The e-commerce giant Alibaba created a virtual shopping mall in November, which fell flat.
“Why would you do something in V.R. that you could do easier in real life?” asked Stephanie Llamas, a vice president at SuperData, which provides data for the digital gaming industry.
The key, marketers and researchers said, is connecting with people emotionally and offering them an experience they wouldn’t normally have in the real world.
“It’s about the adventure,” not pushing products, said Kyle Taylor, a partner at Fact & Fiction, an advertising agency based in Boulder, Colo.
Dos Equis, the beer maker, created one of the more elaborate virtual reality experiences with its 2014 “Masquerade Party.” Viewers were transported into a party that included flamethrowers, acrobatic dancers and a dominatrix, and interacted with other guests to solve the evening’s mystery. More than 27 million people viewed the online interactive film.
It wasn’t about selling beer, said Ari Kuschnir, the founder of M_ss_ng P_eces, the production and entertainment company that produced the video. “It was about taking you on a journey and making you feel something.”
Mr. Taylor’s firm created a virtual reality experience for the forthcoming opening of the Evel Knievel Museum in Topeka, Kan., in which people can sit on a Harley Davidson, put on a virtual reality helmet and virtually jump over 18 police cars.
“To give that experience, that jolt of adrenaline” is unique, he said, adding that “nobody in their right mind is ever going to do that” in the real world.
Sometimes companies experiment with augmented reality, which drops virtual objects into a viewer’s field of view, and 360-degree videos, which show all angles of a scene but don’t allow interaction, before diving into the more expensive world of virtual reality. A 360 video generally costs between $10,000 and $100,000.
In 2016, Excedrin unveiled “The Migraine Experience,” an augmented reality video that gave a person, wearing a virtual reality headset, the experiences of blurred vision, disorientation, sensitivity to light and other problems that people with migraines face — without the pain, of course.
“Folks were feeling that nobody really understood what it was like to go through a migraine,” said Scott Yacovino, senior brand manager of Excedrin at GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare. “This video accomplished this in a way that regular ads could not.”
Excedrin sales rose 10 percent after the campaign in 2016, Mr. Yacovino said, compared with a 1.5 percent industrywide increase.
When virtual reality works, there is no doubt that it can draw attention. When Lenovo Software used a virtual reality video to promote its Lenovo Unified Workspace at the Gartner Symposium trade show in 2016, some people returned to the company’s booth three or four times to watch it. More than 500 people spent, on average, 12.5 minutes with the video at the conference, and the company wound up getting more than three times as many leads as it had at previous conferences, said Sal Patalano, Lenovo’s chief revenue officer.
Certain sectors, like travel and entertainment, have had the most success with virtual reality advertising.
Marriott International was an early — and successful — adoptee of virtual reality with its Teleporter booths in 2014. Guests, fitted with Oculus Rift headsets, would step into the booth and be virtually transported to far-flung cities — from a black sand beach in Maui to the top of Tower 42 in London. The booth also featured blasts of wind, heat and mist to deepen the physical experience.
“V.R. helped us tell a story and inspired people to travel,” said Karin Timpone, Marriott’s global marketing officer.
This summer, Marriott will roll out its latest venture: an “In the Moment” series of virtual reality videos on social media, which take people on hosted tours of Marriott Properties and its reward program’s “Once-in-a-Lifetime” events.
And then there is the N.B.A., which in September released “Follow My Lead: The Story of the 2016 N.B.A. Finals,” a 25-minute virtual reality documentary. Viewers got so close they could see the sweat on the face of Cleveland Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue.
Reaction was rapturous, and it again showed the virtues of virtual reality — if executed correctly.
“It was access that otherwise wouldn’t be available unless you’re LeBron James,” Mr. Taylor said. “And that’s where it becomes extremely powerful.”
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