If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

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By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist, and Jake McKenzie, Chief Executive Officer

Have you ever wondered about all the anthropomorphizing going on these days? Wait, before you jump up to go wash your hands, don’t worry, it’s not contagious — well, at least not in the traditional sense anyway. But it is a highly effective marketing technique that allows you to create a favorable product impression among your target audience and the people they interact with on a daily basis.

Anthropomorphizing is the act of attributing human-like traits and characteristics to animals, plants, or even inanimate objects. Examples would include holding both sides of a conversation with a cat, commenting that a houseplant looks “happy” today, or perhaps referring to your broken-down vehicle as being “tired.” Imbuing cats, plants, and cars with human-like traits and emotions helps us connect with them on a deeper level, and similarly when used in marketing, anthropomorphizing can help build a key emotional bond between consumers and the products they see advertised.

A recent paper in The Journal of Consumer Research discovered that product anthropomorphism increased positive word-of-mouth communication among the study’s participants. In their desire to be seen as kind and polite to others, participants who viewed the anthropomorphized products (versus the un-anthropomorphized products) displayed more positivity towards the products in their interactions with casual peers and acquaintances. This effect is suggested to be driven by impression management, meaning that our desire to create and maintain good relationships with our peers leads us to speak favorably about others with whom we might be mutually associated. Even when those “others” are anthropomorphized products.

Past research has shown that presenting products as “human-like” via behavior and appearance increases the perceived efficacy of the products (and subsequently the intention to purchase), but this new research helps shed light on some of the mechanisms behind this phenomenon. Humans are biologically wired to recognize the “humanness” of others, and in turn, we behave in ways that confirm our humanness as well (such as speaking favorably of products with human-like qualities). For example, our brain contains a specialized gyrus exclusively used for identifying human faces, which is why we can easily see a human face in the clouds, a piece of toast, or a product on our TV screen. In all these cases, it increases our fondness for the objects. These “humanness” recognition factors are incredibly important for our survival as a species. They are the mechanism behind the cooperative efforts used to create and maintain a flourishing human society. And as studies show, they can also allow us to create feelings of human goodwill towards inanimate objects.

Three simple ways to “humanize” a product:

  1. Similarity. This can be as simple as creating a human-like face or movements associated with human behavior. A classic experiment in psychology depicted a geometric shape (like a circle or a triangle) going into a house and having the door close behind it. This simple animation was enough to cause viewers to imbue the observed shape with human-like intentions and qualities.
  2. Emotional connection. Create situations reminiscent of the human condition. Empathy is a powerful motivator and when we see a situation that is familiar to us, it automatically puts us “in the shoes” of the protagonist. Even when the protagonist isn’t human.
  3. Use your words…carefully. Studies show that incorporating the use of natural sounding human voices and speaking patterns helps provide a stronger humanizing effect than the use of visual aids and/or mechanical (i.e., robot-like) speaking patterns.

To better understand consumer psychology and to learn more about the pros and cons of anthropomorphizing in marketing, give us a call at 833-579-1905 or email us at [email protected].