Why Guilt-Inducing Ads May Backfire

Last Updated Mar 10, 2010 6:37 PM EST

We've all seen ads that prey upon viewers' guilt and fears in hopes of impacting their behavior. A new study from Indiana University's Kelley School of Business shows why these guilt-inducing ads may not be effective.

Kelley professor Adam Duhachek, along Nidhi Agrawal of the Kellogg School of Management, studied the effectiveness of anti-drinking campaigns. They found that the ads meant to elicit emotions of guilt were not only largely ineffective, but also "have the potential to spur more of the behavior they're trying to prevent," said Duhachek in a Kelley press release.

Viewers who were already experiencing guilt or shame over their alcohol-related behavior had trouble processing the messages. Instead, they disassociated their behavior with the actions depicted in the ad, and as a result, participated in even greater amounts of irresponsible drinking.

As Duhachek explains, "Advertisements are capable of bringing forth feelings so unpleasant that we're compelled to eliminate them by whatever means possible. This motivation is sufficiently strong to convince us we're immune to certain risks."

Instead of relying on guilt and fear, Duhachek says a more effective approach when hoping to change consumer behavior is to include messages of empowerment. For example, Heineken's "Let a Stranger Drive You Home" commercial focuses on the positive aspects of calling a cab instead of the dire consequences of driving intoxicated.

The bottom line: "If you're going to communicate a frightening scenario, temper it with the idea that it's avoidable," said Duhachek. "It's best to use the carrot along with the stick."

Image courtesy of Flickr user KeithBurtis, CC 2.0.

  • Stacy Blackman

    Stacy Sukov Blackman is president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, where she consults on MBA admissions. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy serves on the Board of Directors of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and has published a guide to MBA Admissions, The MBA Application Roadmap.