Writing in the current issue of Admap, Paolo Antonetti, lecturer in marketing at Queen Mary University of London, and Paul Baines, Director of the Centre for Strategic Marketing and Sales at Cranfield University, observe that "misuse of guilt in marketing communications is especially risky because research shows that guilt appeals easily backfire".
They further argue that "much current [guilt-based] communication is suboptimal because it fails to implement decades of insightful psychological research on this emotion's persuasive power".
Accordingly, they propose five key considerations for marketers when designing, planning and executing such campaigns.
First is the source: consumers may blame the source of the message when rationalising the negative emotional experience, so shifting the guilt source elsewhere – as Australian train operator V/Line did with its Guilt Trip train tickets – can help.
"When the source is close, likeable or otherwise credible in relation to the message delivered, customers react more positively to a guilt appeal," the authors note.
Second, consumers don't like to be made to feel guilty, so "it is imperative that consumers are shown an easy and immediate way to feel better" – by linking a brand purchase to a donation to a charitable cause, for example.
Thirdly, it's important to recognise that "guilt tripping only works when the target is receptive to the message and 'willing' to experience the emotion". Parents are especially vulnerable to such marketing but rather than inducing anxiety it may be more useful to find a positive approach.
A fourth consideration is the intensity of the appeal: shouting is counterproductive, the authors suggest, and subtler approaches are more effective. An example is a Nissan campaign that portrayed potential passengers as porcelain sculptures with the tagline 'People are fragile', followed by a presentation of its cars' safety features.
Finally, media buying should consider that campaigns based on guilt tend to work best when placed next to more upbeat programming. But as guilt tends to be a transient emotion, Antonetti and Baines recommend point-of-purchase communications whenever possible as "it makes sense to elicit guilt as closely as possible to the moment where consumers are actually making their consumption decisions".
Data sourced from Admap