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It’s alive: Increasing protective action against the coronavirus through anthropomorphism and construal

Katina Kulow, PhD Wan, J. Cowan, K.
Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. November 1, 2020

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News outlets often depict the coronavirus as a “burglar” or a “killer”—even though viruses are not technically alive. While imbuing this virus with human-like qualities may enable the public to feel as if they are better able to understand it, does anthropomorphizing the coronavirus lead people to adopt protective behaviors against the spread of the disease? Integrating construal level theory, we argue that anthropomorphizing an agent makes it seem more understandable, which decreases its psychological distance. And through construal matching between the message and consumers’ temporal focus, we demonstrate that when the coronavirus is anthropomorphized, people are more likely to adopt protective measures when they are focused on the present versus the future because consumers believe the anthropomorphized coronavirus to be more powerful. Our findings contribute to both anthropomorphism and construal level theory research. Additionally, our findings offer implications for health communication strategies and public policy. These effects are driven by higher feelings of solidarity made salient by the personized seller. Our findings document a novel way by which consumers who are experiencing significantly high levels of occupational stress during the COVID-19 pandemic may seek social support and solidarity to help cope with this elevated stress, that is, purchasing products from personized sellers. Our findings offer valuable avenues for future research and provide important implications for policy makers during the pandemic.