Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 103
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Guilt Ads

Researches explore the effect of guilt ads on attitudes and purchase intentions.

Have compassion for the working mother. She gives her best hours to her employer and then goes home to the obligations of children, husband, and housework. For many, it's impossible to do everything well, and the last thing mothers want to face is ads reminding them of it. Yet that's exactly what happens when they open magazines like Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal and see ads with carefully tailored guilt messages targeted right at them. Some of these ads are subtle, and some aren't; but their appeal to guilt is unmistakable.

Now consider the other side of these ads and have some compassion for the people who pay for them. They're providers of goods and services that stand out as more healthful, nutritious, and beneficial than the norm, and their appeal to guilt conceals their inability to appeal to emotions like fun, excitement, and sexual attraction. Chips, soft drinks, and beer have taken these appeals. There's nothing fun or sexy about dental floss, but it's fairly easy to remind mothers they should provide it for their families. The trouble is, if you watch the grocery carts go through check out, they're loaded with chips, soft drinks, and beer, and you have to wait a long time to see any dental floss or oatmeal go by. That must be discouraging.

Robin Coulter, of the University of Connecticut, and Mary Beth Pinto, of Mercyhurst College, are interested in guilt appeals in advertising, but when they reviewed past research on the subject, they found a wealth of theory but no experiments. No one had ever explored the effects of guilt ads on the attitudes and purchase intentions of real people. The ad agencies who design these ads and the companies who pay for them are relying upon untested theories to guide this effort.

Coulter and Pinto decided to correct this deficiency.

They composed guilt ads concerning white bread and dental floss varying the guilt appeal (weak, moderate, and strong). Since so many guilt ads are directed at working mothers, they worked with this group too, recruiting 60 working mothers, and testing their ads on them.

When Coulter and Pinto finished their study and reviewed their data, they found the strongest, most blatant appeals to guilt generated the strongest sense of guilt in the mothers, but the ads also made the mothers mad. It's not wise to make mothers mad, and this group revealed why. Their anger influenced their attitudes toward the advertisement, the brand, and toward the company that produced the product. And not surprisingly, it also affected their intentions to buy the product. For those reading the strongest ads, the target products would stay on the shelves.

Feeling guilty means becoming aware that we have violated a personal standard or code of behavior that we really want to sustain . . . that we have failed our ideals. Guilt ads work by reminding us of this failure and binding us to its source -- the dental floss, for example. This binding to a source of guilt requires an action on our part to relieve it, like buying the product (or throwing the magazine out the window). But if it wasn't a product we really should buy or a service we really should provide, either for ourselves or for our families, our guilt couldn't be aroused.

Ad appeals to guilt do stimulate a sense of guilt and they do motivate people to purchase products or services, but anger interferes with this effect, and Coulter and Pinto recommend those who produce such products and use guilt ads to promote them to rely upon modest appeals to guilt to arouse a modest sense of guilt. Just enough to get attention and encourage action, but not enough to generate anger.

Isn't that the goal of advertising anyway?

Reference: Coulter, Robin Higie, and Mary Beth Pinto (1995). Guilt Appeals in Advertising: What Are Their Effects? Journal of Applied Psychology, 80 (6), pp. 697-705.

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