We all feel guilty about something, whether it’s lack of time with the family or failing to recycle. Yet for marketers, guilt could be a desirable emotion as it is an effective way to attract consumer attention, sell products, or change behavior. Several studies suggest fear and guilt are dominant emotions, which often influence purchase decisions.
Appealing to audiences by creating opposing sides is nothing new to the world of marketing. In 1921, George Lambert (the son of Listerine’s founder Jordan Lambert) pieced together “halitosis” as a medical sounding term for bad-smelling breath and offered the exclusive solution. Mouthwash‘s popularity skyrocketed from that first shame-based campaign. Though most in our modern-day world would support marketing for good oral hygiene, the tactic was initially effective because it (re-)defined what people should consider “bad”—bad breath—and what they should consider “good”—minty freshness. When presented with the options between good or bad, wouldn’t you choose good? Yet, there’s a dangerous implication at play here—creating these scenarios doesn’t actually elevate those who are doing the “good” thing, at least not for long.
The use of shame, fear, and guilt is a cop-out, and often a genuine marketing fail. It may feel satisfying to be snarky, yet using insults doesn’t show the brand understands its audience. If you’re just looking for a quick answer, yes, appeal to shame marketing does work. It works at creating negative emotions.
The psychology of pleasure and pain could explain a lot about our purchase behavior. Put most simply, consumers want experiences that bring pleasure or reward. Consumers want to avoid experiences that bring pain. This even includes social pain, such as rejection.
Think of your favorite brand, whether it’s Apple or Disney or Publix Supermarkets or Tiffany & Co. You automatically get a positive feeling. It’s a result of the investments these brands have made into consistently crafting the right marketing over the years.
One of the most visible examples of a shame-appeal marketing campaign was one targeting the tobacco industry in the 90s. The campaign set the goal of interrupting the tobacco industry’s targeting of teens and children. The campaign effectively used a variety of tactics to create the appearance of a unified movement of youth against tobacco companies. However, the campaign revealed some other interesting elements about shame-based marketing tactics.
A study on anti-tobacco marketing campaigns concluded that the results of fear tactics in marketing aren’t at all straightforward. Shame messages assume a direct, stimulus response, effected by the media; the individual hears, understands, accepts, and then acts on the message. In advertising literature this is known as a ‘linear sequential’ model and it takes many forms, yet all characterized as advertising with a measurable and predictable effect on a passive individual.
While attitudes toward smoking did become more negative, percentages of teens and middle schoolers who smoked were still substantial in the 2010s. Marketing by the tobacco industry, even with the purported goal of lowering smoking rates among teens, still engendered perceptions of the industry as respectable, cool, and sophisticated. Breaking the relationship that the tobacco industry had built over the generations with consumers would take a more ongoing and nuanced approach.
We could safely suggest the tactic does create an emotional response in the audience, and it does modify behavior or thinking. There is evidence that skillful use of shame in ad copy could increase click-thru rates and conversions. Yet studies find it hard to draw a direct straight line between the intent of the marketing and the end effects seen in buyer behavior. Your buyers have complex minds whose response to your message is impacted by traits that contribute to their cognitive diversity.
Researchers have closely studied the use of negative and positive reinforcement to control behavior. However, there are ethical standards we should uphold when the intent of a campaign is purposely to manipulate. Brand reputation is on the line, especially as customers get more savvy about these kinds of practices and look to have more authentic engagement with the brands they know, like, and trust.