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Is That Car Smiling at Me?

Anthropomorphizing Brands and Products

Research by Ann L. McGill

Ann L. McGill is Sears Roebuck Professor of General Management, Marketing and Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
 
 

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 anthropomorphize brands and products. Tire maker Michelin's century-old trademark, for instance, is the jolly and rotund Michelin Man that was designed to resemble a stack of tires. 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 anthropomorphized 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 University of Chicago Booth School of Business professor Ann L. McGill and Pankaj Aggarwal of the University of Toronto examined in their study "Is That Car Smiling at Me? Schema Congruity as a Basis for Evaluating Anthropomorphized 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," explains McGill. "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 favorably 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," McGill says. By contrast, those that were presented the car as an object were indifferent between the smiling and the frowning cars. Aggarwal and McGill found that participants were more likely to give the car a good review if it seemed more human to them, which emphasizes the importance of effectively anthropomorphizing 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 "behavioral mimicry" may have colored participants' evaluation of the car, Aggarwal and McGill 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.

Aggarwal and McGill found that participants were indifferent between the two groups of bottles when the beverage was introduced as a product line, but favored 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," McGill says. "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.

The authors 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," McGill explains. "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 favorably 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.

A Good Start

"The main reason we wrote this paper was to get the study of anthropomorphism going in consumer research," explains McGill. Although researchers have long noted the pervasiveness with which products are seen and portrayed as people, not much is known about how this process works and the specific conditions that would lead to a higher or lower evaluation of a product. McGill and Aggarwal's work is a useful starting point for the growing interest in anthropomorphism in the field of consumer research.

"One of the biggest contributions of this paper is putting a stake in the ground as an early study of anthropomorphism, which gives us a point of departure for subsequent work," McGill notes.

The important lesson for marketers is that when they decide to present a product as human, they have to make sure that all the elements are there to get the message across. As in the experiment with the smiling car, characterizing the product as a spokesperson is only half the job. Making sure that the product's features match the character evoked by the marketer is what will help lead to success in the marketplace.

Let Volvo Take Care of You

In a related paper, Aggarwal and McGill look at the extent to which anthropomorphizing a brand causes people to adopt or resist a brand's traits.

Researchers in social psychology have found that if people think about a type of social group, they will also start to think about the characteristics of that group. For instance, if they start thinking about the elderly, they may walk more slowly. However, others say that just the opposite might be true. Because thinking about a social group makes the mind prepare for an interaction with that group, thinking about the elderly may make someone slow down out of respect and to be able to talk to them. But it might make someone else pick up his pace if that person does not like old people.

Aggarwal and McGill propose that whether a brand's trait is taken on or not depends on whether the product was presented as an object or as a person. For instance, Volvo cars are generally perceived as among the safest in the world. The study's preliminary results show that if people think of Volvo as just a brand, they become risk averse and do not gamble as much. However, if people were asked to think of Volvo as a person, they started behaving in risky ways because they know that Volvo will take care of them.

"What this suggests is that the products and services around us are changing us," McGill says. And just like the smiling car and the family of bottles, the way they change us depends on whether we see products and brands as objects or humans.

"Is That Car Smiling at Me? Schema Congruity as a Basis for Evaluating Anthropomorphized Products." Pankaj Aggarwal and Ann L. McGill. Journal of Consumer Research, 2007.