Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

How Cuteness Conquered the World

Julian Saunders ponders Hello Kitty and the power of cute.
Published 10 May, 2024 11:20am

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, was asked what had most surprised him about the internet, he said one word: “kittens.”

Cuteness saturates the internet. If Sir Tim had been Japanese, he might not have been so surprised, as Japan is the epicentre of ‘cute’ consumer culture. Known as kawaii, academics in cuteness studies (yes, there is such a thing) trace its origins deep within Japanese cultural history. In its modern form, cuteness took off as a way to sell consumer products to the emerging market of young girls, in particular.

The global power brand par excellence of Japanese cuteness is Hello Kitty (launched in Japan in 1975), which offers many products: toys, games, cafés, anime and much more. In a current exhibition called Cute (in London’s Somerset House), Hello Kitty has curated a disco complete with a playlist.

On Oxford Street, I find a spanking new store bustling with customers. It is brimming with a menagerie of cuteness and its colour palette is a symphony of pastels. Called Miniso, the store’s shelves are packed to the ceiling with characters like Kuromi, Cinnamoroll, Stitch, Hello Panda and Hello Kitty. The full creative powerhouse of modern Japanese consumer culture is expressed on the shelves and website of Miniso: soft toys, food, drink, clothing, bags, tech, manga, anime and much more. Inside, customers are of all ages. Miniso suggests that it is a great place to buy a gift for Valentine’s or Mother’s Day. Its target audience is much broader than the Disney store nearby.

Miniso is a great place to study the essential formula for cuteness. Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian scientist, called it kindchenschema or baby schema, a set of characteristics that includes a large head, big, wide-set eyes, short limbs, a rounded, soft body and wobbly movements. It is essentially something that reminds us of a baby and triggers the pleasure centres of our brain. It needs care and socialisation. Cuteness therefore motivates us at the level of our primitive biology.

Cuteness has boomed with the internet and the global spread of Japanese consumer culture, but it pre-dates it by hundreds of years. In the West, cuteness academics trace the phenomenon back to changing attitudes towards childhood during the 18th century Enlightenment, which propagated the idea that children are innocent rather than tainted from birth by the original sin. Romantics in the 19th century spread the idea that children were pure and their naivety should be celebrated (rather than grown out of as quickly as possible). This legitimised adult escapes back into a world of childishness. I used to like the nostalgic innocence of films like Peter Pan, Snow White and Winnie the Pooh when my children were young. Disney tapped into the same psychological drivers as kawaii. It was balm for my soul after a torrid week of running a WPP advertising agency.

Not surprisingly, advertisers have frequently reached for the power of cute. I grew up with the Andrex toilet tissue ad, which featured an adorable puppy romping around, creating mayhem and unspooling yards and yards of toilet tissue. The voice-over intoned that it was “soft, strong and very long,” thereby making you feel warm towards a boring product and delivering two product superiority messages: softness and value. The Andrex Puppy is the most powerful of marketing tools – an instantly recognisable brand symbol that adorns the packaging. I can’t resist reaching for it at my local supermarket, even though it is more expensive than the supermarket brand. I might fancy myself as a hard-core rationalist, but it seems that I can’t help being seduced by puppies (Daniel Kahneman did warn us that we are much less rational than we like to think).

The power of cute is also useful in more sinister ways. Cute things bypass our critical faculties and create familiarity and likeability. If you are an oppressive regime, that could be just what you need. Walking the streets of Hong Kong last year, I was struck by how much kawaii was deployed in both the selling of products and official announcements. A high-profile example is the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics which saw the launch of a panda symbol – called Bing Dwen Dwen. How cute is that? Let’s not think too hard about all that wolf warrior diplomacy, the surveillance state, and what is happening to the Uyghurs.

Cute, then, sells thousands of products and can be a useful smokescreen for people whose motives don’t bear close examination. Yet, it is also woven into our daily lives as a way for individuals to communicate and express identity. Have a look at the selection of emojis available on messaging apps to help you express your emotions; one of the most popular is inevitably Hello Kitty. Near where I live, there is a street shrine to commemorate the death of a young man. Faded flowers are laid along with two teddy bears. It stopped me in my tracks. The flowers speak of beauty and the transience of life, yet the teddy bears express something more: that this young man had once been an innocent boy cared for and nurtured by parents now grieving.

The concept of cuteness is really complex and deeply rooted in our humanity. I discovered that it does justify its own academic discipline. If you have the chance, do pop into Somerset House or maybe just buy the Cute Cat-alogue online.

Julian Saunders is a strategist, writer and teacher.