Would a car that seems to smile at you make you like it more? Perhaps, but only if a marketer succeeds in making you see the product as human.

It could be a face in the clouds or the side of a mountain, or a pair of ducks that seem to strut around like a happy middle-aged couple. Cars are given names by their owners because they are seen as loyal companions, but a malfunctioning computer is sometimes scolded as if it were deliberately annoying its user. Anthropomorphism – or the tendency to see the humans in non-human forms, animals, and objects – is something that people do all the time.

Marketers often encourage this tendency of consumers to anthropomorphise brands and products. Tyre maker Michelin’s century-old trademark, for instance, is the jolly and rotund Michelin Man that was designed to resemble a stack of tyres. Luxury car Cadillac presented its product with human-like traits in a television ad that shows a Cadillac “crashing” and enlivening a dull party of other luxury cars.

Imbuing products with distinct personalities can be a good strategy for long-term business success – provided that it is effective. Not all objects can be anthropomorphised with equal ease, so the challenge lies in convincing consumers to see the products as human.

When marketers present a product by “humanizing” it in some fashion, consumers call to mind their own idea of what the suggested person should look like. They then assess how well this “schema” matches the features they see on the product. If the consumer perceives a good fit, then that satisfying experience can carry over to the evaluation of the product. A poor fit, on the other hand, can lead to frustration. This is the hypothesis that I and Prof. Pankaj Aggarwal of the University of Toronto examined in our study “Is That Car Smiling at Me? Schema Congruity as a Basis for Evaluating Anthropomorphised Products.”

If people get what you’re doing and if the product seems human to them, it’s like a very satisfying snick in your head. That bumps up the evaluation of the product.

Smiling Cars and a Family of Bottles

In the study’s first experiment, participants were asked to evaluate a car’s newly redesigned look. The cars were presented to them in one of two ways: as a spokesperson speaking in the first person or as an object described in the third person. The participants were then shown a picture of a car that had been manipulated so that its front grill either pointed up in the shape of a smile, or pointed down to resemble a frown.

Participants who were presented the car as a spokesperson were more likely to rate the car as human and to evaluate it more favourably if the car had a smile rather than a frown. Interestingly, smiles were seen as more human than frowns, which is consistent with prior research. By contrast, those that were presented the car as an object were indifferent between the smiling and the frowning cars. We found that participants were more likely to give the car a good review if it seemed more human to them, which emphasises the importance of effectively anthropomorphising a product.

But what if a smiling car gets the thumbs up just because it makes the participant smile and feel good? To rule out the possibility that “behavioural mimicry” may have coloured participants’ evaluation of the car, we conducted another experiment without the smiles and frowns. Instead, participants were asked to evaluate a beverage that was depicted either as a “product family” or a “product line.” They were then shown a picture of four bottles that were either of the same size or of different sizes.
It was found that participants were indifferent between the two groups of bottles when the beverage was introduced as a product line, but favoured the different-sized bottles when the drink was presented as a product family. When we say, ‘Think of us as human,’ and we give them the picture that looks like a family, then they love it. But when we show them these same-sized bottles they don’t like it. It just doesn’t seem right. Just like in the earlier experiment, participants liked the product more when its features were congruent with the kind of person the marketer presented. In this case, different-sized bottles seemed to remind them of the members a family, which in turn led to the beverage’s higher evaluation.

We then conducted one final test. What if consumers are able to see the product as human, but it’s just not the type of person they like? For instance, not everyone gets along with his or her mother-in-law, so if a marketer tried to get that image across, people may understand it but they might not necessarily give the product a good evaluation. In this case, the negative feeling associated with that person could override the satisfying feeling from having made the right connection. If it’s a mildly negative schema, it can be sort of washed out. But a really negative schema is probably going to dominate.

To test this hypothesis, experiment participants were shown two beverage bottles of the same size and another two of different sizes. The bottles were presented either as the “good twins” or the “evil twins.” As expected, the results show that participants had no difficulty seeing the same-sized bottles as twins whether they were portrayed as good or bad. However, the beverage was evaluated less favourably when it was depicted as evil.

Still, not all negative representations may get a bad review as long as the marketer does a good job of presenting a product in a way that seems human. Products that are “killers,” for instance, may not always be seen in a bad light, especially when bad breath and bathroom germs are the targets.

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Source : IIPM Editorial, 2011.

An Initiative of IIPM, Malay Chaudhuri and Arindam chaudhuri (Renowned Management Guru and Economist).

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09/05/2012 10:17pm

Never though on this topic before coming across this article..... I realized after reading the article that it does happen with everyone, including me.

09/05/2012 10:21pm

Attributing full human personality to pets or even things such as car PCs is often regarded as a huge mistake and such people are regarded as eccentric.

09/05/2012 10:26pm

Nice blog IIPM......indeed anthropomorphism is a common thing in almost every individual's life.

09/05/2012 10:30pm

The use of anthropomorphic from in ads can be a great way to make ads more appealing to the viewers and use it to build an emotional rapport with them.

09/05/2012 10:35pm

Anthropomorphism or assigning human characteristics to nonhuman objects is alive and quite popular in the world of advertising.

09/05/2012 10:40pm

Anthropomorphism is very common among individuals.... be it in case of cars, computers, animals or even something like a door or stone that hurts the individual.

09/05/2012 10:43pm

The anthropomorphic from often conveys the qualities we see in the human from it's mimicking ... ads based on this idea is often more successful in attracting consumers.

09/05/2012 10:43pm

In my opinion this concept is the best way of building an emotional connection with the audience or consumers..

09/05/2012 10:44pm

Nice article........found it really interesting to read.

09/05/2012 10:48pm

Yes,sometimes things like a door or a stone that hurts a person accidentally is often scolded as if it had hurt the individual on purpose...i have experienced it many times!!!!

09/05/2012 10:50pm

Good article indeed....anthropomorphism does help in connecting an individual with ads in a much better way.

09/05/2012 10:51pm

For me anthropomorphism is very common as I see something in all things around me....be my pets,my car or my PC.

09/05/2012 10:54pm

I do believe that though pets might not utter a single word but they do seem to understand human emotions to a large extent.

09/05/2012 10:58pm

I've never experienced a pet uttering a word but. I've seen them appear to understand to would never think they'd comprehend.

10/05/2012 12:14am

we like things that look and act like us no doubt we are predisposed to prefer them....


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