Anthropomorphism is a literary term that pertains to the projection of human attributes onto the world around us. The term is believed to have Greek origins but examples are found across popular culture from all parts of the world. YouTube is scarily littered with examples; talking pets, inanimate objects with seemingly personal vendettas (My car is called Beverley and she hates me), chips made to look like real people and of course who can forget the legend that is Grumpy Cat. Obviously it’s all just a metaphor, a device that can help us visualise complex ideas or helps us as human beings decode and interpret the world around us.
As an industry, we notoriously anthropomorphise the inter-play between people and brands. We’ve all used phrases like: “generating brand love”, “we need more adorers” “the key to this is to build greater engagement”. These are all projections of human attributes that help us to understand the task in hand. No-one (sane) really loves a brand in the same way they love their partner or their mother. People don’t enter into an actual relationship with the brands they purchase; Byron Sharp and the Ehrenberg Bass institute have proven the lack of genuine ‘loyalty’ that exists within a category. In many ways the purchase decision couldn’t be further removed from a genuine human relationship, a complex mix of heuristics and choice architecture wrapped up in about 0.25 seconds. Hardly Romeo and Juliet.
It does have its uses in advertising. The interaction between people and brands is complicated; anthropomorphism of that inter-play undoubtedly creates a commonality of language that makes our jobs easier whilst helping to navigate ever more complex communication decisions. Saying we need to build ‘love’ gives us the freedom to move away from just functional and rational communications (touch points and messaging) and asks us to look for more of an insight driven solution that projects understanding of the consumer.
However, these are still just metaphors. The concern is that our industry gets so carried away, we actually start to believe our own rhetoric. Investing significant amounts of time and money attempting to building complex assimilations of human relationships that resultantly remove the product from the role it plays in the real world. A washing powder is not my friend. I don’t want to spend a lot of time with it. I don’t want it to have a meaningful dialogue with it. I have lots of real friends who play a much bigger role in my life. Brands creating increasingly immersive experiences assume that people are interested in what they’ve got to say and are looking for brands to devote themselves too.
In essence anthropomorphism of branded interaction runs the risk of falsifying and overblowing the role that product or brand plays in the lives of its consumers. The obsession with chasing a relationship clouds the more important brand requirements like saliency, reach, penetration and the real metrics business should be focusing on: bottom line results.
Research has done much foster these types of metaphors within our industry. Metrics around engagement set precedence for work and expectations that are not only difficult to meet, but are removed from the ‘reality’ of how that message will be consumed. Measuring ‘engagement’ on a link test is nothing like watching a ad break surrounded by 3 screaming kids- not to mention a likely second screen. No pseudo-human relationship with a brand is ever going to combat that.
I’m not suggesting that we ditch the anthropomorphism that exists within the industry. It’s served us well and the semiotics of it will continue to be useful, but let’s take a step back from it sometimes and understand it for the metaphor that is. Real Life gets in the way of advertising-that’s the beautiful reality. The challenge for advertising isn’t to create complex relationships between brands and people; it’s to combat latent apathy via being relevant and interesting. It’s not forgetting how and why people interact with different touch points and most importantly it’s about creating tangible business results.
Stewart Gurney is strategy director at PHD Australia