• Emotional Targeting- Smart Marketing or Virtual Sucker Punch?

    emotional targeting

    A few days ago, an acquaintance gave me a link to a public service announcement that had been uploaded to YouTube.

    The theme of the video was sexual abuse/incest. The contents were shocking and repulsive. It included a father toasting to the union of his daughter and son-in-law while cracking jokes about her physical prowess. The daughter sat idly by, enjoying herself and smiling all the way through.

    After I finished watching the video, I couldn’t help but wonder about the marketing behind it. What struck me most about it was that it aimed to scrape the barrel of humanity in the hopes of inspiring an evolved outlook in viewers.

    Although it was an extreme example, it got me thinking about emotional marketing and the way that some businesses choose to use negative emotions to incite positive actions in prospects. At least, it would be a positive action for the business- a sale.

    Using shock, fear, horror, guilt, anxiety and other negative emotions to move a product isn’t a new idea in marketing. But I think the expectation that others will recognize negative propositions from businesses as invitations towards an implied positive outcome is.

    Nowadays, there’s a more focused effort on “ethical” business practices. If they’re not driven by conscience, then it’s legality. But it’s amazing to me how some people think that “ethics” is a nebulous concept- at least in the world of marketing.

    I’m convinced that in business, there’s no better place than the marketing area to ask the question “Does the end justify the means?”

    Consider a study that The Responsible Marketing Blog commented on. The study experimented with ads containing thin and average-sized women. It found that women felt badly about themselves when the ads with thin women aired, but they bought the products associated with them. In contrast, when women were shown the ads with average-sized women, they felt more at ease, but didn’t run out to buy the products. I don’t really have to tell you which ads would be more desirable to marketers.

    The author asked two questions at the end of the post: “Is it ethical?” and “Is it Responsible Marketing?” It’s interesting to me that both questions were posed, simply because both could beg different responses. On the one hand, no, it’s not ethical to manipulate people’s emotions for the sake of a selfish goal. But marketers may consider it “responsible marketing”- maybe even the only type of marketing there is- because it can be the best way to encourage sales. By pulling people’s heartstrings, they’re doing all they can to live up to the responsibility of bringing in as many conversions as possible.

    I’m fascinated by the idea that marketing experts often use the word “triggers” to describe what marketers do to get prospects to respond. This is probably because therapists use the same term to describe anything that elicits a terrible memory (and, possibly, a negative response) in patients recovering from trauma.

    Philip Kotler’s statement,

    We are not in a state of competition anymore; we’re in a state of hyper-competition. So people are desperately looking for handles- functional features, emotional appeals- that will draw people to their product

    raises some interesting questions for me. The marketing consultant admits frenetic competition resulting in desperation, which in turn leads to marketers playing with emotions…the virtual sucker-punch. But is it really our right, as marketers or not, to exploit basic biology and quantify the very things that make us human? By doing so, we’d be reducing the human experience to numbers…sales and profits.

    Obviously, I’m not speaking about all emotional marketing. All marketing, in some form or another, uses emotion to get points across. What I am talking about is that lowest form of marketing- the type that aims to emotionally break down prospects for the sake of making them customers. The companies, of course, aim to build them up again and make everything all right with their products. The worst of them attempt to turn  the experience into a cycle, tearing customers down, building them up and tearing them down again, each time offering a “solution” that was better than the last. Those companies would no doubt say that their customers were “loyal” and not the victims of unscrupulous marketing practices…

    FigPii Heatmaps

    What’s your take on this? It’s a complicated matter for sure, but I’m sure it’s one that many have given thoughts to, whether passing or not. Where do you draw the line with your marketing practices?

Ayat Shukairy

My name is Ayat Shukairy, and I’m a co-founder and CCO at Invesp. Here’s a little more about me: At the very beginning of my career, I worked on countless high-profile e-commerce projects, helping diverse organizations optimize website copy. I realized, that although the copy was great and was generating more foot traffic, many of the sites performed poorly because of usability and design issues.

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Ayat Shukairy

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6 thoughts on “Emotional Targeting- Smart Marketing or Virtual Sucker Punch?”

  1. Avatar Georjina says:

    Samantha, you make very good points and your analysis leaves room for serious introspection on the part of all marketers.

    As marketers, salespeople, business owners it would appear there are many who accept sleaze as the ‘means justify the ends’ to gaining customer loyalty.

    It does beg the question: Where does manipulation begin and marketing begin? It appears there are areas which overlap and in some cases, to the extreme.

    Are the marketers for ‘gangsta rap’ accountable to a public inundated by violence, when song lyrics are fictional events played out in real communities?

    There are no easy answers, but as a business owner we are ultimately responsible for what we do or do not in getting our products out the door.

  2. Avatar Chelle says:

    I think there are a lot of what I call “predatory” advertisers out there. They look for vulnerable people and try to sell them something. They take the attitude that they aren’t responsible for how others spend their money, which yes, may be true…but it would be nice if they sold something that actually worked or benefited them, since the person they appeal to really does need real legitimate help in most cases.

  3. Georjina, I love that you bring up the rap example. Do you remember the whole 2LiveCrew fiasco of the 90s? I thought it was ridiculous that artists were being charged with the responsibility of creating work with the morals of others in mind. At one point, it became illegal to sell their products because some people (including authorities) considered them “obscene.” I think the point I’m trying to make with this example is that there truly is a very fine line between prospect and marketer responsibility. And that, a lot of times, both have to do their part to protect themselves from the other.

    Chelle, I cringe at a lot of advertisements I see nowadays- not because they’re badly done or annoying, but because instead of fighting for discretionary income, they seem to be fighting for prospects’ last pennies. Take for example…well, I won’t name actual businesses, but…commercials advertising money for a precious metal connected to jewelry. Mail-order pawn shops, if you will. And don’t even get me started about those commercials advertising bankruptcy. Bankruptcy! The irony in that alone is astounding…

  4. I agree – as much as I don’t like negative marketing such as the “father/daughter” example above, what’s even worse is when the marketing plays on positive outcomes that you wish very badly to happen, so you believe what the commercial (sell your gold for tons of cash!) or telemarketer (we have a buyer for your timeshare!!) has to say to you.

    Then when you find out you get a lot less or you get money TAKEN from you instead of given to you – that is the worst kind of marketing – bordering on illegal – yet these companies are allowed to exist and prey on people’s hopes and dreams.

    I have been a victim recently of the 2nd instance above – and it makes me very wary of these people that can look themselves in the eye and know they are ripping you off…sad indeed.

  5. Laurel, yeah, all advertising (at least very technically speaking) is a form of manipulation. It’s the business of getting people to do what you want them to do- buy. But there is definitely a line that can and has been crossed many times over by marketers. And, seemingly, unconscionably. I wonder how many of those marketers would continue to voluntarily make victims out of people like you if they personally became victims themselves? I bet they’d grow principles fast. Once THEIR money was on the line, they might even become part of consumer protection groups! Now wouldn’t that be something to see?

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