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INTERNATIONAL COLUMN : BOOTH SCHOOL OF BUSINESS
Is That Car Smiling at Me?
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.
Issue Date - 01/12/2011
 
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.

A Good Start

The main reason we wrote this paper was to get the study of anthropomorphism going in consumer research. 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. This is a useful starting point for the growing interest in anthropomorphism in the field of consumer research.

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, characterising 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.

Amir Moin           
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