Kiwi scientists win Ig Nobel Prize for investigating rock personalities

Do you see a female rock or a male rock?
Katrina Tikey/ FAIRFAX NZ

Do you see a female rock or a male rock?

When you look at a rock what do you see? A "gypsy"? Or perhaps a "liberal, attractive female"?

Those were some of the answers given by students who took part in brand personality research by Kiwi scientists in 2013.

That research won the economics award for the 2016 Ig Nobel Prize at Harvard University last night (local time).

University of Otago marketing lecturer Shelagh Ferguson, Massey University brands expert Mark Avis, and University of Birmingham marketing lecturer Sarah Forbes, were awarded the prize for "assessing the perceived personalities of rocks from a sales and marketing perspective".


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Their efforts towards "improbable research" won them a $10 trillion Zimbabwean bill (about 50 cents) and a piece of paper signed by genuine Nobel Prize laureates.  

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This was the 26th year the Ig Nobel Prize celebrated "improbable research that makes people laugh and then think".

"What can I say, the Ig Nobel 'rocks'," Forbes said when she collected the award in Boston with Avis. "It was an interesting study and we are very proud of it".

This year's chemistry prize was ironically awarded to Volkswagen for "solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution emissions by automatically [and] electromechanically producing fewer emissions whenever the cars are being tested". Volkswagen were not present at the ceremony to collect their prize.

Ahmed Shafik, an Egyptian urologist won the reproduction award for showing rats that wore polyester pants (with a hole for the tail, of course) developed "significantly lower" rates of sexual activity.

Shelagh Ferguson wasn't at the ceremony but said the research came from the idea that, "certain types of brands have been interpreted as having a personality - the brand personality (BP) scale". 

"When you apply this to certain brands you can measure the personality consumers attribute to those brands."

She said Avis thought this was not how people normally felt about brands. So the trio set out to prove the methodology was flawed by asking students if they were able to attribute personality to three rocks.

"And the answer was yes, yes they can. So we're saying [the BP scale] has to be applied very carefully," Ferguson said.

Their study showed that people could apply personality to almost anything.

One student said a rock was "emotionally distinct from its family" and another said the rock "probably live rurally and kept chickens", Ferguson said.

"There was a comedic start to our research, but the underlying theme was that we are drawing attention to something that is problematic. The Ig Nobel Prize has showcased some really great insights into what may seem superficially trivial at the start and we felt like that as a starting point reflected our work.

"We were absolutely gobsmacked we won."

 - Stuff


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