The Cult of Cute Advertising
From the E-Trade baby to the Geico gecko, advertising is awash in all things cute. Far from being a recent phenomenon, advertising has capitalized on our love of cute since stipple prints of babies graced the first Victorian print ads. But our obsession with the adorable has reached an all-time high in recent years.
Examples of Cute Advertisements
Consider the Geico gecko, who first appeared on all fours slithering across the Geico logo in 2000. He’s since morphed into a cuddly character with a charming Cockney accent.
“The gecko’s cuteness tricks you into forgetting that it represents something that’s not cute in the slightest,” James Wolcott writes in the Vanity Fair article Addicted to Cute: “a giant insurance company, which must deal in matters most uncuddly, such as injury, death, and arguments over claim payments.”
Wolcott’s explanation doesn’t work for all cute ads, though. What about Evian’s commercial of roller-skating babies, which garnered over 26 million views on YouTube?
Then there’s the ETrade baby, who first appeared in a 2008 SuperBowl commercial. Love him or hate him, the commercial boosted ETrade’s business by almost 20 percent, according to ABC.
Lest you think babies get all the action, there’s also Samsung’s series of commercials which used puppies, kittens and other baby animals to demonstrate new uses for Samsung mobile phones.
OK, What’s With All the Cute Ads?
According to science, our attraction to the cute and cuddly may have an evolutionary basis. Many traits that symbolize “cute” – big eyes, round faces and vulnerability – originate in human infants. And paying attention to those characteristics, says Natalie Angier in the New York Times, makes good sense:
“As a species whose youngest members are so pathetically helpless they can’t lift their heads to suckle without adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire,” Angier writes.
If cute characteristics appeal to our nurturing side, is cute advertising an effective way to reach women? I asked an expert, Michele Miller of Wonderbranding and author of The Soccer Mom Myth. Michele responded:
“The use of ‘cute’ in advertising and its effectiveness comes down to whether or not it makes sense to do it for your product or service. Women’s BS meters are in hyper-drive, and using babies or cute puppies for an effect sends those meters into the red. Believe me, WOMEN ARE ON TO YOU. And don’t mistake lots of positive reaction from potential customers for persuasion.
Your ad may be creative, cute, and comment-worthy, but in the end, will it SELL YOUR PRODUCT? Cute has always been around, and always will be—but does it sell?”
Do Cute Advertisements Work?
Michele raises a good question: cute traits may cause us to pay attention, but do they cause us to reach for our wallets?
So far, research is inconclusive. While no study links cute imagery with increased buying behavior, a recent study by Edinburgh psychologists showed that seeing pictures of infants greatly increased people’s tendency to behave altruistically.
“If you are a non-profit organization that depends on altruistic behavior, employing baby images could get your donors in a more generous mood,” writes Roger Dooley on his blog Neuromarketing.
I emailed Roger and asked if he thought cute advertisements were a good marketing strategy. His response:
“In my opinion, cute ads work best where there’s a logical relation to the product or service, or where they add something tangible to a more nebulous product. For example, the Geico lizard (gecko?) and Aflac duck have no relation at all to their firm’s products, but in fact insurance products are intangible and potentially intimidating. The mascots are fun, friendly, and tangible—along with being cute.”
In other words, “cute” is no magic bullet in advertising. It’s just another marketing tool that needs product relevance, understanding of your target market and a healthy dose of common sense.
That said, I’m still not tired of watching the puppies, bunnies, kittens and hamsters try out new uses for the … what’s that phone called again?