Facebook's emotion experiment is nothing new

Apologies about a research project at Facebook (FB) have made headlines this week. A study by the company and researchers at UC San Diego and Yale tried to see if emotions could be transferred by manipulating the balance of positive and negative posts that users saw.

However, a consumer outcry about the activity misses that secret emotional manipulation is nothing new in media. Although the latest approach is more systematic, marketers for a hundred years have methodically experimented with consumer emotions to sell products.

The study's results, published in March, recently sparked sharp reaction. Both laypersons and researchers in psychology have criticized Facebook's willingness to conduct psychological studies without the knowledge or consent of the subjects.

A data scientist at the company said he was "very sorry" for a study in which the company tried to manipulate users' emotions through the directed mix of posts on their newsfeeds. COO Sheryl Sandberg apologized for the "poorly communicated" study, although not for the study itself.

But as shocked as the criticism has been, it has failed to address a broader issue. Marketers have deliberately and experimentally manipulated consumer emotions since at least the early twentieth century. A classic example is direct marketing. Companies run campaigns and test variations to see what is most effective in driving people to ask for more information or place an order.

Emotion is one of the prime factors that direct marketers consider when planning campaigns. Fear, greed, a sense of exclusivity, worry, embarrassment, prestige, and guilt are considered classic consumer motivators. For many decades, marketers have designed entire campaigns, and even products, around these emotional drivers. They adjust headlines, copy, layout, offers, and lists of benefits to further heighten feelings that can push certain people into spending time or money.

The use of emotion extended into brand advertising long ago. The classic slice-of-life commercial, where one neighbor drops in on another and presents and unexpected solution to a common problem, is seated in emotion and an attempt to build trust. It developed as a result of experimentation when marketers found more straightforward claims-based advertising was losing effectiveness.

Companies would also look for additional information, like selecting mailing lists based on demonstrated interests in particular subjects, or using demographic information based on location. All of this marketing and advertising was a series of emotional experiments supplemented with whatever else could be known about consumers, who were never explicitly told that they were the practical subjects of experiments.

Facebook's studies involved a degree of specific knowledge about individuals and a real-time analytic ability that hasn't been available before. But the basics have been in place for generations. Consumers have been experimental subjects all their lives. This is just one of the few times that many come to realize it.

  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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