Accidents take the form of a suited man named Mayhem. An ordinary-looking person declares, “I am a stroke.” Cars chat among themselves and a nattily-attired gecko discusses insurance. A pair of muffins argues like a dad and a teenage daughter, trying to sell us cooking spray.
Spend a few minutes in front of TV or any screen, and we’re likely to see advertisements where a product, disease, or concept is endowed with human features or behavior, or is represented by an actual human.
Why is this anthropomorphism so common in advertising? With entertaining examples, Ann McGill explained and shared her research on how people respond to it.
Advertisers anthropomorphize for simple reasons: it’s funny, it gets attention, and, because it’s hard to take seriously, it fends off counterarguments. You might object to the pronouncements of a spokesperson, but you’re not going to talk back to the talking muffin.
McGill explains that anthropomorphism affects us on a deeper level. It shifts our metacognition; thoughts about our thinking can spill over onto the product or entity we’re evaluating.
Take the fluency effect: The brain pays attention while it’s analyzing the message and if the process is easy and comfortable, research shows we’re more to believe that message and respond to it. In contrast, McGill said, “ads with messages in an ugly font feel less true; service is rated less good.”
Likewise, at the meta-level we’re always trying to solve puzzles and fit new into patterns. “Maybe what’s going on with preference for humanized entities depends on whether there is a fit for a known schema. When it does, you think, ‘oh, I get it.’ That snick of recognition makes you feel good, and you respond to it,” McGill said.
She tested that in a 2007 study with Aggarwal, measuring responses to images of a product representing a family of flavors. People were indifferent to a row of same-sized bottles in different colors. When the bottles were sized like parents and siblings, people saw a family; they rated the product more highly and were more willing to buy it.
Other research suggests that anthropomorphism induces people to shift their own internal feelings and responses from the social world to a product. In an experiment involving subjects’ sense of power and response to risk, McGill and colleagues found that people who saw themselves as powerful were more likely to want to gamble when shown a picture of a slot machine that was subtly humanized. People who didn’t feel powerful did not.
In another test, the researchers described a disease as a dangerous ailment or in terms of a family of criminals. People who rated themselves as powerful and heard about the humanized disease judged themselves less likely to get it and saw it as less serious.
But still, why would you believe a talking muffin? It all comes down to trust. “The lack of humanity may be the key. Humanity is the problem player in all of this,” McGill explained.
For individuals who score low on a scale of perceived interpersonal trust, “just being human renders some people unworthy of trust. How do you deliver a message to someone if they don’t trust humans? You anthropomorphize,” she said.
In a series of experiments involving talking dental floss, a lamp promoting light bulbs, and a coffee cup, people with low trust were more influenced by the anthropomorphized products than a human.
The low-trusters are responding unconsciously, McGill acknowledged. If asked, they are not going to say, “The guy was an idiot, but the muffin indeed made some excellent points.” But the brain’s quirky ways of applying human, social constructs in these situations “gives this peculiar impression that muffins are more persuasive than people.”
McGill said that as society moves more into robotics and computing, anthropomorphism will become more present in our lives–think how Siri transforms your relationship with your phone. As it does, “we can begin to ask how human objects should be, and which traits did we give them.”