2,500 in five years. Comparison of the winners and losers revealed that a higher proportion of winners choose the delayed reward (26%) than losers (12%) but this difference was not significant, t(49) = 1.27, p > .05. Since the difference was in the expected direction, further research on this phenomena might be justified.

A problem in the interpretation of the study's results is whether the effects on the attitude and likelihood of further participation measures should be attributed to mood differences or other factors such as a favorable attitude toward the product created simply by associating winning with the product. Although this interpretation cannot be dismissed, the mood difference between groups was highly significant and no doubt contributed to the observed differences.


In summary, the paper reviewed the major steps in promotional game participation--the decision to play, the process of play, and the consequences of play--and discussed the relation of affect to each stage. Focusing on the affective consequences of game outcomes, the paper reported a test of a set of five hypotheses that predicted that winning or losing a game would have significant effects on mood, attitude toward the promoted product, attitude toward the store sponsoring the promotion, evaluation of the game, and likelihood of further participation in the game. The results supported the hypothesized effects except for the attitude toward the store measure. Possible explanations for this exception were discussed.


The possible interaction between mood and participation in promotional games has a variety of implications for marketers. The designer of a promotional game should consider the interaction between mood and the game at each major stage of participation in order to maximize the positive affective consequences of participation and minimize the negative affective consequences. For example, an important implication of this study is that losing a game may have negative effects on mood and other variables such as attitude toward the promoted product. This possibility suggests that games should be designed so that more participants feel like winners than losers. For consumers who lose, the negative effects of loss might be alleviated by offering consolation prizes or encouraging attribution of the loss to extrinsic factors such as bad luck.

Future Research

Each stage of game participation suggests issues for further research. At the initial stage of the decision to participate, issues such as the influence of mood on the perceived value of prizes, the value of play, and the probability of winning require further research in a gaming context to develop specific guidelines for practitioners. The interaction between the process of playing a game and mood could be further understood by studies of how different types of games and aspects of their play influence mood. Finally, the impact of game outcomes on mood and other variables needs to be further understood by studies of factors that influence the strength of affective reaction to a win or loss (e.g., the degree to which a win was initially expected), the attributions consumers make for success or failure at different types of games, and the effects of series of losses and wins on mood and attitude toward game sponsors.

Studies of how individual differences influence game participation, play and reaction to outcomes could also yield interesting insights. For example, studies of state lottery players indicate that lower income players tend to prefer games with lower jackpots but higher odds of winning (Edmondson, 1986). In contrast, higher income players tend to prefer games with large grand prizes but far lower odds of winning. Demographic and personality differences might also influence consumers' preferences for promotional games.


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