As defined in our glossary, personification is a figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstraction is given human qualities or abilities. At times, as with this personification of the micro-blogging service Twitter, a writer may call attention to her use of the figurative device:
Look, some of my best friends are tweeting. . . .Often, however, personification is used less directly--in essays and advertisements, poems and stories--to convey an attitude, promote a product, or illustrate an idea.
But at the risk of unilaterally offending 14 million people, I need to say this: If Twitter were a person, it would be an emotionally unstable person. It would be that person we avoid at parties and whose calls we don't pick up. It would be the person whose willingness to confide in us at first seems intriguing and flattering but eventually makes us feel kind of gross because the friendship is unearned and the confidence is unjustified. The human incarnation of Twitter, in other words, is the person we all feel sorry for, the person we suspect might be a bit mentally ill, the tragic oversharer.
(Meghan Daum, "Tweeting: Inane or Insane?" Times Union of Albany, New York, April 23, 2009)
Personification As a Type of Simile or Metaphor
Because personification involves making a comparison, it can be viewed as a special kind of simile (a direct or explicit comparison) or metaphor (an implicit comparison). In Robert Frost's poem "Birches," for example, the personification of the trees as girls (introduced by the word "like") is a type of simile:
You may see their trunks arching in the woodsIn the next two lines of the poem, Frost again uses personification, but this time in a metaphor comparing "Truth" to a plain-speaking woman:
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke inBecause people have a tendency to look at the world in human terms, it's not surprising that we often rely on personification (also known as prosopopoeia) to bring inanimate things to life.
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
Personification in Advertising
Have any of these "people" ever appeared in your kitchen: Mr. Clean (a household cleaner), Chore Boy (a scouring pad), or Mr. Muscle (an oven cleaner)? How about Aunt Jemima (pancakes), Cap'n Crunch (cereal), Little Debbie (snack cakes), the Jolly Green Giant (vegetables), Poppin' Fresh (also known as the Pillsbury Doughboy), or Uncle Ben (rice)?
For over a century, companies have relied heavily on personification to create memorable images of their products--images that often appear in print advertisements and TV commercials for those "brands." Iain MacRury, a professor of consumer and advertising studies at the University of East London, has discussed the role played by one of the world's oldest trademarks, Bibendum, the Michelin Man:
The familiar Michelin logo is a celebrated instance of the art of "advertising personification." A person or cartoon character becomes the embodiment of a product or brand--here Michelin, manufacturers of rubber products and, notably, tires. The figure is familiar in itself and audiences routinely read this logo--depicting a cartoon "man" made of tires--as a friendly character; he personifies the product range (in particular Michelin tires) and animates both product and brand, representing a culturally recognized, practical and commercial presence--reliably there, friendly and trusted. The movement of personification is close to the heart of what all good advertising tends to try to achieve."
(Iain MacRury, Advertising, Routledge, 2009)
In fact, it's hard to imagine what advertising would be like without the figure of personification. Here's just a small sample of the countless popular slogans (or "taglines") that rely on personification to market products ranging from toilet paper to life insurance.
- Kleenex says bless you.
(Kleenex facial tissues)
- Nothing hugs like Huggies.
(Huggies Supreme diapers)
- Unwrap a smile.
(Little Debbie snack cakes)
- Goldfish. The snack that smiles back.
(Goldfish snack crackers)
- Carvel. It's what happy tastes like.
(Carvel ice cream)
- Cottonelle. Looking out for the family.
(Cottonelle toilet paper)
- The toilet tissue that really cares for Downunder.
(Bouquets toilet paper, Australia)
- You're in good hands with Allstate.
(Allstate Insurance Company)
- Taste me! Taste me! Come on and taste me!
- What do you feed a machine with an appetite this big?
(Indesit washing machine and Ariel Liquitabs, laundry detergent, UK)
- The heartbeat of America.
- The car that cares
- Acer. We hear you.
- How will you use us today?
- Baldwin Cooke. Products that say "Thank You" 365 days a year.
(Baldwin Cooke calendars and business planners)
But as we'll see on page two, personification is not solely concerned with selling things.