What happens when a marketing professor with a background in biochemistry and microbiology teams up with a PhD student with an internationally acclaimed career as a visual artist? Strange as it may seem, the answer involves waiting tables at the Athens eatery Mama's Boy, where Assistant Professor Vanessa Patrick and doctoral student Henrik Hagtvedt briefly posed as waiters to investigate the phenomenon of art infusion. They were collecting data for groundbreaking research appearing this June in the Journal of Marketing Research.
"We didn't actually wait tables," Patrick laughs, downplaying the restaurant experience as merely one unique aspect in a series of more traditionally controlled environments to test how visual art influences how consumers view a product.
The Patrick-Hagtvedt article describes art infusion as a phenomenon where "the presence of visual art has a favorable influence on the evaluation of consumer products." It's an intuitive approach that advertising agencies have used in the marketplace. Well-known examples include Whistler's Mother coveting a Mercedes and Andy Warhol's portrait of an Absolut bottle.
Patrick and Hagtvedt have established a scientific basis for the phenomenon. They assert through a series of studies that people respond more favorably to a product when there is visual art used in the design, packaging, and advertising. They theorize that the presence of fine art causes consumers to associate the product with the accompanying visual art in what appears to be a subconscious reaction. For one of the series of tests — including the real-world example at Mama's Boy — the researchers asked consumers to rate silverware packaged in similar black boxes, but each with a different artistic design. Customers routinely associated the box with Van Gogh's Café de nuit as having more luxurious qualities than the same silverware in a box with a real life photograph of the same Arles, France, setting at night.
"We needed a breakthrough with this journal," says Patrick. "This is the number-one journal in marketing, and no one has published anything on art." Srinivas Reddy, director of Terry's Coca-Cola Center for Marketing Studies, believes that Patrick and Hagtvedt have "lowered the barriers to publish work like this in the field."
Over the past few years Patrick and Hagtvedt have been focusing their efforts on answering fundamental questions about art, such as what art really is, what differentiates it from other human activities, and how viewing and experiencing art influences us? The two researchers have very diverse backgrounds and bring different strengths to their collaborative work. Patrick has a background in advertising and marketing communications and has worked in agencies such as Ogilvy and Mather and J. Walter Thomson. The majority of her research focuses on consumer emotions and she sees art as "an emotion-evoking stimulus that elicits a range of emotions simply as a result of the manner in which the content is depicted."
The Italian art community nicknamed the Norwegian-born Hagtvedt "The Northern Light." But despite exhibitions in Europe, Asia, and the U.S., Hagtvedt says that he sees no conflict between art and academic research. They are both based on turning fundamental curiosity into productive creativity. "Research is an opportunity to gain answers to questions I'm curious about," says Hagtvedt, who still occasionally exhibits his paintings, but now aspires to be a business professor. "It's a creative process. The research that we do is for me a unique combination of intellect and creativity."
So what's next for Hagtvedt and Patrick? They are currently immersed in a number of research projects in the area of art and aesthetics and are employing methods ranging from lab experiments to neuropsychological techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). "We're expanding our efforts," says Patrick. "Fortunately, our backgrounds and interests give us synergy as researchers."