How shame and guilt can be used to your advantage in marketing

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There are ways to ensure marketers are not fumbling in the dark when it comes to getting the most out of using emotion in their marketing campaigns. From billboards and adverts to their company website, my research shows that emotions such as shame and guilt can be used to create a favourable response from consumers.

The key point is that, though both are negative emotions, the effects they have are different. Consumers who feel ashamed are best targeted by campaigns which offer a ‘big picture’ solution to their problems, whereas those who feel guilty respond better to a smaller, short-term fix.

Marketers can manipulate shame and guilt in their strategies into a positive outcome by pairing those emotions with the appropriate messages.

So the marketing manager of a fitness club could develop a strategy to draw in new members by inducing shame. The advert could prompt these feelings and then highlight the bigger picture, such as ‘Are you overweight? How ashamed do you feel? Stop overeating, join our fitness programme and feel healthy all the time!’

Use guilt for a small-scale commitment

To generate the best impact by inducing guilt, the advert should suggest a small scale commitment, such as ‘Overeating again? How guilty do you feel? Stop overeating and come to yoga classes once a week!’

Of course, these adverts are more blunt than you’d perhaps see an actual gym use, but the idea behind them is simple. In identifying the difference between the two emotions, the organisation’s goal – which in this case is to encourage people to join the gym – has been specifically tailored to maximise the business benefits of these initiatives.

But what if the product you are trying to sell is likely to create feelings of shame and guilt for some consumers? Like chocolate? Well, my research finds the same rules still apply. Ads need to emphasise detailed features of the products and how they help consumers achieve their goals. So you may use the tagline like ‘the simplest way to make your afternoon delightful’ for those who have a tendency to feel guilty, as it suggests an immediate short-term benefit.

Alternatively, for shame-laden people, you can emphasise the wider desired outcome of purchasing the product. Again for chocolate, you may simply use the advertising message ‘be delightful’.

Measuring emotions

Marketers can actually measure consumers’ tendencies to either feeling guilt or shame and customise their messages accordingly. For example, marketers for government advisory websites, ‘Overeaters Anonymous’ and other online diet programmes like Weight Watchers can measure consumers’ tendencies to feel guilty or ashamed to customise their messages.

Likewise, when designing digital strategies, marketers can measure those who are prone to either guilt or shame by using a scale that was developed by George Mason University. It is called The Test of Self-Conscious Affect-3 (TOSCA-3) and distinguishes between the two emotions to allow marketers to customise messages to individuals.

As with the gym example, when we look at marketing in the health or fitness sector in general, the fundamental point is to show guilt-prone individuals a message which emphasises the detailed ways in which they can achieve their health or diet goal, like detailed descriptions of a daily dietary plan, whereas those more prone to shame can be shown messages which highlight the desired outcomes of achieving their health or diet goal, such as being healthy or confident.

This is what my own research at Desautels Faculty of Management, carried out with Indiana University and the University of Washington into more than 250 consumer responses, found to yield the greatest results.

Proliferate tailored messaging

Although these tailored messages are not restricted to advertising, they can be spread across the elements of a digital strategy, including blogs, newsletters and forums.

This could mean that marketers can put online or pop-up ads on their websites so that consumers can see these messages while they are searching for information or buying products online. Or marketers can ask consumers to take a short survey which actually measures chronic tendencies to feel either guilty or ashamed when they log in, and then customise the ad message based on the data.

Even for emailed newsletters, the title could induce feelings of guilt or shame and then the contents within can be customised accordingly.

When marketers grasp that the crux of using guilt and shame at their most influential is to pair guilt with a small commitment and shame with the bigger picture, digital strategies that depend on these emotions will have the best possible impact they can.

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