The Guilt Trip


Influencing through Negative Emotions

Brene Brown once said, "Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It's the fear that we're not good enough." In our society of ever-present comparison, we continuously self-evaluate against, well, everyone else. This exposure breeds a feeling of inadequacy for consumers while creating an opportunity for brands to shine as the solution.

A negative emotion is a sharp marketing weapon. The difference being that, unlike love, let’s say, it isn’t something we’re seeking to find and attain – it’s something we want to avoid and eliminate. DaHee Han writes on Marketing Tech News. "Marketers can manipulate shame and guilt in their strategies into a positive outcome by pairing those emotions with the appropriate messages."

Think of all the commercials for feeding children in third-world countries. They always show kids, in impoverished, tragic circumstances. The viewer feels pity for the terrible situation, guilt for their own much better life, and shame for not helping. Not a positive feeling in sight. Unless they picked up their phones and donated. Needless to say, it’s effective.

Another big pressure point is health, perhaps more specifically, weight. Estimates vary, but the consensus is that 2 out of 3 North Americans are overweight and most of them would rather not be. Companies are quick to market their products as the easy cure and everyone loves the prospect of a fast fix. Even better if it comes with guilt-free delicious pleasure and hardly tastes like a sacrifice.   

The ad above used guilt appeal to persuade consumers. And Pretzel Crisps stated in their 2010 campaign that they "Tastes as good as skinny feels", and that "You can never be too thin". Similarly, a friend of mine just launched a new product line called Skinny Dippin’. In addition to the genius double entendre in the name, you feel like you’ll slim down while eating it.


In advertising, all emotions are fair-game. Encouraging an audience to donate to a worthy cause, or inspiring them to make better nutritional decisions that may lead them to live a healthier life are noble end-games. But play the shame and guilt cards with caution.


Morty SilberComment