Me, Myself, and My Avatar: The effects of Avatar on SNW (Social Networking) Users’ Attitude toward Website, Ad, and PSA
 
Student Researcher

Youjeong Kim (PhD Student)
This paper is based on a graduate Independent Study.

Faculty Supervisor

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar

For a complete report of this research, see:

Youjeong Kim & S. Shyam Sundar (2008, May). Me, myself, and my Avatar: The effects of avatar on SNW (Social Networking) users’ attitude toward website, ad, and PSA. Paper presented at the 27th annual conference of the Advertising and Consumer Psychology, Philadelphia.

Introduction

This study explores both the effects of avatar presence and customization on users’ attitudes toward social networking sites, as well as embedded Ad and PSA, (Public Service Ad). Based on ‘implicit egotism’ that human beings inherently “gravitate toward things that resemble the self” (p. 800), this study predicted that avatar users might have positive attitude toward their ‘self-resembled creature (i.e., avatar)’, and in turn, the positive affect is transferred to the evaluation of website and ads. Furthermore, this study found that avatar successfully increases self-awareness observing virtual self, and highlights the concept of self-preservation when encountering a message regarding a threat to one’s survival. Finally, this study firstly attempted to examine the effects of customization in the context of avatars and psychological mechanisms in order to connect their associations.

Hypotheses & Research Question

H1: Avatar users are more likely to perceive the risk on their physical body-related health than non-avatar users.

H2: Avatar users are more likely to evaluate websites and ads (a commercial ad, and a Public Service Ad) more positively, than non-avatar users.

Avatar customization accompanies the concept of ‘control’ over something (S. S. Sundar & Marathe, 2006) and imbues users with a sense of empowerment (Zimmerman, 1990). Theorizing the customization model, Sundar (2008) emphasized the role of self as a “creator” and “source” for filtering individual needs and connecting technological affordances that customization provides (i.e., interactivity, modality, and navigability) and consequent psychological outcomes (i.e., cognitive, affective, and behavioral outcomes) (see Figure 1)

Figure 1. Sundar's (2008) Agency Model of Customization

H3: Participants who customize their avatars are more likely to evaluate the website, ad, and PSA positively than participants who are not allowed to customize their avatars or do not have avatars.

RQ1: What are psychological mediators of avatar customization on users’ attitudes toward website and ads, and body related-health message?

Method

Thirty pa rticipants were assigned to one of two experimental conditions in a between-subjects experiment. Before exposure to the stimuli, participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire related to their magazine purchasing behaviors and reading habits. After filling out the questionnaire, half the participants viewed sexually suggestive ads while the other half viewed non-suggestive ads. After exposure, participants were asked to fill out two more questionnaires pertaining to quality and effectiveness of the ads as well as measures of self-esteem and body satisfaction.

Figure 2. Cyworld website and ads which were manipulated for the study.

Figure 3. The manipulation of avatar creation

Results

H1: H1 was partly supported. Only perceived risk on skin cancer was significantly associated with the avatar group, F (1, 64) = 4.13, p =.04.
H2: None of DVs were significant. Therefore, H2 was not supported.
H3: Three separate ANOVA tests for the effect of customizing avatars also revealed that only the attitude toward the PSA was marginally significant, F (2, 63) = 2.69, p = .07. However, the result’s direction was as opposite as this study hypothesized. Therefore, H3 was not supported.
RQ1: No significant mediators were found.

Conclusions

This study expected that the presence of avatar increases the concern about the user’s physical body and it was supported by data. The result showed that avatar users perceived higher risk on skin cancer than non-avatar users. It means that avatar successfully increases self-awareness observing virtual self, and highlights the concept of self-preservation when encountering a message regarding a threat to one’s survival. This study also found that although avatar which resembles self-appearance generates positive feelings, it is hard to assume that the feeling is able to influence the cognitive evaluation. This study firstly attempted to examine the effects of customization in the context of avatars and found that customizing avatar group showed the lowest favorability toward website. And, interestingly, non-customizing avatar group showed the highest favorability. The reason we believe is due to the frustration of avatar customizers. As we describe in limitation section, avatar customizers might expect that their avatars play a ‘role’ in the site. But, when they find that their avatars do nothing and just appear on the corner while browsing the site, they could be disappointed and it could affect their evaluations about the website.

For more details regarding the study contact

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar by e-mail at sss12@psu.edu or by telephone at (814) 865-2173

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Media Effects Research Lab at College of Communications, Penn State University