Responsible or not: Emotional manipulation

A vast sector of modern advertising… does not appeal to reason but to emotion; like any other kind of hypnoid suggestion, it tries to impress its objects emotionally and then make them submit intellectually.

~ Erich Fromm

Would you rather make women feel better about themselves or about your brand?

In a recent study inspired by Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, researchers discovered that when women were shown advertising with thin women, they felt worse about themselves, but responded favorably toward the brand.

When ads were shown with “regular size” women, they felt better about themselves, but responded less favorably toward the brand.

Darned if you do. Darned if you don’t.

This raises a great question:

Understanding a customer’s deepest emotions and then using the insights gained from that learning is considered the backbone of modern marketing.

Most marketers (this one included) would argue that not knowing your customer is irresponsible. In fact, I’d say marketing without emotion is like a car without gas: It won’t go.

But is advertising that preys on human emotions manipulative?

Is it ethical?

Is it Responsible Marketing?

Comment below to weigh in.

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Lissa Boles says:

    Great conversation.

    I love Beyond Buzz author, Lois Kelly’s posts, like this one: http://blog.foghound.com/286

    And The Psychology of Influence author, Robert Cialdini’s thoughts on ethics.

    As coach who works with folks largely unaware just how influenced they actually are, helping people help themselves when it comes to said influences is a big part of what I do. It’s hard to find and live your calling and vocation if you’re an unconscious marionette half the time thinking you’re not (yikes).

    And as both coach and marketer of my services, on both sides of that equation my job is to influence – and boy, I am exquisitely clear on the ethics and responsiblity in both. What helps me are people like Kelly and Cialdini, as well as my personal preferences and values. They help me know when, how and how much.

    If I get a sniff that a marketers more interested in fleecing their pocket than adding value to my life, I back up. And I regulate myself professionally the same way by keeping that top of mind – and then trust that I don’t have to ‘manipulate’ to do good business. It can be a fine line, but I can’t expect others to walk it if I’m not ‘eating my own dogfood’.

    In fact, I LOVE SM & Web 2.0 for this because alive in it is the collective nudge in the direction of authenticity and transparency – and the growing ease of being able to tell faster who is and who isn’t for real.

  • I consider myself a practical person. Advertising and marketing is deeply ingrained with selling to the emotions. And lots of buying is similarly ingrained. I am personally fascinated though by the trend towards more responsibility – on both sides of the transaction.

    I am pleased at much that Dove has done and think these illogical results are temporary. The equation has been soooo lopsided for sooo long, it may take a generation or two (which is a huge long time re: quarterly results) to let this consciousness weigh in. Consumers and marketers are redefining how they want to relate to each other and how they want to conduct business with each other.

    I did a Beach Walks episode recently on how bikinis make men buy things they don’t want or not care about price. Seems so last century to me, but one guy left a comment about how much fun it is to be distracted in that way.

    I think the bottom line though is two camps are developing – those who sell mindlessly to the mindless masses (nothing wrong with that in my book) and those who sell attentively to the attentive masses. Before it was mostly all the former IMO.

  • Hi Patrick,

    Well, as someone who teaches marketing AND sales techniques, I believe it is completely, 100% ethical to sell to either logic OR emotions.

    Most people buy from emotion and justify with logic, so it is important to include BOTH in your pitches.

    An example of this are the ads Oglivy used to recommend, where the picture is the emotion and captures your attention. The headline is catchy, and also large, and also preys upon the emotion. The, there’s a huge block of fine print, for those who want the logic in their ad pitch. It worked before, it can work again, too.

    Cheers!
    Scott
    ARRiiVE Business Solutions
    http://www.ARRiiVE.com
    http://arriive.blogspot.com

  • Joy Levin says:

    I think advertising always “preys” on huiman emotions to some degree, although I would like to think it’s more a matter of “appealing” than “preying”. Ultimately, though, I think many consumers think the way Lissa does (response above) in that they push back if they get the impression that the marketer is more interested in the dollar than in the customer. In Dove’s case, they may have experienced immediate positive uitility for their brand by going with thinner women, but in the long run, not only would this have cost them as women began “pushing back” but it would also have run against their overall branding image of appealing to “real beauty”.

  • Brian Crouch says:

    Interesting that people felt less positively about Dove after the campaign. Intuitively I would have thought it would be neutral or slightly positive.

    But it makes me think of some things that Kevin Hogan and Cialdini (mentioned above) have both written about: people are more suggestible after their self-esteem has been lowered. You’re more likely to buy an expensive change if you’ve recently felt ridiculed or shamed by your current situation (car, clothes, house). The lowered-self-esteem effect that Dove saw when they used attractive “models” may have made buyers more persuadable.

  • As a woman... says:

    I have been bombarded for 48 years with ads that tell me I’m not pretty enough, not thin enough, not stylish enough, can’t cook well enough, (etc)so buy this product and “get better” (still not “good” enough, but “better”). The trend toward more affirmative advertising is a relatively recent thing in the history of advertising.
    It means that the advertising industry needs to find a way to get the customer to like the product or company not on a basis of that there is something wrong with the customer that needs to be fixed, but on the basis that the customer is just fine just the way she is, but this product will still enhance an already fine life. It’s the difference between “Your hair isn’t shiny and manageable enough, so buy this shampoo” vs “You have such beautiful hair, and our product will help you keep it that way”, or the difference between “Your gray hair makes you look old, so you should dye it” vs “You’re a fun and interesting person, and it’s fun to change your hair color once in a while”. Even if your “logic” is telling you to like the product for it’s benefits, “like” is still an emotion. It is an affinity, an affiliation of “this product reflects my thoughts and values, therefore it is “like” me, and I “like” it. We don’t buy products we don’t “like” whatever our”logic” reasons are for buying it. There will be an emotional component in advertising and selling no matter what, it is essential to causing the customer to feel a connection with the product, visualizing the product in use in her life, as she enjoys feeling better, enjoying her home more, and having more time to connect with her kids at the dinner table, and she needs a reason to like your product more than the next guy’s.
    Any campaign that would fly in the face of what has been “traditional” emotional manipulation in advertising has to overcome years of negative conditioning in order to bring about a change in the way a customer goes about “liking” a product, and Dove should not be at all surprised by this reaction, it is simply not what we are “used” to, after all the years we have been told that “normal” looking women are substandard or ugly in some way, and a product is there to make us so much better than “normal”. The thin, pretty models represent what we have been consistently told we should aspire to, and to instill the idea that if we only buy the product, then that is what we will become. The normal looking women in the commercial make us feel better about ourselves, but we feel less favorable about the product because of all the years we have been told that we should look otherwise, and in using normal models the product is not making outlandish promises to us that we will look like the thin pretty models if we use the product. If we are fine just the way we are, then what other reason is there to buy this product if not to “fix” us? We need other reasons, if we don’t need to be fixed, then what will we get out of it? This is not an indication that the “traditional” forms of manipulation are better, though. These campaigns would not exist, if it weren’t for women “like” me telling companies that I’m sick of being told there is something wrong with me, and that I should use your product to attain some unreasonable goal which simply couldn’t be a part of my reality without extensive plastic surgery and starvation diets to go with it. That these campaigns exist at all indicates that a large number of women have commented on this sort of thing, to a point where a company has to pay attention to it, they don’t write their campaigns for one or two people, if they want to sell the product, they need enough support for that idea coming from the consumer. It’s just that even though so many women are fed up with the way we are being pitched to, we are still wired from years of conditioning, and will need many years and many more campaigns to deprogram us. For every campaign that presents women as they really are, there are 10 others that tell us we’re not good enough and hold up impossible standards in front of us to sell a product. Perhaps Unilever would not be so surprised at these results if they took the Dove outlook into all of their campaigns, instead of looking for one kind of result with one campaign, then completely undoing any good from it with the way they approach all the rest of their products.

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