Making a Distinction Between "Cheerful" People, Products


A study blending marketing and neuroscience research shows consumers process judgments about people and brands differently.

ANN ARBOR, Mich .— Human-like descriptors, such as "cheerful" and "friendly," are often applied to brand-name goods. As a result, advertisers often presume that consumers themselves apply such verbal labels equally when judging products and people.

Not so, according to new research from Michigan Ross professors Carolyn Yoon and Fred Feinberg.

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research challenges commonly held assumptions underlying this tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects. Rather than relying on conventional verbal responses and observed behaviors the research used neuroimaging to measure brain activity directly.

Yoon and Feinberg were joined by U-M’s Thad Polk and Harvard University's Angela Gutchess in the research.

They discovered that judgments made about people and brands are processed differently, in separate regions of the brain. Their findings also suggest that brand judgments are made in an area that handles knowledge about inanimate objects rather than people.

"Overall, the results of our investigation support the contention that consumers do not process descriptive judgments of products in the same manner they do those applied to humans," said Yoon, an assistant professor of marketing. "Different regions of the brain are affected by person versus brain judgments."

The researchers were the first to use functional magnetic resonance imaging to explore whether semantic judgments about products and persons are processed similarly. Nineteen volunteers participated in the functional MRI session where their brains were scanned while they made judgments about whether a trait adjective described a familiar brand or person. A total of 450 trait adjectives were compiled and a subsequent recognition task was administered after a 10-minute delay.

In addition, Yoon and colleagues explored whether individuals are more likely to remember brands that are relevant to them than those that are not. They found greater activation in one portion of the brain (medial prefrontal cortex) during people judgments. However, they observed more activation in another brain area (left inferior prefrontal cortex) during brand judgments.

Further, the results did not suggest that memory is enhanced for self-relevant brands the way it is for people.

Their study offers a new way of looking at the underlying mental processes involved in judging products and people. It suggests that when consumers are processing brands, it may be in a different way than marketers perhaps intended.

"Marketing managers need to realize that when they tag a product with personality terms—reliable, trustworthy, honest—consumers may not be associating those purely human qualities with the products in question," Yoon said.


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