Media Releases

“Please Feed Me”: The power of putting a human face on social causes

November 6, 2013

TORONTO, ON — Com­pa­nies often put a per­son­al face on prod­ucts in an attempt to reach a deep­er con­nec­tion with con­sumers. Now new research in the upcom­ing edi­tion of Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence shows the same idea can be applied to social caus­es.

Putting a human face on the cam­paign for a social cause actu­al­ly increas­es sup­port for it, accord­ing to the study from team of researchers includ­ing Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough and Rot­man School of Man­age­ment pro­fes­sor Pankaj Aggar­w­al.

Aggar­w­al, along with Hae Joo Kim, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Mar­ket­ing at Wil­frid Lau­ri­er Uni­ver­si­ty and Hee-Kyung Ahn, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Mar­ket­ing at Hanyang Uni­ver­si­ty, South Korea, found that anthro­po­mor­phiz­ing social caus­es is effec­tive because it appeals to people’s sense of guilt.

“We are not con­scious­ly aware of why see­ing a human face on a cam­paign has an impact, but we def­i­nite­ly feel a deep­er con­nec­tion to it,” says Aggar­w­al. “When we see an enti­ty feel­ing pain we would feel guilty if we could have done some­thing to pre­vent it. We also wouldn’t want that bur­den on our­selves so we would act accord­ing­ly to help that enti­ty.”

Peo­ple are not moti­vat­ed to sup­port social caus­es because it involves a per­son­al sac­ri­fice of time, mon­ey and effort. It’s only when they stop to con­sid­er the con­se­quences of not par­tic­i­pat­ing – and feel guilty as a result – that they begin to com­ply.

Using ener­gy con­ser­va­tion, recy­cling and the envi­ron­ment as social caus­es, the researchers found that by draw­ing a human face show­ing emo­tions on the poster increased sup­port for each cause.

In one exper­i­ment the researchers put eyes and a mouth with a cap­tion that read “Please feed me food waste” on a bin for organ­ic waste. The face on the bin looks sad because of an appar­ent lack of par­tic­i­pa­tion in recy­cling food waste. They found par­tic­i­pants were more like­ly to place food waste in the bin with a human face com­pared to the ordi­nary, non-anthro­po­mor­phized bin.

“Not only did we find par­tic­i­pants felt guilty about not com­ply­ing with the social cause, but they also felt guilty about harm­ing anoth­er being, in the form of an anthro­po­mor­phized light bulb, waste bas­ket or tree,” says Kim.

Gov­ern­ment agen­cies and char­i­ties use a vari­ety of expen­sive and often inef­fec­tive finan­cial instru­ments, such as fines, to encour­age par­tic­i­pa­tion in social caus­es, says Aggar­w­al.

Putting a human face on a social cause, says Aggar­w­al, may offer an inex­pen­sive yet high­ly effec­tive means of gain­ing more sup­port.

The study, “Help­ing Fel­low Beings: Anthro­po­mor­phized Social Caus­es and the Role of Antic­i­pa­to­ry Guilt,” is avail­able online and will be pub­lished in an upcom­ing issue of Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.


For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact:

Don Camp­bell
Media and Rela­tions Offi­cer
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough
Tel: 416–208-2938