We construct spectra of supernovae (SNe) interacting strongly with a circumstellar medium (CSM) by adding SN templates, a black-body continuum, and an emission-line spectrum. In a Monte Carlo simulation we vary a large number of parameters, such as the SN type, brightness and phase, the strength of the CSM interaction, the extinction, and the signal to noise ratio (S/N) of the observed spectrum. We generate more than 800 spectra, distribute them to ten different human classifiers, and study how the different simulation parameters affect the appearance of the spectra and their classification. The SNe IIn showing some structure over the continuum were characterized as SNe IInS to allow for a better quantification. We demonstrate that the flux ratio of the underlying SN to the continuum f(v) is the single most important parameter determining whether a spectrum can be classified correctly. Other parameters, such as extinction, S/N, and the width and strength of the emission lines, do not play a significant role. Thermonuclear SNe get progressively classified as Ia-CSM, IInS, and IIn as f(v) decreases. The transition between Ia-CSM and IInS occurs at f(v) similar to 0.2-0.3. It is therefore possible to determine that SNe Ia-CSM are found at the (un-extincted) magnitude range -19.5 > M > -21.6, in very good agreement with observations, and that the faintest SN IIn that can hide a SN Ia has M = -20.1. The literature sample of SNe Ia-CSM shows an association with 91T-like SNe Ia. Our experiment does not support that this association can be attributed to a luminosity bias (91T-like being brighter than normal events). We therefore conclude that this association has real physical origins and we propose that 91T-like explosions result from single degenerate progenitors that are responsible for the CSM. Despite the spectroscopic similarities between SNe Ibc and SNe Ia, the number of misclassifications between these types was very small in our simulation and mostly at low S/N. Combined with the SN luminosity function needed to reproduce the observed SN Ia-CSM luminosities, it is unlikely that SNe Ibc constitute an important contaminant within this sample. We show how Type II spectra transition to IIn and how the H alpha profiles vary with f(v). SNe IIn fainter than M = -17.2 are unable to mask SNe IIP brighter than M = -15. A more advanced simulation, including radiative transfer, shows that our simplified model is a good first order approximation. The spectra obtained are in good agreement with real data.
2015. Vol. 574, A61