Study shows that some words used in consumer branding only dig so deep into the brain.

In news that must be distressing to advertisers spending an average of over $350,000 to produce a national 30 second commercial, a study examining the neural response to brand personality suggests that consumers aren’t buying the hype.

Researchers from the University of Michigan and Harvard University discovered that despite being told over and over again, the American public won’t really be “lovin’” their meal at McDonalds, doesn’t actually believe Disneyland is “happy” and isn’t under the impression that United Airlines’ skies are all that “friendly.”

During the study—the first ever to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI),to examine how different regions of the brain are affected when thinking about certain qualities of brands—20 subjects were asked if 450 adjectives, like “down-to-earth,” “sophisticated” or “warm-hearted,” were applicable to themselves and other people. Then they were asked if those same human-like qualities could be judgments about brands they know and use.

The research team found that while the same words were being used to describe people and products, different regions of the brain were activated when subjects were talking about one or the other. The fMRI scans detected that there was a greater neural response in the medial prefrontal cortex regions of the brain when applying the adjectives to people. But when focusing on brands, like Wal-Mart, Starbucks or Ben & Jerry’s, the left inferior prefrontal cortex was activated, an area of the brain known to be involved in object processing.

“We didn’t expect that,” said Fred Feinberg, a University of Michigan statistician, regarding the different brain regions that responded to the stimuli. “A lot of prior theorizing said that objects can have personalities, especially brands.”

The finding indicates that the anthropomorphizing of brands often used in commercials isn’t humanizing a product, and thus, the ad is falling on deaf ears.

“Advertisers should keep in mind that when they use personality terms for a product—reliable, trustworthy, cheerful—consumers are not associating those purely human qualities to the products in question,” said lead author Carolyn Yoon, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Business School.

The results of the study, slated to be published in the June issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, may make companies more cautious about using typically human traits to describe their products, Yoon predicts.

One solution for companies that want their brands to seem “dependable,” “sincere” or associated with any other human quality, could be to create a fictional character or brand mascot like the Jolly Green Giant, Tony the Tiger or Ronald McDonald.

“It could be that associating an actual person with a brand is the only way to get those human characteristics to stick,” said Feinberg.

Although they did not examine this possibility in their study, Yoon agrees that it’s more likely for brand characters to be processed in the “person” regions of the brain, giving companies a way to market their products along more human lines.

Originally published March 22, 2006

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