Cuteness + the joywashing of Windows 7

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

With its latest ads, Microsoft is hoping that some tooth-aching cuteness will make you forget all about the nightmare that was Vista. We might quibble with the logic, but the execution is hard to fault. Kylie’s cute, and I can’t help but giggle when that music comes on and the cat with the marshmallows flashes on the screen with the words, “snappy and responsive.”

A few weeks ago, Virginia tweeted me the question: “What is the relationship between cuteness and joy?” It’s a question I’ve been pondering for a while now. My theory on the subject is still evolving, but in short, it’s based on the fact that we have a visceral, positive reaction to children and childlike things, even those that are not related to us. This is adaptive, of course, because raising children requires sacrifices of a society, not just a parental unit, and so a natural affinity and protective instinct towards children protects the species as a whole. (Chowing down on a few of your neighbor’s hatchlings might be ok when you’re a crocodile with 70 eggs, but with us low-yield humans this kind of behavior is evolutionarily unwise, not to mention socially unpopular.) The assertion that we have an innate positive reaction to children is supported to some extent by research by Morton Kringelbach in his book The Pleasure Center, in which non-parent adults show greater activity in a region of the brain associated with emotion and reward when viewing infant faces than when viewing adult faces.

How does this translate to cuteness? Many cute things are defined by abstractions of neotenized (juvenilized) qualities: big eyes, round cheeks, proportionally large head, and prominent forehead. You would think abstractions would be less effective at evoking our emotions, but actually the reverse may be true, due to something psychologists call the peak-shift effect. Evidently the brain recognizes features made more salient through amplification and distortion even better than the real thing. This is why caricatures are so easy to recognize and so compelling. Cute things are like caricatures of children, distorted by the overemphasis of certain childlike proportions and features. Compare the big-headed Bratz dolls with Barbie, and the features of any stuffed animal with the real thing to see how this abstraction plays out. You can also see abstraction of childhood in cute movements, such as the wobbling of Weebles, which mimic an unsteady toddler. And perhaps we will also find the same to be true for sounds, as children’s voices are higher in pitch than adult voices, and have a less regular cadence.

Maybe Microsoft is hoping that by associating Windows 7 with all this cuteness, there will be a halo effect of protection and tenderness towards the operating system. I’m not sure but it could work, at least in the short term until the emotional impact of daily use takes prominence. Emotions are curiously non-directed, and though they are triggered by one object, the feelings are often transferred or ascribed to another. Microsoft is also shrewdly and not-so-subtly tapping into something else here, which is the cute photo and video forwarding meme (epitomized by sites like Cute Overload) which consumes significant bandwidth on most social media platforms. So it’s not just an innate emotional programing this type of ad appeals to, but also a cultural moment.

At the end of the ad, Microsoft promises “more happy” is to come. Very curious to see what that will look like, and whether Windows 7 actually incorporates any aesthetics of joy into the design of the software itself.

October 7th, 2009


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