Why Cuteness Works In Advertising: Scientifical Evidence

It’s an accepted convention that the internet is full of cat pictures. Very few people would deny that cats are cute. There’s just something about the little furry creatures that makes us fall in love with them; so much so that we don’t even mind that much when they scratch us, or refuse to play ‘fetch’ with us in the way a dog would. What you may not realize is that we’re hard-wired to find cats cute, and the same science behind that fact is one that advertisers use to appeal to us, all the time.

In advertising, every strategist worth their salt knows that cuteness sells, and that using or creating cute characters are a surefire way to get us to part with our money time after time. When they apply themselves really well, you don’t even know you’re being sold to at all; you just see something adorable, and you want to own it; and if you don’t believe us, we’re going to give you some solid evidence!

As a starting point, let’s talk about Pokemon. The Japanese cartoon originally made it big in other parts of the world in the late 1990s, but experienced something of a Renaissance in 2016 with the release of the ‘Pokemon Go’ game for mobile devices. There are Pokemon of all shapes and sizes (hence the slogan ‘You’ve got to catch them all’), but the mascot for the entire franchise is Pikachu. Even if you’ve never seen Pokemon before, you’ll have seen Pikachu; it’s the squashy yellow character with its big head, wide eyes and little tail. Without Pikachu’s appeal, it’s less than certain that Pokemon would ever have become a global sensation. Pikachu is undeniably cute, because Pikachu was especially designed to be cute.

Now take what we know about Pikachu’s design; the shortened limbs, the small mouth, the big eyes and the oversized head, and apply it to established cute characters from elsewhere. Mickey Mouse from the world of Disney is an excellent example. He, too, was designed to be cute. Disney has got ‘cute’ down to a formula, and it’s one we’re all familiar with. With the limb proportions, lack of a neck, pear-shaped torso and short legs, along with a high forehead and small nose and mouth, it’s the formula of a cute baby’s physiology.

There are several scientists who believe that we’re programmed to find babies cute. It’s evolution’s way of helping us bond with a newborn, and to identify them as being worthy of protection and care. The theory is that thousands of years ago, at an early point of human existence, our less evolved ancestors needed to be able to identify healthy babies as being worthy of caring for quickly, and we used these physical characteristics as a signal. We’ve long since evolved to take care of all of our children no matter what they look like, but the trigger signals remain.

Whether the theories of these scientists bear weight or not, there’s one thing about cuteness which we know to be true, because it’s been proven under scientific testing conditions; seeing cute pictures releases a chemical called dopamine within our brains. Dopamine is the chemical that our brains produce in excessive quantities when we’re in love (or, in some cases, when taking recreational drugs). The amount released when we see a cute baby, a cute picture or a cute character is much lower, but we’ll still register it on a subconscious level. Cuteness makes us happy because it changes the balance of chemicals in our brains. As such, we’ll always be drawn to cuteness whether we’re consciously looking for it or not.

Ever since the science of this has been properly understood, it’s been used by advertisers everywhere. We’ve already talked about Pokemon and Disney, but those are obvious examples. You expect cuteness in a cartoon, but you’d be less likely to expect it at a casino. Nevertheless, you’ll find it in the Fluffy Fairground game. The online slot has been one of the most popular among players on the internet, ever since it was launched over a decade ago. Traditional slot games often run with an Irish theme, or are themed around fruit, like physical slot machines were years ago. The developers behind Fluffy Fairground knew all about the way cuteness appeals to the adult mind, and made an online slot full of cuddly stuffed toys instead. Players, predictably, fell in love.

Of course, being aware of all this kind of ruins the whole concept of cuteness. If cuteness works on us because it reminds us of what our own babies look like, then part of that appeal will be the innocence of the look. Something is only cute if it looks adorable, and in need of protection. The moment when we look past that to wonder if it’s actually just trying to sell us something, that appeal is lost. Are we therefore at risk of losing the whole idea if cuteness to cynicism?

Probably not. Whether it’s hardwired into us for evolutionary reasons, or just because it produces dopamine and makes us feel good, we’ll always be susceptible to cuteness because we have no control over it. Just like with the Puss In Boots character from ‘Shrek’ (another fine example of Disney and Pixar using the ‘cuteness’ factor to its full effect), we’ll still fall for it every time it presents itself, even if we know it’s secretly trying to get us to buy from it. We’ll still consume all the cat memes. We’ll still go to see the Disney films. We’ll still buy the cutely positioned products. On some level, we’re all just addicts looking for that next dopamine hit.

Coming back to the point we made at the start of the article; when you think about it, advertisers and marketers who fall back on cuteness are just like our real-life cats. They only decide to be cute when they want something from you. We know that about them, but despite that, we’ll still feed our cats five minutes after they’ve scratched us. We’re doomed to succumb to cuteness forevermore!

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