Talking geckos and other anthropomorphic “spokes-characters,” are ubiquitous in advertisements. Various studies reveal some of the psychological reasons explaining why and how anthropomorphic marketing works — as well as some of the potential risks.
As reported in a 2013 Advertising Age article, Geico Insurance’s ubiquitous talking Gecko was launched as a trial balloon. There had been no prior marketing research, and certainly no intention of creating a long-running marketing character who now has a book and appears in life-size form at sporting events. However, As Geico CMO Ted Ward tells Advertising Age, the Gecko ad delivered a little bump in sales, which led to another advertisement… and today the chance of watching more than a few minutes of television without running into the green insurance “spokes-character” are very slim indeed.
Why would a talking lizard successfully convince viewers to buy life insurance from the company with a name that vaguely sounds like his species? For that matter, why would dancing hamsters convince viewers to buy a Kia, or chattering cartoon bees convince parents to buy Honey Nut Cheerios?
In an in-depth Chicago Booth CapIdeas article, writer Alice Walton reviewed some of the research that reveals why anthropomorphism — the attribution of human characteristics to animals and things (think Thomas the Tank Engine… and the Geico gecko) — is so effective.
Among the many researchers cited by Walton is University of Chicago professor Robert Epley, who has studied the psychological underpinnings of anthropomorphism and gives three reasons that we tend to anthropomorphise. First, we anthropomorphise for social reasons, to make a connection. People who feel a connection to their cars may give “her” a name. Second, we anthropomorphise to make sense of the world — and in some ways exert some kind of control over it. One way we exert some control over our world is by inferring what other people are thinking, and reacting accordingly. Anthropomorphism helps us deal with what inanimate things might be thinking. For example, when your car starts up in the morning without problem, it is a machine. When on a cold morning the car does not start, however, we say that the car is “refusing” to start, and we get angry at it. The third reason we anthropomorphise, according to Epley, is cognitive and automatic. We see the world through our human lens, so that it is very easy to humanize objects. Even the slightest nudge (for example, giving the object a face, a voice or even a name) is all we need imagine that the object in question has a mind.
For businesses, the purpose of anthropomorphising is not simply to have customers think of products as living things with a mind, but to elicit from customers a positive reaction to the product. In other words, through anthropomorphisation, companies are able to make their products more likeable and trustworthy.
Certain characteristics of humans will cause certain reactions, and the same holds true for anthropomorphised objects. For example, previous studies had shown that faces with slanted (rather than arched) eyes combined with downturned mouths indicated aggression, while arched eyes and upturned mouths indicate friendliness. Walton cites a study conducted by Chicago Booth professor Ann McGill, joined by Jan Landwehr and Andreas Herrmann of the University of St Gallen, in which they showed participants pictures of cars that replicated these facial expressions (e.g., cars that had “upturned” or “downturned” grilles, and “slanted or arched” headlights) and asked them to rate the cars’ friendliness and aggressiveness; the personality-“expression” match-ups were the same as previous studies that rated people.
The same study revealed that anthropomorphisation can replicate the power dynamics of human relationships. Participants were given brands as partners (who could help the person achieve his or her goals) or servants (who would do the work for the participants). One of the brands studied was Volvo. The experiment was designed to measure the risk aversion of the participants when Volvo, a brand known for safety, was either designated as partner or servant. With Volvo as servant, participants took more risks — a laboratory experiment that in the real world would indicate that car drivers, knowing Volvo’s reputation for keeping drivers safe, might take more risks.
The Volvo experiment shows why companies should sometimes be cautious about using anthropomorphisation in their marketing efforts. After all, Volvo does not wish to encourage unsafe driving. McGill’s research shows that a person who feels powerful may get the wrong message when faced with anthropomorphisation — a powerful CEO may feel that she can dominate an anthropomorphised cancer, for example, and thus refuses to take cautionary steps such as stopping to smoke.
On the other hand, anthropomorphisation can enhance the trustworthiness of a deserving product. Google’s self-driving car is designed with “facial” features that help put nervous “drivers” at ease. And studies show that for people who have trouble trusting other people, an anthropomorphised product is more trustworthy. Which may explain why so many people are more convinced to buy insurance by a talking gecko than a smiling, well-dressed pitchman.
Marketers work to find creative ways to elicit the most positive reactions to their products; psychological research is providing the scientific explanation for what the creators of Mr. Peanut and the Koolaid Man knew instinctively: humanizing products can make them more likeable.
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