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Psych4Marketers: Emotions and Advertising

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the impact of emotions on shopping behavior. More specifically, I discussed how an individual’s current emotional state can influence their perception of advertising and other marketing tools. However, emotions are not just something consumers bring to the table; advertisements themselves frequently elicit emotional responses, which the ad creators hope will increase the viewer’s desire to purchase whatever is being advertised. Indeed, there are several “go-to” methods -- appeals to certain emotions -- that are regularly employed. But as the field of consumer behavior advances, more is becoming revealed about the particular limits of these favorite methods. In this post I will unpack three of these methods, explain when and why they are potentially useful and discuss their ultimate limits.


When it comes to advertising, there are several theories about the effect of emotional arousal on the effectiveness of the persuasion of the ad. One theory, the Arousal Based Model, posits that either type of emotional arousal (positive, like love, or negative, like fear) inhibits deep processing and therefore increases the persuasiveness of the ad. In other words, this theory predicts that when an emotional response is elicited, no matter what the emotion is, the viewer is less focused on the techniques being used in the ad and therefore is more prone to being “tricked” by some of these methods. Another theory, the Affective Valence-Based Model, predicts that only positive arousal leads to this shallow level of processing and thus increased persuasiveness, but negative emotional arousal actually leads to deeper processing and thus decreased persuasiveness. A recent article by Griskevicius et al. (2009) makes the argument that it's not as simple as positive vs. negative, but that we actually have to take into account what the emotion being elicited is because different emotions were evolved to solve different recurrent “problems” our ancestors faced. In a series of experiments they showed the first two common advertising techniques I will discuss are necessarily mediated by this notion of evolutionary problem solving. (Note: The original research is definitely worth a read if you want a more thorough understanding of this topic!)

1. The Social Proof Method

Lines such as “Loved by millions of customers!” and “See why everyone chooses us as their #1 favorite” are common taglines used in ads and promotional material. The idea here is to play into the social tendencies of humans: people are naturally very social beings and dislike the idea of falling behind in trends, etc. - advertisers are hoping you will think “If millions of other people love a certain product, chances are I will too, and I don’t want to be left out of the crowd!”

But does this method work in all contexts? The answer, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, is no. More specifically, this method works particularly well when they are placed amongst contextual ‘fear’ cues, but actually backfire and become significantly less persuasive when romantic cues are present.

In our evolutionary past, fear generally signalled a “stick together” mentality, suggesting it’s easier to fight off predators and other threats when you are not alone. Of course, we don’t live in wild environments anymore, but this mentality is still triggered in the face of frightening cues like scary pictures or situations in movies. Because of this, persuasion heuristics emphasizing social proof (like the aforementioned “Millions of customers”) are especially effective under a fear condition. The elicited fear emotion triggers a desire to stick with the pack, which in turn, causes viewers to really be persuaded by notions of social proof.

On the flip side, in our evolutionary past, cues of romantic desire generally signalled a “stand out from the rest” mentality, suggesting it’s easier to win over mates if you can highlight what makes you special. Today, romantic cues eliciting feelings of love are common in the advertising world; but when they are coupled with a social proof heuristic, they render the ad less effective. The elicited romantic feelings trigger a desire to be unique, which in turn, causes the viewers to not want a product potentially millions of others have!

2. The “Scarcity Effect” Method

Another rather common marketing scheme is to utilize messages like “Limited time only!” or “While supplies last!” In this case, the advertisers are appealing to the competitive side of human nature. “Survival of the fittest” is the name of the game in the grand scheme of evolution, and you surely won’t be the fittest if you can’t gather enough resources. Because of this, humans have developed a tendency to be drawn in by messages alluding to scarcity - we want to acquire things before we lose the chance to do so.

But just like the social proof method discussed above, the effectiveness of this method is influenced by the emotional contextual clues of fear and romantic desire, but in the completely opposite direction. Although fear increases the persuasiveness of the social proof technique, it actually decreases the effectiveness of techniques that try to employ the scarcity effect. If you have been primed to “stick together” by fear cues, you are not going to be persuaded to buy a product because it will help you stand out from the rest. By the same vein of reasoning, romantic cues, which decreased the effectiveness of social proof techniques, increase the persuasiveness of scarcity effect methods. Remember, feelings of love or romantic desire trigger a drive to differentiate oneself, thus increasing the appeal of a product that not everybody will be able to obtain.

As Griskevicius et. al. point out, both of these examples have important implications for the marketing world. First, instead of relying on just demographics to decide when and where to purchase airtime for a commercial, it is important to think about what is playing on TV at those times. For example, if you air a commercial that emphasizes the uniqueness of the product in the middle of a fear-inducing horror film, it probably won’t be that effective, as viewers are being primed to want to stick with the pack with the film they are watching. Second, this knowledge can be integrated into the creation of ads themselves; if you know your product is unique and you want to highlight that, spend the first portion of the ad trying to prime/elicit feelings of romance.

3. The “Fear Appeal” Method and How Humor Can Save It

You have probably noticed many ads trying to persuade the viewer to change some behavior - quit smoking/doing drugs, wear a seatbelt, wear sunscreen, don’t drink and drive, etc. - employ fear as their tactic of choice. Indeed, grim ad campaigns (likethis one, pictured below,  in New York City to reduce speed limit violations) that attempt to scare people into doing or not doing something are commonplace. However, there is a rampant debate about the effectiveness of such scare tactics. While discussing the effectiveness of the “This is Your Brain on Drugs” campaign, one student remarked, "The ad wasn't helpful in deterring me from using drugs. I don't think that scare tactics ever work in preventing kids from doing anything... I think that a scare tactic acts as more of a dare than it does actually scare kids away from using drugs."


Indeed, the effectiveness of fear appeals tends to be an inverted U-shape, only effective up to a certain level of fear. Once the fear tension arousal level tips over some point, the tactic backfires and the strategy becomes ineffective or even starts to operate in the opposite way (Mukherjee and Dubé, 2012). For example, one study found that using high levels of fear in an anti-speeding ad actually caused participants to drive faster in a simulated driving test.

One consequence of high levels of fear arousal is a defensive response, which cues tendencies of avoidance, which lowers the effectiveness of the fear appeal. The exact mechanism behind this phenomenon is unknown, but I can think of two lines of evolutionary reasoning to explain it. First, an “avoidance of stimulus” response could be beneficial in removing oneself from a dangerous situation. Second, a “denial of vulnerability” could be an “in the moment” coping mechanism. If you are immediately consumed by fear and resign yourself to your doomed fate, you’re not going to be too good at saving yourself. So, in the face of fear appeals we have a tendency to think “that won’t happen to me” because that’s nicer (and evolutionarily more useful) than thinking “that will most definitely happen to me” and living in paralyzing fear. But, it’s not very useful when policy makers are trying to change the reckless behavior of their citizens.

So, is there any hope for the fear appeal tactic? Recent research suggests that using humor in otherwise scare-oriented ads can actually increase their persuasiveness. In the aforementioned study conducted by Mukherjee and Dubé, it was found that a fear-inducing ad that also utilized humor increased the persuasiveness of a message compared to not using fear at all. Additionally they found that using fear tactics without humor was less persuasive than not using fear tactics at all.

It should be noted the mechanism behind these results was not a fear-reduction mechanism. In other words, those participants who were exposed to fear and humor were no less scared than those exposed to fear and no humor. Mukherjee and Dubé posit the effects were a result of humor providing an additional context in which the viewers could process and interpret the significance of the message they were receiving. Humor reduces the defensive response and breaks the chain of fear leading to denial of vulnerability, allowing the viewer to properly assess the meaning the ad might have for them.

For a real-life example, check outthe rest of the NYC anti-speeding campaign previously mentioned. The videos use humorous, everyday situations to deliver the frightening message. The campaign was launched in 2010, so it is difficult to analyze its effectiveness so far, but my guess is the humor and fear appeal should be more effective than other pure-fear campaigns.


Read another piece of our Psych4Marketers series: 3 Techniques to Better Understand Consumer Behavior

Consumer Behavior Psychology and Marketing Advertising and Psychology Emotions and Psychology

Posted by Madeline Ford on Aug 7, 2013

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