I’ve always enjoyed looking at the intersection of psychology and advertising. A particularly interesting overlap is brands’ use of fictional characters as mascots. Why did Geico invent a gecko to sell insurance, for instance? And why do they keep rolling out new commercials for him?
The common explanation is that using mascots can set products apart and help consumers identify with the brand personality. The gecko certainly helps us remember Geico, just as Mayhem helps us remember Allstate and Flo Progressive. However, individuation is far from the only reason for mascots.
In addition, two human biases underlie the success of advertising icons. On the one hand, humans have a preference for the familiar. In fact, there is a bias called the mere-exposure effect, which is the preference people display for things simply because they have encountered them before. This is no secret in the advertising world. In fact, Leo Burnett whose agency created the likes of Tony the Tiger, the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Doughboy, and the Marlboro Man once said “None of us can underestimate the glacier-like power of friendly familiarity.”
The mere-exposure effect makes sense in evolutionarily terms, but it also plays out in our purchasing decisions. If you need tissues, for instance, would you be more likely to buy Kleenex or Joe Blow’s Mighty Nose Wipes? Probably Kleenex. All else equal, purchasing the familiar brand feels safer. Indeed, the mere-exposure effect plays a large role in our otherwise nonsensical preference for branded options over their generic counterparts. But, if our preference for the familiar is so strong why don’t companies just show the same ad over and over and why do they make changes to product lines?
It’s for the same reason most of us don’t watch the same movie day after day, or eat the same meals. Working in opposition to the mere-exposure effect is our need for the novel. We habituate to old stimuli. In a larger sense, we need stimulation and we actively search for it. In psychology this is known as sensation seeking or novelty seeking behavior. Basically, companies need to make new ads because we stop responding to the old ones.¹
When you combine the preference for the familiar with the need for the novel it becomes clear why brands use mascots. They are trying to have the best of both worlds. By putting a familiar character in a new situation you can increase the audience’s’ interest compared to running an old ad, and you’ll have the benefit of having a familiar (more liked) character. With every good commercial the brand can add more and more favorable thoughts to the character and thus to the brand itself.
- At least for the time being. As time goes on we get a bit more receptive to old stimuli again. This dishibuation helps when brands play with nostalgia.