The guilt appeal

Guilt marketing is a tried-and-tested tactic to affect consumer behaviour, and the opportunities to play on it are growing as it becomes the predominant emotion in modern lives. But is such a negative focus effective in the long term?

We all feel guilty about something, whether it’s lack of time with the family or failing to recycle. But for marketers, guilt can be a very desirable emotion as it is an effective way to attract consumer attention, sell products or even change the way people behave.

A new book claims that guilt has taken over from fear as a dominant human emotion. Guilt Trip, co-written by Alex Hesz, account director at DDB, and Bambos Neophytou, head of planning at Exposure, claims that businesses need to adapt their marketing and communications to tap into this shift.

While the book tracks the issues surrounding environmental issues and guilt, the authors say this change has implications for all businesses (see green guilt box, below).

But is guilt really the new fear? Naked Communications partner Will Collin suggests why it is: “Fear works when the threat of punishment is seen to be credible. Guilt is never put to the test – it’s ever present.” While fear may come and go, guilt is always on consumers’ minds.

One example of a brand that has been tapping into Britons’ inner guilty consciences, rather than fear, is the Central Office of Information (COI). Hesz and Neophytou argue that the government advertising division has been using the power of guilt to motivate consumers to change their behaviour.

For example, a recent anti-smoking ad featured children appealing to their real mums and dads to give up the habit, while a binge drinking ad asks: “You wouldn’t start a night like this, so why end it that way?” Both use consumers’ guilty consciences about their bad behaviour to encourage them to change.

Julie Lagan, planner from integrated agency Archibald Ingall Stretton, explains: “It’s proven, via the psychological phenomenon of ‘negativity bias’, that bad is more attention-getting than good.”

A Department of Health spokesperson says that the anti-smoking ads were “designed to cause an emotional reappraisal to make smokers stop and think about the effects of their behaviour, especially on their children.

“Milton Friedman said ‘only a crisis real or perceived, produces real change’. Some might agree with the sentiment, but brands should tread carefully if they wish to deliver marketing that amplifies crisis, fear or guilt.” Julie Lagan, Archibald Ingall Stretton

“Research shows that the health implications of smoking are easily dismissed by smokers. However, the harm that smoking causes to your family is an immediate and hard-hitting insight that proves motivational and impactful in research.”

In this case, using the emotion of guilt in marketing is more effective than the emotion of fear. But COI chief executive Mark Lund says changing people’s behaviour is complex and the COI uses a variety of emotions in an attempt to encourage new behaviour, not just guilt.

Lund agrees that the COI has stopped using fear as a motivator because it doesn’t appear to jolt people into action. He explains: “Fear tends to have the side effect of disempowering the person who sees it, so they can be very powerfully affected but lose their sense of urgency. They think: ‘this thing is so terrible that I can’t do anything about it so there’s no point in acting’.”

But he denies that guilt has become the dominant emotion in government advertising across the board. In an effort to clarify procedures, the COI has produced new communications and behaviour change guidance to help departments and agencies understand how best to influence people’s actions.

John Poorta, strategic planner and vice-president at Leo Burnett, worked on the document and agrees that guilt is the right emotion “some of the time”. But he says that is not his agency’s approach to the COI advertising it handles; and he believes that on many occasions, a positive emotion will motivate people to change their behaviour.

For other subjects, Poorta says that changing the message on each occasion keeps it fresh. For campaigns such as drink driving, for instance, a new idea needs to be put forward each time the issue is revisited to keep people’s attention.

He says: “The team working on the drink drive campaign discovered that, like many before them, in order to keep the drink drive message fresh in people’s minds, you need to find a slightly different take every time you turn up.”

Other brands are also unconvinced that making people feel guilty to sell products is the right strategy. Founder of Skinny Candy, Sahar Hashemi, thinks a more powerful message is to help consumers avoid feeling bad altogether by providing a guilt antidote.

The gym market is dominated by price-led advertising suggesting people ‘get into shape for summer’ or ‘burn off the festive bulge’

Hashemi says the guilt that women feel by consuming sugary treats motivated her to develop a confectionery range with low levels of calories and a lack of artificial additives to help women alleviate their remorse about eating treats (see case study, below).

Hashemi recognised that her own guilty feelings surrounding eating high-calorie and high-fat food are shared by other women. This “guilt avoidance” tactic is often used by other diet brands, which market their wares as “guilt-free” options.

For example, the healthfood brand Conscious Food advertises its wares as “guilt-free munchies”. Its marketers have noted these negative relationships with food and so offer something that stops them feeling bad about their eating.

Charities, however, continue to use guilt to encourage more donations. A sad-eyed child with the tagline “just three pounds can change a life” is a tactic used on a regular basis in non-profit marketing, from animal rights organisations to children’s advocacy bodies.

But some charities, such as Save the Children, are moving away from these types of campaigns. Instead, donors are being motivated to give by encouraging them to track how their money is being used to make positive changes in the world, through video updates on the charity’s website.

Archibald Ingall Stretton’s Lagan agrees that focusing on the positive rather than guilt-inducing campaigns is the best way for brands to behave. She says: “[American economist] Milton Friedman said ‘only a crisis real or perceived, produces real change’. Some might agree with the sentiment, but brands should tread carefully if they wish to deliver marketing that amplifies crisis, fear or guilt.”

Work it: Virgin Active has moved away from guiltinducing images like the ‘muffin top’ below
Work it: Virgin Active has moved away from guiltinducing images like the ‘muffin top’ below

Gym brand Virgin Active has also come around to this way of thinking. While price-led promotions to get people signing up to battle the bulge after Christmas or before the annual summer holiday are the norm in the health club sector, Virgin is taking a different approach.

The health club’s marketing director, Tim Davis, says he wants his gyms to be used as part of a positive lifestyle (see Virgin Active case study, below). Rather than making people feel guilty about joining a gym in January and then failing to attend all year, he wants to encourage people to see the gym as part of a positive lifestyle.

Fear tends to have the side effect of disempowering the person who sees it, so they can be very powerfully affected but lose their sense of urgency. They think: ‘this thing is so terrible that I can’t do anything about it so there’s no point in acting’. Mark Lund, COI

Matt Casey, creative director at agency Origin, says using guilt can be effective if the subject matter is right. United Utilities has just launched a campaign, created by Origin, using a sewer monster character to tell consumers not to put the wrong things down the toilet or sink. The aim of the campaign is to educate consumers, but also to make people feel guilty about not taking the right course of action.

“We created a sewer monster character to ensure our message shouted that little bit louder and worked a lot harder for our client’s budget.

“Once you have people’s attention, it gives you the platform to provide a positive solution or tools to educate through the usual channels.”

But Casey admits that if you want to sell a product rather than an idea, then playing on positive emotions is more often than not more effective in getting people to part with their cash than making them feel bad about themselves. 

And sometimes marketing appears to play on guilt but is really just playing on people’s fears. Domestos, for example, warns consumers in its advertising about the germiest places in their homes. Guilt Trip’s Neophytou says that the middle-class anxiety this evokes is simply another version of fear, dressed up as guilt.

As powerful human emotions, fear and guilt will always have a place in marketing, adds Neophytou. But Archibald Ingall Stretton’s Lagan warns that at a time when consumers have grown sophisticated, there cannot be a simple one-size-fits-all approach: “Brands need to be careful what ‘bad’ tactics they pick or it could backfire on them.”

Green guilt: an insight

Part of the problem for gyms is that once people have been lured in, enthusiasm often wanes after a few weeks and the aerobic leotard and bright new pair of trainers, which seemed like a good investment, are left to fester in a sports bag under the office desk.

Every time a member then fails to make it to the gym, it sets off a guilty twinge. This inevitably leads to people relieving themselves of the gym-related guilt by cancelling membership.

Virgin Active hopes its campaign will prevent this negative behavioural pattern and instead both maintain membership numbers and encourage new people to sign up for long-term positive lifestyle gains.

The first wave of its emotion-led advertising launched earlier this year, with the strapline “More pleasure. Less pain” and images created by celebrity photographer Rankin. The ads have already featured heavily across outdoor sites in the UK as well as in print and on the London Underground.

While many other gym chains will be gearing up for consumers’ Christmas-related guilt in January, Virgin Active will be releasing new iterations of its brand campaign.

The brand’s marketing aims to remind people that being part of a health club can be incorporated into everyday life and is not just to get rid of post-Christmas excess.

Davis wants his members to see Virgin Active’s gyms as fitting into a positive lifestyle. He explains: “The campaign is driven by a lot of consumer research getting under the skin of why people exercise… and getting into the emotional side of it.

“The core insight coming from the research was, unsurprisingly, that going to the gym is a chore – it’s a pain in the bum. The campaign taps into this.”

Davis claims that focus groups have revealed that Virgin Active members perceive its gyms as “more pleasurable than other operators.”

The images he is using in this brand campaign, he says, are “all based on fun and movement. We’re not saying that working out is fun all of the time. We have to acknowledge that it’s painful from a hassle point of view. But we also want to show the positive side of it.”

Virgin Active is hoping to shake up a category which Davis says has become “commoditised” and not about the actual experience involved. “The health club consumer needs a bit of a positive shot in the arm,” he adds.

The signs from the first wave of anti-guilt advertising are positive, according to Davis. Brand measurements are up and gym memberships are strong, he claims.

Maintaining a non-guilt invoking attitude to a health club will continue to be Virgin Active’s aim for 2010. But the club will have to wait to see if it makes a positive impact or whether that crumpled gym kit will guiltily avoid working out.

Guilt-free marketing case study: Skinny Candy

Feeling guilty about the food that we eat has become even easier now that calorie counts are prominently placed on food packaging.

It is difficult, especially for women, to indulge in a bar of chocolate without checking out the fat and calorie content provided in the nutritional information.

As a result, entrepreneur and one of the founders of the Coffee Republic chain, Sahar Hashemi, has made it her personal mission to create a range of sweet treats that satisfy a craving without the guilty aftertaste.

She has developed a confectionery range called Skinny Candy, which aims to be a pleasurable treat that will not plague women with a guilty conscience.

Rather than being stuffed with sugar, the products are sweetened using Maltitol, a polyol carbohydrate that occurs in fruit and vegetables.

 “Like most women, I have a special relationship with chocolate, and yet I found I always felt very guilty eating it,” Hashemi admits. “Because when you buy treats in these enormous sizes, they have very high calories and bad sugars.”

Hashemi recognised that her negative emotions around eating sweets were shared by many others, especially females. “I always start things because I’m a customer myself,” she claims. “My idea was damage limitation so you don’t feel quite so guilty and can have a treat every day.”

Sweet talk: Skinny Candy founder Sahar Hashemi wants to offer women a guilt-free choice of sweets and chocolate
Sweet talk: Skinny Candy founder Sahar Hashemi wants to offer women a guilt-free choice of sweets and chocolate

Originally begun by Hashemi in 2005, the range has been relaunched this year, following snack food company Glisten taking a 50% stake in the brand in 2007. Skinny Candy is promoted as 99 calorie guilt-free confectionery with glossy pink packaging to appeal to women.

The range includes chocolate bars and “handbag size” Fruity Bears, and Hashemi says the company is working on getting the range stocked in supermarkets.

Her wish is that women will no longer have to feel bad about finishing a whole packet of sweets, and have an alternative to the high-calorie options on the sweet and chocolate aisle. “My dream is for Skinny Candy to sit next to the enormous bags of sweets and chocolate so that women, especially, have a choice. Then they can satisfy their sweet tooth and not feel so guilty.”


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  1. […] campaign, and it labored for a small minority. Even when meat stays an ethical problem for vegans, ethical appeals can work on some individuals however backfire with others. Such an strategy by vegan activists may be very 1980s, and passé. […]

  2. […] campaign, and it worked for a small minority. Even if meat remains a moral issue for vegans, moral appeals can work on some people but backfire with others. Such an approach by vegan activists is very 1980s, and passé. Vegan […]

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