By John Kerr 23/09/2016

A wacky New Zealand study has been recognised at the 26th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, a celebration of the odd, weird and quirky side of science.

The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative – and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.

Among the winners announced this morning (NZT) was a New Zealand study, taking home the Ig Nobel prize in economics for: “assessing the perceived personalities of rocks, from a sales and marketing perspective.”

The study, titled ‘The brand personality of rocks: A critical evaluation of a brand personality scale‘, was authored by Mark Avis from Massey University, Kiwi ex-pat Sarah Forbes from the University of Birmingham, and Shelagh Ferguson from the University of Otago.  The research was published in the peer-reviewed journal Marketing Theory.

Some of the rocks from the Ig Nobel winning study. Rock G was described as ‘‘A big New York type businessman." (from Avis, Forbes & Ferguson (2013)
Some of the rocks from the study. Rock G was described as ‘‘A big New York type businessman.” (from Avis, Forbes & Ferguson (2013))

As The Guardian reports:

 The trio studied a concept called “brand personality”, or the “set of human characteristics associated with the brand” – for example wholesomeness, youth, intelligence and sophistication – by putting pictures of rocks in front of 225 Kiwi students.

The students then decided which of 42 traits, 15 facets and five factors to apply to the rocks in question. One, Rock G, was variously described as “a big New York type businessman, rich, smooth, maybe a little shady” and “carries a black brief case, slick hair, quick thinker and quicker talker. Not a good dude though.”

Rock I was described by one student as “a gypsy or a traveller, a hippie” and by another as “liberal, attractive and female, I saw a young person, maybe mid-30s, who was very attractive when she was younger/possibly a model. Has her own way of thinking, with a somewhat grounded confidence, enjoys organic food.”

The third rock, Rock H, was called “modest”, “farm mechanic” and “down-to-earth”.

Research that make you laugh, then makes you think

If the premise of the research sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. Mark Avis and colleagues deliberately set out to show the ludicrousness of a ‘brand personality’ measure based on an idea called the brand personality five-factor model (BPFFM). As the authors state in their research:

This article considers the possibility that, rather than measure pre-existing Brand Personality perceptions, the BPFFM methodology ‘creates’ the perceptions of personality. To examine this possibility, the BPFFM methodology is applied to pictures of rocks, as rocks would not ordinarily be perceived as ‘having’ personality…

The findings of the research raises questions about the validity of the BPFFM, as well as questions about the current conceptualisation of Brand Personality, and will highlight the importance of careful evaluation and use of brand attribute scales.

Previous Ig Nobel winners

New Zealand is no stranger to the Ig Nobel awards; past Kiwi IgNobel Laureates include Lianne Parkin, Sheila Williams, and Patricia Priest of the University of Otago, for demonstrating with a randomised controlled trial that people slip and fall less often on icy footpaths in wintertime if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes, and James Watson of Massey University, New Zealand, for his scholarly study, “The Significance of Mr. Richard Buckley’s Exploding Trousers.”