Many social marketing campaigns use negative emotions to alter consumer behaviour. Fear appeals are often used, for example, in government anti-tobacco campaigns, while guilt has been used by marketers to promote a range of ’responsible’ behaviours – anything from safe driving and healthy eating to environmental protection.

Marketers, both academics and practitioners, focus their attention on the question of the relative effectiveness of these appeals. Is it really a good idea to scare consumers? Does feeling guilt persuade consumers and lead them to better individual and collective choices? Despite decades of research on these issues, we seem to have missed an important question in relation to the effectiveness of emotional appeals: do these emotions last between the time they are received by a consumer and the time when a product/service or experience is consumed? Do emotional appeals change consumers’ behaviour over time?

In our recent paper published in the Journal of Marketing Management (written with Lorna Walker), we demonstrate that this is an issue that current research overlooks. Most studies examine consumers’ reactions immediately after exposure to an appeal but in real life the behaviour we want to change actually takes place after a significant delay. If people are fearful after watching an advert which discusses the risks of consuming tobacco, the question arises: will they still be fearful the next time they need to buy their favourite brand of cigarettes? It turns out that, both in the study of guilt and fear appeals, there is very little evidence to answer this question.

In other words, we do not really know whether or not emotional appeals are effective because there is no systematic evidence looking at how emotional appeals work between time of message receipt and time of consumption.

Why does it matter?

Nevertheless, just because something hasn’t been researched, does not necessarily mean we should research it! In this case, however, we believe there is a prima facie reason for such research to be undertaken. We believe longitudinal research is necessary to establish the effectiveness of emotional appeals over time because there may be a delay in the emotional effect. Studying delayed effects of guilt and fear is necessary to understand how these appeals work.

If we can rely on the existing evidence to claim that negative emotions influence how people think about the issues advertised; we definitely need further research to clarify how the influence of these messages works in the long term. A better model of persuasion enables us to design appeals that are effective not only after people are immediately exposed to the message but also when they make their actual consumption decisions.

To contribute to the development of research in this area, we proposed an elicitation-consumption framework to integrate the study of emotional processes at the time of elicitation and the time of consumption, to take account of possible wear-out and the delayed emotional effect. The framework shows the complex dynamics influencing how an advert is processed overt time and the different paths leading to behavioural change (or to the resistance or counter-arguing of the message communicated). In the figure below we provide an overview of the elicitation-consumption framework.

Figure: The elicitation-consumption framework applied to fear and guilt

Next steps

The elicitation-consumption framework has immediate implications for social marketing campaigners. To deliver more effective campaigns, marketers should be aware of the processes taking place at the moment of elicitation and their links to consumption. We encourage practitioners to examine the different paths more explicitly to identify potential weaknesses in their campaigns. In the paper, we discuss some examples of how the effectiveness of a campaign can be boosted by considering the longitudinal effects of an appeal. For example, media planning can be used to position the appeal close to the time when individuals make the relevant decision (e.g. see the THINK! Speed campaign), thereby limiting the wear-out effect.

The most important point however is that we do not know enough about this important phenomenon and further work is needed to elucidate the relative importance of the paths presented in our model. The framework can be used in experimental research to build a stronger effects-based approach to the use of negative appeals in persuasion. We have started some of this work recently. Thanks to a research grant from the British Academy, we have begun to undertake empirical research aimed at testing whether or not different forms of messaging maximise the delayed effects of guilt appeals to ascertain the process underpinning such effects.

This is an exciting new area of research which we hope can generate interest from colleagues both in academe and practitioners in social marketing. We see our article as a call to arms to colleagues to develop a new field of research around the impact of temporality as a moderator on the effectiveness of fear and guilt messages. An understanding of such processes will enable practitioners to design effective communication campaigns on the basis of the specific attitudinal and behavioural effects they wish to achieve and thereby make it more likely that they will achieve behavioural change.

Read the original research article: Antonetti, P., Baines, P., & Walker, L. (2015). From elicitation to consumption: assessing the longitudinal effectiveness of negative emotional appeals in social marketing. Journal of Marketing Management, 31(9-10), 940-969.

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Paulo Antonetti

Paolo Antonetti

Paolo Antonetti is Lecturer in Marketing at Queen Mary University of London. His research focuses on the role of emotions in sustainability and consumer ethics. His research has appeared in several international publications including the Journal of Business Ethics, Psychology & Marketing, International Journal of Management Reviews and the Journal of Marketing Management.

Paul Baines

Paul Baines

Paul Baines is Professor of Political Marketing at Cranfield School of Management, Cranfield University. Paul’s research has particularly focused on political marketing, public opinion and propaganda. He has published widely on these topics in leading international journals including the European Journal of Marketing, the Journal of Marketing Management, Business Ethics: A European Review, the Journal of Political Marketing, and Marketing Theory.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.