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Carolyn Yoon and Fred Feinberg
  Carolyn Yoon and Fred Feinberg

Making a Distinction Between "Cheerful" People, Products

5/12/2006 --

Consumers use different mental processes and separate regions of the brain to make judgments about people and products, even if they are described identically.

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 the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

A study forthcoming in the June 2006 issue of 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, U-M researchers Carolyn Yoon, Fred Feinberg and Thad Polk and Harvard University's Angela Gutchess used neuroimaging to measure brain activity directly.

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, the researchers say, 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.

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat
Phone: (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847