We’ve seen the ads so many times that they have become commonplace: talking fish selling canned tuna, talking reptiles selling insurance, talking dogs selling pet supplies. In most cases, we don’t stop to consider that we are being sold products not by humans but by animated characters, and that, just as often, we buy the products with no qualms.
Researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago wanted to understand why we seem so trusting of these anthropomorphic salespeople, and when, if at all, a human spokesperson might do better. What they found ended up revealing some fascinating glimpses into ourselves and who— and what— we trust.
This week’s insight: Overall, we’ve grown accustomed to non-human spokespeople selling us products. But they work particularly well with one group of people and particularly poorly with another.
Research study: “Who or What to Believe: Trust and the Differential Persuasiveness of Human and Anthropomorphized Messengers” by Maferima Touré-Tillery and Ann L. McGill, Journal of Marketing, July 2015. https://journals.ama.org/doi/abs/10.1509/jm.12.0166
What they did: The research team put participants in a controlled setting where they were shown pre-created advertising messages. One message featured a talking object, such as a lamp or a coffee cup, the other a regular human spokesperson.
The research team then compared participants’ reactions to the two different messages.
What they found: The researchers found a difference between two groups of people. People who identified as being trusting of human behavior preferred the human salesperson, while people who identified as being distrustful of humans preferred the talking object.
“People who don’t trust human beings in general tended to put more faith into the humanized objects, because
they have less of the negative characteristics of people,” whereas people who inherently trust people found the objects less trustworthy, said Maferima Touré-Tillery.
But there’s something else at work here, too, she explained.
Her team also tracked the levels of attentiveness of the participants, and found that naturally trusting people paid less attention to the advertisements overall than less trusting people, and didn’t care as much whether or not the spokesperson was human.
“We are bombarded with ads, yet our findings highlight that there are certain people paying more attention to ads than others,” Touré-Tillery said. “Low trusters pay more attention.”
So in a nutshell, Touré-Tillery says, anthropomorphic spokespeople seem to be working just fine for most brands, since they appeal to low-trusting people and are largely overlooked by more trusting viewers.
“I think the key takeaway here is that anthropomorphism is seen a lot in advertising and that, in general, it appears to be a good thing,” she said. “When people are at a default level of attentiveness, this seems to be a good strategy.”
But if brands overuse non-human spokespeople, consumers may start to pay attention and a backlash could ensue.
“If every spokesperson we see becomes anthropomorphized, it would become less effective,” she said. “Then, people would start to have the perception that the message is a marketing gimmick or a tactic to persuade consumers, and people start questioning the motives behind the ad.”