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Faculty Insights

Celebrity or Familiarity: What Matters More?

By Wisconsin School of Business

April 13, 2012

Grainger Hall behind red and white flowers creating a "W"

An article in the Wall Street Journal features new research conducted by Assistant Professor Robin Tanner and Ahreum Maeng, a Ph.D. candidate, on the effect on trust and preference of morphing unfamiliar facial images with those of two famous individuals: George W. Bush and Tiger Woods.

As part of the study, Tanner and Maeng digitally create composite faces that are made up of 35% of the celebrity face, and 65% of unknown model faces. When individuals view these morphed faces, they universally fail to consciously recognize the presence of the celebrity images, and instead believe they are viewing the faces of entirely unfamiliar people. Despite this lack of conscious recognition, when asked to rate how trustworthy they believe the pictured individuals are, it becomes clear that individuals are subliminally influenced by the celebrity facial cues. In particular, in our initial experiments, both the Tiger-morphed and Bush-morphed faces were rated as being more trustworthy than were appropriate control faces.

The soon-to-be-published paper, entitled “A Tiger and a President: Imperceptible Celebrity Facial Cues Influence Trust and Preference,” poses potentially important implications for marketers, who tend to focus on digitally manipulating the attractiveness of the individuals they use in their advertisements.

“Faces are the most common visual stimuli in advertising,” Tanner tells the Wall Street Journal, “and we have all of this neuroscientific evidence that says the brain is hard-wired to respond to faces in certain ways”

Results suggest that automatic perceptions of familiarity may actually have similar, or perhaps greater, potential to influence consumers. Perhaps, in some circumstances, familiarity may actually trump beauty?

“I get to sit in the ivory tower,” Tanner continues. “Do I think there’s a potential to make better ads, especially print ads, by doing this? Yes. As a scientist, that’s kind of as far as I need to take it. If I were in marketing would I do this?” He pauses. “Maybe.”

Read the full article.