Bladders, guts and feet: The psychology behind anthropomorphic body parts

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Is it easier to face our grosser anatomical features when they have a life of their own?

If you watch TV, there’s a good chance you’ve recently seen human-like body parts smiling and waving back at you. A commercial for the drug Myrbetriq, for example, features a blue-eyed bladder with arms and legs who constantly nags a woman to drop what she’s doing and visit the restroom.

During the Super Bowl, Xifaxan ran a spot starring a bundle of bowels known as "Gut Guy." His dilemma: How to watch the big game without diarrhea instigating a shameful sprint to the toilet. A spot for the topical solution Jublia, which also aired during the Super Bowl, showcases NFL legends Deion Sanders, Howie Long and Phil Simms relaxing in a spa alongside a large fungus-infected foot named Big J, who sports a purple robe and presumably smells fresh despite his visible symptoms.

The reaction to these anthropomorphic creations has been mixed, but loud. While some viewers consider them adorable, others seem repulsed. A sample tweet from the latter camp reads, "Can't decide which animated trade character is more disgusting: Myrbetriq's overactive bladder or Xifaxan's gassy mass of intestines. #yuck."

Indeed, after the Super Bowl, Entertainment Weekly deemed Gut Guy the game’s unofficial mascot due to the sheer number of people on Twitter either praising or condemning his existence. The Wall Street Journal, however, reported that though Xifaxan’s and Jublia’s ads generated significant buzz for their respective ailments on social media, many of the nearly 112 million people who watched football’s main event last month didn’t particularly enjoy the ads addressing "not-so-pleasant bodily functions."

If it turns out, then, that most folks don’t want to think about abdominal pain while watching human innards walk around in public, then what, exactly, is the wisdom behind creating such a character?

On one hand, the benefits of cartoon mascots are well documented. Animated spokespeople, from Mr. Peanut to Tony the Tiger to the Kool-Aid Man, provide a brand with personality. They can embody a company’s ethos and lend a distinct voice across social media platforms. At the same time, they don’t get drunk in public or upload racist rants onto YouTube. They don’t demand higher wages, complain about long hours, or fret over compromising their artistic integrity.

As humans, we have an innate tendency to see ourselves in decidedly non-human things, whether that be gods, cars or a nightcap-wearing moon within the pages of a children’s book, so it only makes sense to harness this quirk.

On the other hand, the human body can be kind of gross, especially when dealing with illness and disease. So while a variety of brands have long used characters with human characteristics to help sell countless products and services, it’s not entirely clear if bladders and feet can enjoy the same level of success.

According to Jay Bolling, they can. Bolling is the CEO of PulseCX, the healthcare marketing agency responsible for developing Myrbetriq’s bladder boy, who launched in early 2014. As Bolling puts it, the underlying idea behind the anthropomorphic character is literally to separate potential customers from their ailment, thereby diminishing their sense of shame or guilt.

"An overactive bladder is a highly stigmatized condition, and it’s very embarrassing," said Bolling, noting that it’s often associated with getting older and is neglected by some physicians. Therefore, the act of turning the problem into something external with a life of its own can, in a sense, shift a viewer’s thoughts about herself. "Rather than her feeling like it was her problem or something she had done, it really isn’t her; it’s her bladder," said Bolling.

Research conducted by Pankaj Aggarwal, a professor of marketing at the University of Toronto Scarborough, suggests that since people are social beings who long to form relationships, anthropomorphism is an efficient way to build rapport with whichever brands employ the tactic. In other words, the more human something seems, the more we feel we can relate.

That said, Aggarwal doesn’t think this is the path the aforementioned pharmaceutical ads are on. They aren’t trying to conjure up feelings of sympathy for the sufferers of certain medical conditions or even portray the conditions themselves as evil monsters, as some campaigns do. "By anthropomorphizing a toenail as another person, I’m able to remove myself and feel as though I don’t have the toenail fungus, this other person has it," said Aggarwal, essentially agreeing with Bolling. "I’m able to stand a couple steps away from the thing and take the negative away from myself."

It should be noted, however, that this strategy only seems appropriate when addressing personal medical problems. While this might be appropriate for, say, Rapaflo’s enlarged prostate guy, it doesn’t quite make sense for Midas’s floating, golden hand guy, who knocks on doors to spread word of the "Midas Touch." A non-profit campaign tackling sexual consent with cartoon genitals might fall somewhere in-between. And another thing: Just because a non-human character has a personality doesn’t mean it’s a winning personality. Viewers have to like it and trust it.

Just consider Geico’s esteemed talking gecko, pig and camel. "The success of a Geico character is not making them a shill for the brand, but making them seem as real and natural as possible as they interact with real people," said Steve Bassett, SVP and group creative director at the Martin Agency, which works with Geico.

Overall, the somewhat cute yet squeamish characters in ads for Myrbetriq, Xifaxan and Jublia aren’t made for a general audience. They’re made to encourage specific individuals suffering from certain conditions to step out of the shadows and seek help.

Perhaps the most famous example of this technique came in a popular 1960s ad created by celebrated illustrator R. O. Blechman. In the one-minute spot, a man and his stomach sit in chairs across from each other while arguing about the types of food the man should avoid eating to prevent irritating his already upset stomach. It’s an inner dialogue gone outer. The narrator eventually intervenes by proposing Alka-Seltzer as a solution to their dispute. The stomach sighs, then offers his interlocutor a peace agreement and nudge toward the product: "I’ll try if you will."


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