"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."
Hagtvedt and colleague Vanessa M. Patrick, a professor of marketing at the University of Houston, conducted three experiments as part of their study. The most prominent featured paintings by the French artist Renoir on wine bottles at a wine tasting.
For one group, the bartender was coached to comment that the bottle labels featured "paintings." All of the wines were judged favorably. Another group was told that the wine bottles featured "people." With the context of "people," the wines were judged based on the appropriateness of what the people were doing in the paintings.
For example, if the label featured guests at a luncheon, the wines were rated higher. But if the painting was of a woman and child playing with toys, it was received less favorably. The significance being that the same paintings did not affect the ratings of the other group who viewed the bottles with a context of "paintings."
Product relevance and context play an important role in communication.
According to the researchers, the study reinforces the importance of product-relevant illustrations. As long as consumers are provided a context of art, it works. But when the context changes, making them aware of product relevance, they no longer view it as art.
"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."
The two other experiments included illustrations for soap and nail salons. In both cases, the results were replicated. Different images caused different product elevations based on whether the art was viewed as art or illustrations.
Carrying context beyond the study and applying it to different communication channels.
The study may have lessons for other communicators, alluding to the importance of a narrowing topical content. In other words, once consumers identify a blog with a specific context, they may be less receptive to content that falls outside of that context.
This could be true for blogs and social network presence. The further communicators push the content from a central context, the less likely it will be favorably received. For example, a marketing blog hoping to capitalize on Hurricane Irene can attempt to create a thin link between the context and the event. But if viewers consider the hurricane tie-in as an attempt to attract attention, the message is lost.
Likewise, social network streams that gain larger followings generally have a narrower content niche than those who use the social network channel for personal reasons. If the account begins to drift away from its context (e.g., a marketer begins talking about politics), followers will be more likely to tune them out or drop the connection.
If this is true, it makes generalist communication — a broad variety of topics — much more difficult. Whereas niche communication will have an advantage, but only as long as the niche communicator can operate within self-selected limitations.