geico gecko

Have you ever watched roller-skating babies, grumpy cats, or anime in general and just not understood what the hype was all about, or why people were getting so excited? If that sounds like you, read on. Many viral business videos, like Evian’s roller-skating babies or Kia’s hamsters, are popular and likable because of a little something called “moe.”

Kawaii, a Japanese term for “cuteness”, has spawned a newer term, moe, the feeling viewers get when they view kawaii things. Moe is still a largely unfamiliar term among Western ad execs, but understanding it can help creatives understand the appeal behind grumpy cats, roller-skating babies, and even Mario, as well as how they’re all related.

As far back as 1949, Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian zoologist, hypothesized that people reacted favorably to animals that exhibited pedomorphosis (the retention of childlike characteristics). More recently in 2012, a study called “The Power of ‘Kawaii’” conducted a double-blind experiment with 48 Japanese grad students. They were asked to perform tasks before and after viewing images of baby animals, adult animals, and pleasant food.

baby animal reaction graph

Turns out, people are much more careful and attentive after viewing pictures of baby animals. Maybe that’s why Buzzfeed has a channel devoted entirely to cute animals. The findings in this 2012 experiment back up a series of studies done in Oxford, the most recent in 2011, that show that the human brain responds to infantile images by firing off activity in regions typically associated with rewarding behavior.

Moe is the term that describes these attentive, careful, rewarding reactions, and can help us better understand the proper implementation of cuteness in business video. After all, moe has become a near-guaranteed way to translate cuteness into cash (at least in Japan).

What started as a slang word that only applied to manga and anime characters quickly spawned into a media market phenomenon by the 2000s. In 2009, Brad Rice, editor-in-chief of Japanator, noted that “moe has literally become an economic force…more and more products — especially shows — are geared towards including some moe in order to sell better.” Since 2004, moe products have been a multibillion dollar industry in Japan. And perhaps inevitably, moe media has become less “cute” and more “fetish.”

While businesses certainly don’t have to go down that road, ad execs can certainly learn a lot about the effects of moe characters in Japan and implement that knowledge into the design of mascots, logos, and how they work in simple promo videos. For example, did you know that every last proportion of a childlike character’s body, from the size of pupils to the width of arms, can be optimized? Specifically, eyes ⅕ the size of the face, a body 5.7 “heads” tall, thin limbs, bangs, and colorful hair are all proven to be more popular than standard representations of children.

While we’re not saying that moe is “The Answer” for viral marketing videos, it can certainly help frame the discussion and lead to an interesting dialogue about how business advertising can increase viewer engagement. Flo from Progressive is one of the best examples of a character that goes against the kawaii/moe mold, and her rise and fall has been interesting to observe. On the other hand, Geico’s gecko is a fairly standard moe mascot, and that little guy has been going strong for a very long time.