New thinking seems to challenge the ‘classic’ marketing view of emotion. David Penn reviews the evidence and suggests a way forward – as well as explaining why Tahitians are never “sad”.

In the early to mid-noughties, you couldn’t heave a brick in a marketing or advertising conference without hitting a speaker holding forth about the power and importance of emotion. A widespread view grew up that emotions were the fundamental drivers of behaviour, sometimes expressed as “Feel – Do – Think” as opposed to the traditional “Think – Feel – Do” model of how marketing works.

Much of this was of course a counter-reaction to the highly rational “persuasion” school of marketing represented by communications models such as AIDA (Attention – Interest – Desire – Action); their basic premise being that, in order to change behaviour, you had to lodge a persuasive message in the customer’s brain.

What is emotion?

Emotion matters because it’s how we build brands. They are not built purely on rational beliefs or persuasive messaging, otherwise brands like Coke and Apple would never have achieved the status they enjoy. But I sense that in recent years the discussion about emotion in marketing has become confused – a confusion that probably stems from a misunderstanding about what emotion is. Here are some of the questions and issues:

• Are emotions innate, or learned?

• Are there really seven basic emotions, and are they universal?

• Is emotion a physiological or a mental phenomenon, and what implications does that have for measurement?

• Is emotion an automatic response?

• Ultimately, does emotion really matter that much anymore?

So, back to basics: What exactly is an emotion? In 2006, Zaltman and Mast wrote (in an ARF white paper) that “Emotion without cognitive appraisal is just arousal”. A short sentence, but one that deserves unpacking. For them, emotion has two components: a physiological/affective response (arousal and valence) and a cognitive one (how we describe or categorise the feeling it creates). One response is innate; the other learned and context-dependent.

More recently, work by Lisa Feldman Barret (How Emotions are Made, 2017) has done much to clarify the definition of emotion. She believes the debate is as much about terminology as anything else, arising from a basic confusion between two terms: affect and emotion. As she remarks, “Scholars and scientists have confused affect and emotion for centuries”.

What’s the difference between ‘affect’ and ‘emotion’?

Affect is a psycho-physiological response that underlies all emotional experience – a basic sense of feeling, ranging from unpleasant to pleasant (valence), and from agitated to calm (arousal). Emotions are much more complex mental constructions that sit on top of arousal and valence. So, if I feel good and highly aroused, that’s affect, but when I give a name to or categorise my affect (good, high arousal) as excitement, that’s an emotion.

Affect is almost certainly innate (hardwired, if you like) whereas emotions are not. According to Feldman Barret, the evidence that young infants can discriminate facial configurations for different emotions (such as happiness and fear) derives mainly from experiments that prove infants can distinguish between posed faces. But testing whether infants can distinguish for example between scowling (angry) or smiling (happy) faces, is really about distinguishing valence not emotion.

The fact is, infants have no means of labelling or categorising those affects – that is something they learn.

Indeed, the contrast of emotion with affect casts considerable doubt on two common ways of measuring ‘emotion’:

• Facial coding is based on the theory (largely attributed to Paul Ekman, 2003) that emotions are universal and can be interpreted via facial micro-expression, whereas it seems more likely that the seven so-called ‘universal’ emotions are culturally-specific interpretations of affect. Think about it: do you always make a ‘sad’ face when upset, or an ‘angry’ face when you’re raging? A facial expression may indicate that affective response has occurred, but it is not a reliable guide to what the subject is feeling.

• Equally, neurometrics such as EEG and GSR are really just physiological measures that don’t tell us much more than that arousal has taken place. They tell us little or nothing about valence or, more importantly, the feelings (emotions) associated with the arousal.

Is ‘affect’ automatic?

If affect is innate rather than learned, is it an automatic response that always precedes emotion?

There are two competing views:

1. According to the Affective Primacy Hypothesis, information relevant for affective responses can be activated quickly and automatically, before other information (see Zajonc, 1980, 2000; LeDoux, 1996).

2. By contrast, the Cognitive Primacy Hypothesis posits that perceivers must determine (and categorise) the nature of a stimulus before they can evaluate its affective content (see Storbeck and Clore, 2007, for review).

If you’re walking through a jungle and encounter an unknown creature, affective information associated with the creature might demand your immediate evaluation (is it safe or dangerous?). But if you’re at home watching a wildlife documentary you might not even notice that some animals are dangerous.

Compare and contrast the (affective) experience of witnessing a terrorist incident with viewing it on the TV.

In other words, our affective response depends on context, which means that affect cannot and does not always precede cognitive appraisal. Sometimes we Feel-Do-Think (when we “see” a snake, for example) other times we Think–Feel–Do.

What have we learned?

1. There is not always an automatic emotional reaction to brands or ads.

2. For emotion to occur there must first be an affective response and such responses are not automatic; depending on context, we may think before we feel.

3. Once an affective response occurs, the subject may interpret it as feeling (emotion). But other times we may experience affect without emotion.

4. Emotion, however, cannot happen without affect.

So, do emotions matter? Of course they do, because they provide the evidence that an affective response has occurred and, as Zaltman and Mast rightly observed, they are what gives meaning to that response. Which means that they are, ultimately, what gives meaning to brands because without them brands are no more than bundles of rational beliefs.

Finally, spare a thought for Tahitians who have no way of describing “sadness” in their own language. They apparently use a word meaning something like “the kind of fatigue associated with flu”. In a future blog I’m going to explore the limits of language for of measuring emotion and look at the non-linguistic alternatives.