Read Full Paper

When consumers talk to each other, marketers listen. And when a product is portrayed as having human characteristics, consumers talk about it more favorably, say HKUST Jaideep Sengupta and colleagues. In a study with critical implications for marketers, communicators, and consumers, the authors show that portraying products as having human characteristics—in other words, product anthropomorphism—may cause consumers to speak more kindly to one another about such products. Why? To give others the impression that they are kind, polite, and likable people.

Consumers routinely share their opinions—positive and negative—about products and services with each other. In the age of social media, such opinion-sharing—consumer “word of mouth”—has become ubiquitous. According to the authors, a novel factor increases the likelihood that this word of mouth will be positive: “the extent to which a product is imbued with humanlike characteristics.” This might involve, for example, a car that is depicted in advertisements as having a “smiley face.”

When consumers talk about such products, they seem to be interested in creating the same type of favorable impression as they would if they were talking about a person—they wish to be seen as well-mannered and likable. “When talking about an anthropomorphized product,” the researchers tell us, “people are likely to follow the same norms that they do when they communicate about another person—including the norms for creating a favorable impression on the recipient of the communication.”

Why do consumers speak more positively about “humanized” products than about products that are marketed more straightforwardly? The answer, say the researchers, may be that they have “a motivation to impress others,” which “derives from the greater importance of wanting to appear polite when discussing humanlike (vs. non-humanlike) entities.”

To test this hypothesis, the researchers conducted five studies among typical consumers in which they were asked to view consumer reports about products that were described as having human-like characteristics. As expected, they found that “imbuing a product with humanlike characteristics leads consumers to communicate more positively” about the product.

These findings indicate that even when a consumer does not own an anthropomorphized product, “a humanlike depiction of the product” can encourage the consumer to describe it positively. In addition, “just as the wish to create a favorable impression by showing one’s kindness and politeness leads individuals to be relatively positive when discussing other people,” so consumers are driven by their desire to show kindness and politeness by speaking positively about anthropomorphized products.

These findings may favor the use of anthropomorphized products rather than traditionally presented products because people “are more likely to form a positive” impression of a consumer who speaks well of an anthropomorphized product. Consumers wish to be viewed as agreeable, and the use of anthropomorphized products may encourage this tendency, with favorable results for marketers.