Robert Rufa: Anthropomorphism in everyday life

Most people don’t give much thought to anthropomorphism, but it’s an inescapable part of all our lives. It’s in our face all the time. Take the talking Charmin bears, for example, or the dancing Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats. We know bears don’t talk and Mini-Wheats don’t dance, yet we don’t scoff — we accept it. What does that say about us?

Before I go further, let me explain what anthropomorphism is, for those who knew yesterday but forgot. Simply put, anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to something other than human — animals, inanimate objects, forces of nature, etc. Woody Woodpecker and SpongeBob SquarePants come to mind.

Our exposure to anthropomorphism begins in early childhood, in the countless books, shows and films designed to jump-start our imaginations. And that’s where it probably should end. That’s not to say I don’t still find the story of “Tubby the Tuba” entertaining.

Some of our favorite childhood friends were the cartoon animals funnier than most grownups. Bugs Bunny was my favorite, and the Disney stable is legendary. For the most part I grew out of my fondness for anthropomorphized creatures — except Shrek. And I confess to liking Donkey a lot.

As children we name our stuffed animals, which I suppose makes it more natural to have conversations with them. I had a stuffed lamb, and for some reason I called him Bambi. This isn’t necessarily something we outgrow either. A woman I knew called her old VW Beetle Bernie, and I never asked why. Today in Facebook two friends revealed they’d named either their present or past cars, so I don’t want to forget to pay homage to their vehicles — Rosie and Priscilla.

I’m sure the creative people at advertising agencies can’t resist — perhaps trapped in childhood themselves — but by adulthood we should be well past the need for talking dough and moping mops in commercials. Lately these creative types have introduced anthropomorphism to pharmaceutical ads, which won’t motivate me to ask my doctor for any drug.

In one commercial I saw this morning, a woman was going about her daily routine as her bladder tagged along, gripping her hand and dragging her off toward restrooms in much the same way a spoiled child might tug Mom toward the toy department. How appealing — especially when the bladder, looking pitiful, sat next to her at a table as she ate lunch with a friend. I wonder if she said to the friend, “By the way, this is Betty, my bladder.”

My current favorites are those Charmin bears (read “most annoying” for “favorites”). I hope parents take the time to explain to their kids that bears don’t really have bungalows with full bathrooms, that they, um … well, you know.