Taking ADvantage
Curiosity Killed the Cat: Curiosity and Advertising


Richard F. Taflinger, PhD

This page has been accessed since 29 May 1996.

For further readings, I suggest going to the Media and Communications Studies website.

Why is it round?"©


"Why ask why?"©


Curiosity killed the proverbial cat. However, curiosity is one of the most important aspects of life. It is through curiosity, a desire to find out something, that life promotes itself, keeps itself alive, reproduces itself, and gathers resources more effectively. A lack of curiosity can lead to a lack of life, rather than the opposite.


All creatures capable of more than a mere mechanical response to stimulus are curious. That is, they explore their world rather than just respond to it. The biological pressures to develop curiosity are immense for several reasons, based on the biologi cal drives of self-preservation, reproduction, and greed. As Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan write in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are, "A passion for discovery is hardwired. It's something we like to do for its own sake, but it brings rewards, aids survival, and increases the number of offspring." (p. 171) We'll look at them in order.


In order to survive, animals above the primitive level must understand the niche in which they live. In addition, they must discover any changes in that niche to be able to respond to those changes. Since it is personal survival that the individual is concerned about, the changes in its immediate vicinity, those that will affect it personally, are the most important. The most effective way to discover changes is to go looking for them. Thus, a noise in the bushes draws the cat's attention, followed b y a slow, stealthy stalk (no sense charging into possible trouble). It might be prey, it might be predator, it might be the automatic lawn sprinkler coming on. This curiosity can lead to a meal, a timely escape, or an inadvertent bath. In any case, it must be investigated.

The greatest advantage of curiosity is the increase in neurological connections it makes possible. As discussed above (see Chapter 2), investigating the unusual creates new pathways in the brain. The more pathways, the more possible responses to stimul i, the more possible responses, the greater likelihood of a proper response to another novel situation. Curiosity strengthens these learned responses.


Just as curiosity can aid in self-preservation, so can it aid in reproduction. However, in this case, the investigations and learning are aimed at finding a suitable member of the opposite sex and mating. For example, a man sees a woman across the room . Her appearance raises his curiosity, and he decides to make contact with her to satisfy that curiosity. The woman, on the other hand, depending upon how he approaches her, can become curious about him, or not wish to find out about him.


As in self-preservation, curiosity can aid greed. Greed is an animal's desire to possess more of whatever it needs to survive and reproduce. Curiosity can help an animal gather more resources. For example, it may investigate a sound or a smell that a food source may be making.

Certainly, curiosity has aided humans in gathering resources. Sometime in the unknown past, some protohuman discovered that when two rocks struck each other, one occasionally was left with a sharp edge that was useful in gathering resources. This proto human was curious whether rhe could do it deliberately, and found rhe could, beginning tool making. About ten thousand years ago, some curious person (probably a woman) noticed that if seeds drop on the ground when conditions were a certain way, a few we eks later plants containing the same kind of seeds grew on the same spot. She was curious about how that happened, and tried deliberately sowing the seeds. This was the beginning of the agricultural revolution that led to an incredible increase in the f ood supply. Ever since such events, curiosity has led people to find other ways the gather resources.


Much of human life is based on, or is the result of, curiosity. With our ability to remember the far past and project into the far future, we may be the most curious creatures on earth. We constantly explore our world and everything in it. Often, thes e explorations are for the purpose of increasing resources, such as the search for minerals, fuels, plants, etc..

However, beyond these resources is the search for information for its own sake. Humans want to know everything: who we are, who others are, where we came from and when, what's on the other side of the hill, the shape, size, composition, longevity, dist ance, etc., of everything from quarks to the universe. For most animals on earth, curiosity is the search for immediate answers to immediate stimuli. The cat doesn't search for what might appear later or try to discover a mouse's motivations -- it tries to find out what made that sound or smells like that now. Since we think in abstractions, we can be curious about not just our immediate vicinity and immediate stimuli (like the cat above), but can wonder about things that perhaps don't exist. In fact, we will speculate about things that don't exist, and formulate answers on the basis of little or no stimulus or information (better known as jumping to conclusions).

That much of this exploration may have little or no practical use doesn't lessen the drive to explore. The amazing thing is that much of this impractical satisfaction of curiosity leads to practical applications. For example, the drive to get into spac e just to do it has led to incredible advances in electronics, medicine, manufacturing, ecological understanding, etc.. Curiosity may kill the cat, but it has made humans the most successful species currently on the earth.(1)


Curiosity is a difficult appeal to use in advertising, which is why it ranks only eighth in effectiveness. The basic problems are arousing curiosity in the first place, and not having the consumer come up with rher own answer in the second.

The first problem relates to how a particular consumer relates to the product. The consumer may have a high involvement, a personal interest in the product rather than one induced by the ad.(2) High involvement automat ically creates curiosity about a product in the mind of a consumer interested in that product. For example, someone who is interested in computers may read the articles in computer magazines, but rhe will also look at most of the ads looking for products that rhe might want, and concentrate on those that look like they might fulfill rher desires. Someone who wants a new car (VCR, stereo, toothpaste, etc.) starts looking for one, and has a high involvement in ads for it.

However, most products are low involvement. In other words, products in which the average consumer isn't deeply interested unless a need for it arises. And even if the consumer is interested in the product type, they might not care about the product br and, although the brand is of vital importance in an ad. For example, a consumer may discover rhe's out of toilet paper. Although rhe will go get some, which brand may not be of especial interest to rher. Rhe may buy what's cheapest, or what's availabl e in the closest store. Or the brand that rhe remembers from an ad. Nonetheless, involvement in a product has a major impact on the interest a consumer will have in an ad, and rher curiosity about the message in the ad. The fact that most products are low involvement is a major problem in using curiosity as an appeal -- if the consumer doesn't care, rhe isn't curious.

The second basic problem is that, once an ad has aroused a consumer's curiosity, the consumer has an irritating habit of searching for rher own answer. At least, it's irritating to the advertiser, because more often than not, the answer is not the one t he advertiser wants -- a desire for the product being advertised. Remember that humans are the most insatiably curious creatures on earth, constantly searching for answers even when no one has asked a question. For example, suppose an ad's headline aske d, "Why aren't you buying an American [Japanese, German, etc.] car?" Assuming the headline stopped the reader long enough to make rher curious, the reader may also immediately come up with a series of answers: because American [Japanese, German, etc.] c ars aren't any good, because I already have a car, because I prefer foreign [American] cars, because American [Japanese, German, etc.] cars are too expensive, because . . . , because . . . , because . . .. The reader may even look to see if the ad is fo r an American or a foreign car, and start formulating answers from there. In any case, the answer is unlikely to be the one at which the advertiser wants the consumer to arrive.

To use the appeal to curiosity, the advertiser must learn two things: what is rher target audience's involvement with the product, and what value does rher product have about which rhe can make that audience curious. In the case of the first, if the au dience is highly involved with the product, they are curious at the outset. Thus, a headline need only present some news of interest of about the product, such as price or speed or size or some other element that is present in the audience's bundle of va lues related to the product. Relating that value to the brand then is easy.

It is when the product is low involvement that curiosity becomes a difficult appeal to use in advertising. In such a case, the advertiser must find some way to arouse curiosity in the product without leaving the reader a way to answer. The two examples at the top of this chapter are excellent examples of arousing curiosity without leaving room for the consumer to answer. The first, "Why is it round?", the headline for Tetley tea bags, has no answer the consumer can immediately discover. It can result in the consumer watching for further ads, hoping the question will be answered, and thus increasing the impact of the advertising campaign and perhaps affecting purchase patterns. It can also result in the consumer buying the product to see if there is indeed a difference between square tea bags and round ones. In either case, the appeal to curiosity has served its purpose by increasing interest in the product.

The second example, Budweiser Dry's "Why Ask Why?", has no answer at all. Thus, it isn't possible for the consumer to come up with an answer. However, the question raises the consumer's curiosity and holds rher attention through the ad to find what ans wer the ad may provide. That the answer, "Buy Bud Dry," is not an answer at all is immaterial; the consumer's attention has been held throughout the ad's message, and the answer is sufficient to satisfy the consumer's curiosity.

Occasionally, an excellent way of using curiosity to arouse interest in a product can backfire. A major example is the original Infiniti car advertising campaign, in which the car was never shown, only a series of nature scenes and poetic copy. This ar oused curiosity to a near-fever pitch. However, the campaign went too long, pushing the audience from "what does the car look like" to "WHAT DOES THE CAR LOOK LIKE!!!" to "Who cares what the car looks like." If a campaign takes too long to arrive at an answer, any answer, the audience could not only lose interest, but may develop an active dislike for the campaign, and, by extension, the product.

What is clear is that curiosity is not the appeal that is used to sell the product in the same way that self-preservation, sex or greed can sell the product. What curiosity does is gain and hold the consumer's attention long enough for the rest of the s ales message to be delivered.


Curiosity, the eighth appeal, is a difficult one for advertising to use. Curiosity is a vital part of self-preservation, sex and greed, but it is, for most animals, a search for an immediate answer to an immediate need. For humans, curiosity is a const ant search for answers. This would appear to be valuable to advertising, if it wasn't for the factor of involvement. A person must feel an involvement with something to be curious about that thing. Thus, consumers are automatically curious about produc ts with which they have a high involvement, and have almost no curiosity about products with which they have low involvement. The problem lies with the fact that most products are low involvement, products that most people don't even think about until th ey need them, and then often are not concerned with the brand but with some other value such as price, location, etc..

Ads use curiosity to gain and hold attention, but less to sell the product because of the appeal of curiosity than to help deliver and make memorable the rest of the sales message.


(1) Of course, there's the danger than human curiosity may end up ending life on earth by being so successful nothing else has a chance.

(2) Such as an astronomy buff's interest in telescopes. Rher interest is personal, not aroused by an ad. However, such interest gives the buff a high involvement in the product.

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