Leveraging the Power of Anthropomorphism: the life of things


Falling in love with things is an idiosyncratic behaviour that begins very early in our lives and began very early in human history.

This ubiquitous phenomenon can be in part attributed to anthropomorphism (or personification), a psychological process that allows us to make sense of the world around us.

Anthropomorphism involves ascribing human characteristics to non-human things. This habit of seeking out similarity helps us simplify and therefore understand and lend meaning to things that are unfamiliar to us. Familiar people are perceived to be less of a threat, therefore more attractive to us. We subconsciously apply this same principle to objects.

There is little difference in brain function when a human being thinks about other people vs. non-human entities — at a neurological level people and things are one and the same. Yet, we do not anthropomorphise everything that is non-human; the humanness and similarity we are hard-wired to detect does not always present itself.

Where does anthropomorphism come from and how does it manifest?

Religion is one of the earliest examples of anthropomorphism.

The Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel — the oldest known anthropomorphic animal carving in the world

Deities are supernatural beings personified. However, the concept didn’t enter public consciousness until the Greek Philosopher Xenophanes coined the term, after observing the physical similarities between religious believers and their Gods.

From a scientific standpoint, religion is believed to be an evolutionary survival mechanism because it promotes co-operation and cohesion within groups, ensuring the propagation of our species.

Another theory suggests that the religious mind has evolved as a by-product of a large brain, along with human consciousness, which helps us deal with the notion of death, the ultimate unknown!

The past and present is replete with physical evidence of anthropomorphism

A 32,000 year old human shaped, lion headed ivory figurine dug up in Germany is one of the oldest such examples to have been unearthed.

Woody and Buzz Lightyear in Pixar’s Toy Story

A more modern and accessible example of anthropomorphism is Disney-Pixar’s animated films. The popularity of these films with children and adults alike is heavily reliant on anthropomorphism: bringing Clown Fish and toy space-rangers to life through our imaginations, as the beloved characters Nemo and Buzz Lightyear.

Have you ever wondered why hurricanes have human names? This is also the work of anthropomorphism, deliberately employed in this circumstance because it increases our willingness to engage with information about a potentially dangerous situation.

A human name is simpler and easier to comprehend because it is more familiar than a complicated scientific name: the general public is more likely to pay attention to it. Weather warnings are communicated more effectively so people are ready to ‘batten down the hatches’.

Erika La Tour Eiffel

Anthropomorphism can also manifest in unhealthy ways, as it did with Erika La Tour Eiffel. She plays out an extreme kind of anthropomorphism in her life: she has been diagnosed as Objectum Sexual.

In 2008 she married the Eiffel Tower in front of a small group of friends and well-wishers. The object of her desire is in fact an object: a 364-metre tall, handsome, wrought iron tower.

She is one of very few people in the world with this fetish, a result of a troubled past. These objects represent lifelines to such people, over which they can exert complete control thus quell feelings of existential loneliness.

Whatever the end game of this unconscious tendency, our need to humanize the things around us is primeval and pervasive

We are adverse to feelings of loneliness, heightened in the modern age where people are increasingly isolated from one another. As the John Donne poem says, “No man is an island” — in the absence of people to connect with, we will substitute them with non-human entities, be it the family pet, a teddy bear, or even a brand.

Brand anthropomorphism: a simple and effective hook

Brand anthropomorphism is key to the initiation of a brand’s relationship with its consumer

Character from Disney-Pixar’s film Cars

Brands and products are often given human characteristics to endear them to consumers. This can be readily seen in automobile design. Car designers have a good grasp of the persuasive power of anthropomorphism. They understand that people actively search for physical cues of humanness and incorporate this in to their designs: it is no accident that the fronts of cars often resemble faces.

The face of a Mini Cooper

If you study the front of a Mini Cooper you will notice that it appears to be smiling. Its human resemblance creates familiarity and conveys a fun and free-spirited personality. We are attracted to products and brands like this fundamentally because of their humanness, and it is this humanness that we reach out to.

A much simpler manifestation of anthropomorphism can be witnessed in the design of the popular British vacuum cleaner brand Henry the Hoover. It has none of the sleek designs or innovativeness of Dyson but it is a good vacuum cleaner nonetheless. What sets it apart from competition is its unique branding; each one is red, has a smiley face printed on the exterior and appears to be wearing a black top hat.

Henry the Hoover

Henry is the superhero of the British vacuum cleaner market. He has a real personality and story that makes the brand highly recognizable and a symbol of reliability. The product has been personified in such a simple way, simultaneously adding appeal and spreading the word about how well he will clean your carpets.

Anthropomorphism is a highly useful, simple and persuasive tool which brands can employ to consciously convey humanness to consumers

At a basic level, if done well, it provides a simple trick to increase brand appeal and visibility.

Anthropomorphism has the potential to increase brand engagement by simplifying the crowded brand landscapes that consumers grapple with and cut through the clutter. It also helps to get a brand’s point of view across more effectively, as consumers are more willing to listen to what it has to say.

At a deeper psychological level, through anthropomorphism, human beings are unconsciously seeking greater connectedness in the world. In this context the role of a brand is more meaningful — it is more than a mere provider — it is also a psychological anchor.

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