Behavioral Bias Bingo — The Whimsical Cuteness Effect
“So Cute I Could Eat it Up”: Priming Effects of Cute Products on Indulgent Consumption
- Nenkov and Scott
- A version of the paper can be found here.
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This article examines the extent to which consumers engage in more indulgent consumption when they are exposed to whimsically cute products and explores the process by which such products affect indulgence. Prior research on kindchenschema (baby schema) has found that exposure to cute babies or baby animals leads to more careful behavior (see the study by Sherman, Haidt, and Coan), suggesting restraint. The present research uncovers the opposite: consumers become more indulgent in their behavior after exposure to whimsically cute products. Drawing from research on cognitive priming, kindchenschema, anthropomorphization, indulgence, and regulatory focus, this research posits that exposure to whimsically cute products primes mental representations of fun, increasing consumers’ focus on approaching self-rewards and making consumers more likely to choose indulgent options. These effects do not emerge for kindchenschema cute stimuli, since they prime mental representations of vulnerability and caretaking. Four empirical studies provide evidence for the proposed effects and their underlying process.
Are consumers more likely to be indulgent when making decisions if they are primed by a “whimsically cute” object?
Previous research on the construct of “cuteness” suggests that priming of kindchenschema, or the dimension of cuteness which centers on baby characteristics such as large eyes, rounded cheeks, and miniature body parts, elicits consumer decisions that are cautious and risk averse. Kindchenschema cuteness triggers mental representations of vulnerability. Consumers then respond in an appropriate way; they revert to a protective stance in their consumption choices.
However, there are other aspects of the cuteness construct that warrant investigation. One such dimension is whimsical cuteness, defined by its capricious, impish, and playful mechanisms (Nenkov & Scott, 2014). As such, whimsically cute products often have anthropomorphized attributes or lighthearted characteristics. Nenkov & Scott, 2014, discovered that products demonstrating whimsical cuteness–compared to neutral or kindchenschema ones–led to increased indulgent consumption choices!
Before we go into the details, let’s first review two experiments from this paper which stand out as illustrative of the whimsical cuteness effect.
- Experiment 1: 33 undergraduates from College were invited to participate in an “ice-cream taste test” in exchange for course credit. Participants were randomly given two types of scoops: a neutral or a whimsically cute one (fig 1).
- Guess what? Participants consumed more ice cream with the whimsically cute ice cream scoop even though the scoop size was equivalent between the two conditions.
- Experiment 2: 85 undergraduates from college were randomly assigned to view either a neutral stapler or a whimsically cute one (fig 2).
- Results: Participants reported they were more likely to use the whimsically cute stapler for indulgent purposes, such as fun art projects, and were less likely to use the neutral stapler for nonindulgent purposes, such as work projects. Similar to the ice cream scoops in Experiment 1, the staplers were matched in terms of their functionality.
Applications in the real world:
Whimsicality is big business in today’s consumer retail world. For example, online retailer Etsy is a central marketplace for whimsically cute handmade products. From a mass retailing perspective Target uses this approach too. In general, both small and large businesses have found a segment of consumers who enjoy everyday products with puckish features. An example of a whimsically cute product is a wine bottle opener shaped like a ballerina; it conveys a playful image. Or it could be a cupcake designed to resemble a soccer ball or a pumpkin. Conversely, a tire company using infants in their advertisements portrays the omnipresent vulnerability in everyday life and the imperative need to protect loved ones. These products both utilize cuteness, but lead to dissimilar consumer behaviors.
In this research paper, Nenkov and Scott (2014) posited that exposure to cute products with a whimsical nature should trigger distinct mental representations of self-reward, indulgence, and pleasure. However, since whimsically cute products are not associated with the caretaking characteristics of kindchenschema cuteness these schemas should result in vastly different consumer decisions. That is, whimsically cute products should prime consumers for fun and enjoyment. Nenkov and Scott (2014) predicted that the mental representation of fun (primed by whimsicality) will increase consumers’ self-reward focus and therefore will lead to less self-control and more indulgent consumer behavior.
Consumers should be aware that the marketing of whimsically cute products can have potentially unfavorable long-term effects on them as it encourages indulgent consumption. Consider the whimsically cute ETrade baby:
Feeling primed for some capricious, and self-indulgent trading? So are the millions of others watching this baby in a Superbowl ad.
In general, consumers can avoid impulsive purchases, and unhealthy consumer choices, by being aware of these triggers in their immediate retail environment.
Nenkov, G. Y., & Scott, M. L. (2014). “So cute I could eat it up”: Priming effects of cute products on indulgent consumption. Journal of Consumer Research. 41, 326-341.
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