What’s the Effect of Guilt Appeal?

The answer to that question may depend on where the guilt appeal is coming from. Appeals are messaging tools that have long been used by marketers to change the attitudes of their audience by targeting their emotions.

Commercial marketers, whose job it is to sell goods or services, use appeals to convince people to purchase a particular product — like a specific brand of reusable bags. Social marketers, who use the same techniques to promote well-being for noncommercial reasons, may use appeals to try to influence people’s behaviors — like using reusable bags to benefit the health of the planet. For both types of marketers, guilt appeal could be employed to create messages about the harm caused by using plastic bags, and the selfishness inherent in the decision to use them. The goal is to force a change in behavior via guilt.

Guilt can inspire constructive action, or adversely, encourage negative attitudes and even anger, according to the research.

Monique Turner’s article, “The Effects of Guilt-Appeal Intensity on Persuasive and Emotional Outcomes: The Moderating Role of Sponsor Motive,” explores the effect that an advertisement’s intention, also called source motive, has on the way the audience feels about, and responds to, an ad’s message. In other words, how does an ad’s intention to either sell a particular brand of reusable bags (commercial marketing) or promote the use of reusable bags for the betterment of the earth (social marketing) affect people’s reaction to the message? Do the intentions of the marketer influence the reactions of the audience?

Turner, an associate professor in the Department of Prevention and Community Health at the George Washington University and Interim Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, and her team examined the connection between the source motive, how positively people feel about an ad’s message, and how effective that message is in changing people’s attitudes or behaviors.

Guilt can inspire constructive action, or adversely, encourage negative attitudes and even anger, according to the research. Turner’s study found that the source motive does have an impact on the effect of guilt appeals. Based on the findings of their study, the researchers concluded that commercial marketers may want to avoid using high-intensity levels of guilt in their messages, and may even want to avoid the use of guilt altogether. Social marketers, on the other hand, can be less careful, according to the findings. In both cases, however, higher-intensity guilt appeals produced angry responses.

Researchers recommend that marketers always pretest their messages on target audiences while paying attention to the effect of source motive. They also urge marketers to play close attention to the long-term implications of guilt appeals on the persuasiveness of the ad’s message.

If you’re interested in learning more, click here for the full article published in the Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing.