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Fine Art In Advertising Can Backfire

August 23, 2011

Throughout the ages, fine art has been accorded a special significance and recognized as a powerful communication tool. Art has been used to sell everything from products to politics to religion.

But art can be stripped of its special status if used carelessly by advertisers, according to a new study by researchers from Boston College and the University of Houston.

If the artwork is viewed as a product-relevant illustration, then consumers no longer view it as art. Suddenly, they can take a critical view of its message, according to the new study, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“Art is valued for its own sake,” said Henrik Hagtvedt, a marketing professor in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. “If brands are associated with art in a tasteful way, consumers will accept and even appreciate it. But as soon as the artwork is viewed as a mere product-relevant illustration, it is demoted to the status of any other ordinary image.”

Art may thus lose its unique powers of communication, Hagtvedt and colleague Vanessa M. Patrick, a professor of marketing of the University of Houston, found in three experiments in which art was presented on product labels and in advertisements.

One study conducted by Hagtvedt and Patrick involved a wine tasting at a bar. While tasting, the patrons also inspected the wine labels, which featured paintings by the French artist Renoir. For some customers, the bartender had been coached to comment that the bottle labels featured paintings. People who tasted these wines judged them all favorably.

For others, the bartender casually mentioned that the same wine label paintings depicted people. The patrons still judged the wine favorably if the label featured what seemed like an appropriate image, such as guests at a luncheon. But the same wine in a bottle labeled with an out-of-place image, such as a woman and child playing with toys, was received less favorably.

The findings reveal not only that wine labels can influence how wine tastes to consumers, but also that it matters how those consumers perceive the labels. Art causes wine to taste good, but only as long as it retains its status as art. This demonstrates some of the limits marketers face when using fine art to pitch their products.

“When people view an image as an artwork, it communicates as art and it doesn’t matter whether the content fits,” said Hagtvedt. “But when they start to focus on the content of the image, such as the people or their activities, then it becomes a product illustration and consumers begin to weigh whether it fits or not.”

Two other experiments, in the context of advertising for soap or nail salons, replicated the pattern of results. Different images caused different product evaluations, but if the images were viewed as artworks rather than illustrations, then the products tended to be viewed in an equally favorable light.

The researchers suggest the responses reflect how humans have evolved to recognize and appreciate art as a special category of expression.

“People have evolved to care about art,” said Hagtvedt. “It is something we have appreciated in all societies known to man, throughout history and pre-history. It is also a magnificent tool for marketers who rely on its communicative power in a thoughtful and honest manner, but those who use it thoughtlessly are not likely to impress anyone.”

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