Adfreak featured a new PR stunt by IKEA in the UK that consists of a mirror that compliments the appearance of people who look into it. Cute, eh?
Adfreak's Tim Nudd compared it to Dove's strategy of building confidence by celebrating "real beauty." But what is a machine that doles out automated compliments really doing?
This is just a fun little story, but I wonder if such obviously fake compliments do more harm than good. IKEA says that this project is trying to address the problem that half of British people don't get complimented by anyone in an average week. But are people really so easily flattered that they respond positively to a robot?
Self-esteem is a wonderful thing. But the automatic compliment-generator reminded me of something Peggy Drexler, Ph.D, wrote a couple of years ago in Psychology Today. She revealed that the current generation of parents is damaging their children's ability to succeed by over-complimenting them:
Research with children and families has indeed told us that praise has the opposite intended effect. It does not make children work harder, or do better. In fact, kids who are told they’re bright and talented are easily discouraged when something is “too difficult;” those who are not praised in such a manner are more motivated to work harder and take on greater challenges. The unpraised, in turn, show higher levels of confidence, while overpraised are more likely to lie to make their performances sound better. Praise becomes like a drug: once they get it, they need it, want it, are unable to function without it.The compliments referenced are about academic or athletic achievement. Another school of thought says that more superficial compliments — specifically, when adults endlessly tell girls how pretty they look — actually adds to body image anxiety by programming them to believe that attractiveness is the main standard by which their worth is judged.
Adults are smart enough to know that the IKEA mirror is just a toy. But adults are not immune to the more subtle effects of false ego-boosting in advertising. Elaine Chan and Jaideep Sengupta at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology published research that demonstrated how consumers' behaviour was motivated by flattery in marketing, even when they were fully aware that the advertising was insincere:
participants in the study were asked to evaluate the merits of a new department store opening in the area based on one of the store’s advertisements. In addition to describing the new store’s offerings, the ad lauded readers for their impeccable sense of style and eye for high fashion. While participants overwhelmingly categorized the pamphlet as flattery with the ulterior motive of pushing blouses, the experimenters were more interested in how their attitudes would be influenced at the implicit level. Might participants develop a non-conscious positive association with the department store, even after rejecting the ad as meaningless puffery? And if so, would this implicit reaction be a better predictor of decisions and behavior down the road? Will even the people who are wise to advertising tricks end up at the register, credit card in hand?
It turns out that implicit attitudes towards the store were more positive than explicit attitudes. They were also better predictors of reported likelihood of making future purchases, as well as likelihood of joining the store’s club. So it seems that while participants quickly dismissed these ads at the explicit level, the flattery was exerting an important effect outside their awareness.So, is IKEA making its UK customers more confident about their bodies? Or is it just giving them a quick hit of artificial self-esteem to boost sales, at the expense of creating an even more compliment-addicted, superficial and narcissistic culture?
Let's go back and look at Dove. I've criticized the brand quite a bit for some of its stunts, but here in Canada the Dove Self-Esteem Project is taking a very different direction from the IKEA mirror. It states: "The pressure on girls to be beautiful impacts their self-esteem and can hold them back from fulfilling their potential in life." But rather than insincerely telling all girls that they are meeting a common beauty standard, the program tries to shift girls' self-esteem away from simple appearance.
The IKEA mirror is just a silly little stunt to get earned media. But it also says a lot about where we're going as a society. Or rather, how far we haven't come.