Would marketers stoop so low as to make you feel guilty in order to entice you to buy something? Absolutely.
New research published this week by researchers at The University of British Columbia suggests that guilt can be a powerful tool for motivating self-improvement and, accordingly, for selling self-improvement products and services.
"We found that guilt reminds you of times you know you could have done better, which pushes you to seek out ways to improve," said Thomas Allard, a PhD candidate at Sauder who co-authored the study with marketing Professor Katherine White.
An Age-Old Tactic
Is this really new?
Grandmothers and mothers have likely been using guilt as a motivator since prehistoric times, as in: "I guess you're too busy to stop by the cave and say hello, Zog. That's okay. I'll just sit here alone, with nobody to talk to."
So, the idea that guilt can be tapped to sell products isn't all that shocking.
In fact, Dana-Nicoleta Lascu, from the University of South Carolina, noted in her 1991 paper Consumer Guilt: Examining the Potential of a New Marketing Construct that there has been considerable research on the use of guilt in advertising. She cites some seminal work on the subject by McGuire in 1974, which found that "The effect of guilt inducement is thus, paradoxically, negative on comprehension and positive on yielding. Therefore, to maximize the persuasive effect of the message, the level of anxiety induced should be at an intermediate level."
In other words, if a marketing message involves too much guilt, the recipient will shut down and not be willing to hear about the project. You don't want to overdo guilt.
Still, this new research is useful. While the overall concept is old, it's our understanding of why guilt is a motivator, and how the process works, that is relatively new.
Defense Department Has Funded Research Into Narrative Framing
The use of guilt to drive purchase is based on a form of cognitive bias that psychologists call a "framing effect."
The idea has been embraced by neuromarketing specialists, who strive to understand how the brain responds to marketing stimuli. The idea is that, in effect, you have a rational brain and a reptilian brain. If marketers can speak to your reptilian brain they can override the more advanced, more rational part of your brain.
The field of neuroscience is shedding new light on why these marketing tactics are so effective, and, interestingly, the US Defense Department is funding many of the studies.
The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has an ongoing initiative called the Narrative Networks project, which aims to "revolutionize the study of narratives and narrative influence by advancing narrative analysis and neuroscience so as to create new narrative influence sensors, doubling status quo capacity to forecast narrative influence."
As an example of research funded by this program, scientists at the University of Southern California have looked at how narrative framing applies across different cultures. The study abstract notes that narrative framing that "targets the sacred values of the listener, including core personal, nationalistic, and/or religious values, is particularly effective at influencing the listener's interpretation of narrated events" and the researchers are "conducting a neurobiological fMRI experiment to investigate the reaction of American, Iranian, and Chinese subjects to narratives framed using sacred values."
While the defense interests in this research are fairly obvious, marketers will ultimately benefit from these studies as well -- tapping into advanced knowledge on how to motivate consumers to buy products and services.
In effect, slowly but surely, the brain is being mapped like a piano keyboard, and marketers are learning what keys to press to get consumers to do what marketers want.
As a consumer, these are scary times indeed.
For marketers, however, it's an interesting time to pilot new methods of persuasion, but it's important to be ethical in these efforts. Tricking somebody into buying a product usually is not a good recipe for long-term success.
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