Should Marketers Use Emotion-Based Advertising Right Now?
Emotions are powerful motivators — a truth not lost on the marketing community, especially as the world focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic. There are some marketers who represent legitimate brands and products that can truly help people guard against the spread of the virus, but they're faced with the quandary of whether they should actively advertise these products, and how to do so in a relevant, appropriate fashion. This then provokes another question: If emotion-based advertising motivates consumer behavior, should marketers use it?
A Delicate Balance
Marketers walk a fine line when deciding whether to use tactics rooted in evoking consumers’ emotions. Though fear can certainly capture consumers’ attention, there’s the potential for negative emotion to transfer onto the brand as a result of a fear-based campaign. Given that it can be difficult to achieve the right balance, many marketers rely instead on positive emotions to inspire behavior.
In general, these tactics are only effective when they’re accompanied by a solution. It’s critical for advertisers to give clear, direct information on how to take action in order to avoid negative effects that could be associated with the subject at hand.
As an example, a number of texting-while-driving ads will show the driver handing his or her phone over to the passenger, providing a concrete solution to correct the behavior in question. Not doing so would fail to fully tap into the particularly high arousal of fear that can motivate people to take action.
Even when presenting a solution, there are risks. You don’t want to be so heavy-handed that the outlook is bleak. Ads that are especially negative or graphic can face backlash and may cause people to feel like the brand is exploiting negative outcomes for its own benefit.
Marketers must always weigh the potential impact of an ad against the perception it creates about the brand. They must also consider the ethical implications of scaring people into doing what they want them to do. If the intention is rooted in inspiring healthy behavioral changes, there’s less reason to be concerned. But if it’s tied more to a product or financial gain, the situation becomes murkier.
Handling Emotion-Based Campaigns
This, then, leads us to the question of how to handle emotion-based advertising campaigns ethically and successfully. The following tips can help:
1. Set Your Objectives
As with any marketing initiative, you need to decide what it is that an ad should do for your brand. What are the objectives? What behaviors do you hope to see from consumers? Meet with stakeholders and keep discussions focused on the ultimate goals of your ad campaign. Home in on the specifics, not broad generalities.
Once you’ve established your objectives, evaluate whether emotion-based tactics are the best way to inspire the behaviors you want to see. If the goal is to raise brand awareness, the intended outcome isn’t action — it’s attention. In that case, this approach isn’t helpful.
2. Identify Reasons for Inaction
The are many potential reasons ads fail to connect with their target audiences. Not understanding consequences, being unclear about the intended call to action, and a lack of focus are all factors that can contribute to inaction. Think like a consumer and decide whether the problem you’re promising to solve is salient enough.
Consider an advertisement discouraging drunk driving, for example. The message is clear, but some people still get behind the wheel after drinking. Think about the reasons why people might still choose not to take the recommended action. Are they not fully aware of the consequences? Are you painting a clear picture of the issue? Ask yourself these questions before considering the use of fear to move your audience to act.
3. Facilitate Action
If tactics based on emotion are appropriate, be sure to provide consumers the proper outlets to take action. Offer a phone number to call or text. Tell them exactly how to take the first step. Give people all the information they need to do what you’re asking of them. If you don’t, the likelihood of them taking that action decreases exponentially.
4. End on a Good Note
Emotional tactics in marketing work to a degree, but it’s important to end on a positive note when using them. The last thing you want is to leave consumers with enduring negative emotions. Share the positive outcome of the intended action. Instead of only showing the dire, deadly consequences of texting and driving, you might also show the alternative future in which drivers and passengers go on to live successful lives.
For most people, the impact of negative feelings caused by emotional triggers in advertising is fleeting. Be intentional about striking the necessary delicate balance between fear and solutions, and your campaign will benefit greatly.
Collette Eccleston is SVP at LRW. She has over 10 years of experience conducting behavioral science research and specializes in applying behavioral science theory and methods to market research. Prior to her career in market research, Collette was a professor of psychology at Syracuse University, where her work addressed stereotypes, attitudes, identity, and group interaction. Collette received a B.A. in psychology from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara