Personification in Advertising: media literacy

Delbaere, McQuarrie, and Phillips recently argued for the benefits of using personification in advertising. They write that: “This rhetorical device is powerful because it taps into the deeply embedded human cognitive bias referred to as anthropomorphism – the tendency to attribute human qualities to things.” (p.121) “[A]nthropomorphism makes an emotional response more probable, and it increases attributions of brand personality. With brand emotions and personality elicited, liking for the brand shifts upward.” (p.121)

Personification and Anthropomorphism explained

“Historically, personification has been defined as a figure of speech in which inanimate objects are characterized in terms of human attributes, thus representing the object as a living and feeling person (ricoeur 1977). These human attributes can include any aspect or element of “intelligent, animated beings, like beliefs, desires, intentions, goals, plans, psychological states, powers, and will” (Turner 1987, p.175). The reason that personification can be comprehended by consumers is because of anthropomorphism – the cognitive bias whereby people are prone to attribute human characteristics to things. In terms of a model of communication, personification is a message characteristic – an option that can be added to a message, while anthropomorphism is an inherent audience characteristic – one that allows this particular message option to be effective.” (p.121)

Anthropomorphism is “seeing the human in non-human forms” (Aggarwal and McGill 2007, p.468). …One of the most explicit attempts to incite anthropomorphism, with a long history in advertising, is the spokescharacter. A spokescharacter is an animate being or animated object that is used to promote a product; examples include Mr. Peanut, the Pillsbury Doughboy, the M&M chocolate candy characters, and the Michelin Man. …As consumers now deem spokescharacters to be too obvious (or ‘cheesy,’ to use the vernacular), advertisers are confronted with a dilemma. How can the benefits of anthropomorphism be realized, now that consumer ennui with spokescharacters has rendered this time-honoured approach increasingly less effective? In this context, personification emerges as a logical alternative, tacit where spokescharacters are explicit, and able to harness the benefits of metaphorical processing in ways that cartoon characters cannot.” (p.122)

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) identify personification as one of the most common and instinctive metaphorical expressions because the shared and basic experience of humanness provides an opportunity to express many different ideas by comparing things to living entities. Fundamentally, then, personification is a particular kind of metaphor.” (p.122)

“This paper provides evidence that personification in print advertising can be a powerful tool. Personification metaphors, defined as photorealistic images that portray a product engaged in human behavior, encouraged consumers to anthropomorphize. Personification metaphors also made a positive emotional response to the brand more probable, and produced more positive attributions of brand personality, relative to what other visual metaphors, not using personification could accomplish. These outcomes, in turn, led to increased liking for the brand.” (p.127)

“It appears that advertisers do well to consider how they might harness anthropomorphism in those strategic contexts where it may be an appropriate message strategy. As [Mark] Turner notes: “We are people. We know a lot about ourselves. And we often make sense of other things by viewing them as people too.”” (p.129)

Locating this research historically, the authors explain: “In the early decades of advertising scholarship, under the influence of the Theory of Reasoned Action and related approaches, researchers were prone to assume that the purpose of advertising was to transmit information on positively evaluated brand attributes. Later, stimulated partly by approaches such as the Elaboration Likelihood Model, the field came to recognize that there was at least one other route to successful advertising outcomes. This alternative route, variously termed peripheral, heuristic, or transformational, did not depend on the successful transmission of information about positively evaluated attributes. In consequence, some advertising researchers shifted focus toward studying how the advertisement communicated instead of what it communicated. Message style became as much a focus as message content, and this paper’s demonstration of positive effects for personification can be seen as but the latest in an ongoing effort to uncover the full set of effective stylistic devices used in advertising.” (p.128)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Marjorie Delbaere, Edward F McQuarrie, Barbara J Phillips (2011) Personification in Advertising: Using a visual Metaphor to trigger Anthropomorphism. Journal of Advertising 40(1) Spring: pp.121-130

ABSTRACT: “All forms of personification draw on anthropomorphism, the propensity to attribute human characteristics to objects. In an experiment, we show that visual personification – pictures in an ad that metaphorically represent a product as engaged in some kind of human behavior – can trigger anthropomorphism. Such personification, when embedded in an ad, appears to lead to more positive emotions, more positive attributions of brand personality, and greater brand liking. Implications for advertisers are discussed.” (p.121)


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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