'Anthropomorphism' is a literary term that pertains to the projection of human attributes onto the world around us.
YouTube is 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 people, and who can forget Grumpy Cat. Obviously it’s all just a metaphor, a device that helps us visualise complex ideas or interpret the world around us.
As an industry, we anthropomorphise the interplay between people and brands. We’ve all used phrases like ‘generating brand love’ and ‘the key to this is greater engagement’.
No-one loves a brand in the same way they love their partner or mother. People don’t enter into relationships with brands they purchase. In many ways the purchase decision couldn’t be further removed from a genuine human relationship, a mix of heuristics and choice wrapped up in 0.25 seconds. Hardly Romeo and Juliet.
The interaction between people and brands is complicated. But saying we need to ‘build love’ asks us to look for an insight-driven solution that projects understanding of the consumer.
The concern is that our industry gets so carried away, we start to believe our own rhetoric, investing time and money attempting to build complex assimilations of human relationships that remove the product from the role it plays in the real world. A washing powder is not my friend. I don’t want it to have a meaningful dialogue with it.
In essence, anthropomorphism of branded interaction runs the risk of falsifying and overblowing the role the brand plays in consumers’ lives. The obsession with chasing a relationship clouds the important brand requirements like saliency, reach and bottom line results.
Engagement metrics set expectations that are difficult to meet and are removed from the reality of how that message will be consumed. Measuring engagement on a link test is nothing like watching an ad break surrounded by three screaming kids and a second screen.
I’m not suggesting we ditch anthropomorphism. But let’s understand it for the metaphor that it is.
The challenge for advertising isn’t to create complex relationships between brands and people. It’s to combat apathy by being relevant and interesting. It’s not forgetting how and why people interact with it, and most importantly it’s about creating tangible business results.
Stewart Gurney is strategy director at PHD Australia.