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Think BR: Why does adland insist on making people feel guilty?

Guilt sells but reinforcing the positive will have a lasting effect, on all of us, writes Kathy Slack, strategy director, DDB UK.

Kathy Slack, strategy director, DDB UK

Kathy Slack, strategy director, DDB UK

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Let’s face it: as an industry, we use guilt to sell things.

It can be a very persuasive tool: whether it’s guilt about being healthy enough, about if we look after our kids well enough or if we’re doing enough for the environment - admit it, as marketers we all employ it as a tactic at some point in our careers.

But why does our industry feel it’s necessary to make people feel guilty?

It might get a quick sale, but ultimately it is very negative and the long term implications for the brands you are marketing are equally negative.

Taking a wider view of the cultural consequences, it also fosters a nation of people who feel inadequate for not being as good as they are told they ought to be, fuelled by advertising and weekend supplements telling us all the things we should have and should do if we want to be better, richer, thinner, cleverer people.

Sure it is great to be aspirational, but in marketing there is a fine line between tapping into people’s aspirations and playing on guilt.

Of course, it’s de rigueur to blame advertising for all society’s ills, but advertisers must be conscious of the responsibility we have in the images of normalcy we project.

Marketing products by suggesting, however surreptitiously, that it improves the buyer in some way is bound to leave a negative imprint on their self image.

However, focussing on the benefits of a product has no such negative effect.  

All these thoughts have been in the ether of our industry for a while, but it was my recent research with neuroscientists in developing the latest Gü Puds campaign that really illustrated to me the power of guilt and that it can be avoided altogether - even in the most guilt ridden categories.

The standard approach in the adult ‘treat’ category in which Gü is nestled, is to find an excuse for people to put aside their better judgement and indulge in something they know they shouldn’t really.

From the cheapest sugar filled candy to the 80% cocoas of the world, most brands adopt the same formula: ordinarily you should feel guilty about this but today it’s OK because this is very high quality/you’ve had a hard day/you’re helping African farmers.

But by creating excuses you are telling people that they are transgressing and that actually they should feel guilty about enjoying the treat.

Having consumers feeling powerless to resist your product might sound enticing, but it’s a potentially dangerous way to sell things because ultimately the associations with your brand are negative.

So, however cheesy it may sound, let’s accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, as the song goes.

Granted, it might seem a bit bland; after all, we often refer to the importance of ‘tension’ and blind optimism doesn’t seem to offer boundless opportunity for this.

But, in talking to the neuroscientists at Goldsmiths College I realised it is a simple psychological process.

It is possible to replace established guilty associations with positive ones. Furthermore, these are enormously powerful, perhaps even more powerful than negative ones.

I’m informed by our friends at Goldsmiths that it’s called evaluative conditioning: a kind of Pavlovian conditioning (for humans rather than dogs).

Numerous experiments have demonstrated that neutral stimuli can be perceived as positive or negative depending on what you place around it.

So, if you show people a picture of a person with a neutral face amongst sad and scowling faces, respondents will evaluate the neutral face as negative.  

Similarly, surround another neutral face with smiley faces and respondents are more likely to view them positively.

What’s of particular interest to us planners is that it is shown to last. When people return to those neutral faces later and now out of context, their initial evaluation still stands (Walther, E., Gawronski, B., Blank, H., & Langer, T. 2009).

So, by placing a brand (in our case Gü) with things that people already see as positive pleasures, over time it will be seen in the same positive light.

Admittedly, this isn’t revolutionary. But look at the dessert market: sex filled chocolate ads abound with dark, naughty, illicit things.

So it’s hardly surprising that people think of the products as verboten transgressions.

The insight of neuroscience requires us all to rethink the way we expect our communications to work.

Ads are not a vehicle for a strategy or a message: they are a conditioning stimulus that marketers can use to induce guilt or to create an altogether more positive reaction.

So yes, guilt might sell, but wouldn’t we all feel less guilty if we didn’t make this our tool of choice?

Kathy Slack, strategy director, DDB UK


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