Wade Wade and Dr. Ryan Elder, Marketing
This project was designed to investigate the effects of exposure to anthropomorphized products on the way that consumers treat other people. Researchers have shown that people starved of social connectedness will sometimes seek relationships with products or brands as a way of relieving social insecurity and the fear of death (Rindfleisch, Burroughs & Wong, 2009). Additional research has shown that people whose needs for social interaction have been satisfied are more likely to dehumanize distant others (Waytz & Epley, 2012). We thus reasoned that anthropomorphism of brands and products, while efficacious for improving the consumer’s sense of social connectedness, might have an unintended side-effect of enabling consumers to dehumanize others. Our hypothesis was that consumers presented advertisements depicting anthropomorphized products would score higher on measures of dehumanization relative to those presented with advertisements of non-anthropomorphized products.
Methods and Results
To test our hypothesis, we conducted three experiments via online surveys. A total of 368 people were surveyed over the course of these studies. All three experiments used the same manipulation, which was adapted from stimuli created by Puzakova, Kwak, and Rocereto (2013). Participants were randomly assigned to either the experimental condition or the control condition. In the experimental condition, participants were asked to evaluate three advertisements depicting anthropomorphized products. These products were modified to mimic human facial features. The description for each product was given from the first-person perspective, indicating that the product itself was speaking. In the control condition, participants were shown the same advertisements, but with the anthropomorphic facial features removed and the product descriptions changed to the third-person perspective.
In study 1, the dependent measure we chose to use was a 4-item questionnaire with a scale ranging from one (“strongly disagree”) to seven (“strongly agree”). This questionnaire was created by Waytz and Epley (2012) for the purpose of measuring participants’ willingness to dehumanize others. The results of study 1 were not statistically significant due to floor effects—most respondents selected “strongly disagree,” making it impossible for us to detect differences between the responses of each group.
For study 2, we decided to design our own questionnaire based upon uniquely human attributes such as intentionality, consciousness, and free will, as well as attributes unique to products such as disposability and passivity. Only one of our six questions yielded a statistically significant response. The question was, “If one of my friends moved away, I would have a difficult time replacing him or her.” Those in the experimental condition were more likely to respond that they would have a difficult time replacing a friend that had moved away; this indicates that interacting with anthropomorphized products does indeed affect interpersonal relations, but in the opposite direction that we predicted.
For study 3, we designed a new questionnaire meant to capture the important differences between products and humans, but this time we used action-oriented questions meant to measure how participants would choose to treat others in specific situations. None of these questions yielded statistically significant responses at the .05 level, but two of them came somewhat close (p = 0.1468, p = 0.1893). The first of these questions asked how much money per hour the participant would be willing to pay a maid to clean their house. The second asked about how willing the participant would be to help a woman stranded on the side of the road if they were late for a job interview. In both cases, those in the experimental condition were more likely to respond prosocially (pay the maid more money, agree to help the woman). We also included a questionnaire adapted from Aggarwal (2004) to measure the type of relationship each participant felt with the brands they were presented at the beginning of the study. Four of these questions yielded statistically significant results. Those in the experimental condition were more likely to indicate that the brands they were shown were like friends, like family, like themselves, and that they felt a personal connection with the brands.
Discussion and Conclusion
Given that many of our responses were not statistically significant, we cannot draw any definitive conclusions at this time. However, our data seem to indicate that exposure to anthropomorphized products may enable or encourage consumers to treat people better than they would otherwise. This effect is contrary to our original hypothesis—it may be the case that marketing managers can use anthropomorphism in their advertisements and product development to improve both consumer-brand relationships and the way that consumers treat those around them. Additional research is needed to verify this effect.
- Puzakova, M., Kwak, H., & Rocereto, J. F. (2013). When humanizing brands goes wrong: The detrimental effect of brand anthropomorphization amid product wrongdoings. Journal of Marketing, 77(3), 81-100.
- Rindfleisch, A., Burroughs, J. E., & Wong, N. (2009). The safety of objects: Materialism, existential insecurity, and brand connection. Journal of Consumer Research, 36(1), 1-16.
- Waytz, A., & Epley, N. (2012). Social connection enables dehumanization. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 70-76.