Matching message to emotion is essential to effective public health campaigns

Know your audience. This venerable maxim of marketing rings truer than ever now that there’s so much more to know.

A new study by Nidhi Agrawal of the University of Washington Foster School of Business confirms its relevance in the realm of public service announcements—the marketing end of public health campaigns—which can backfire when the message does not fit the emotional state of the target audience.

Agrawal and her co-authors discovered that PSAs aimed at curbing binge drinking can have a dramatically different effect depending on whether the emotions they evoke are shame or guilt. Evoking shame without offering a viable solution risks leading vulnerable populations to drink even more.

“Public health messages tend to evoke negative emotions,” says Agrawal, an associate professor of marketing at Foster. “But these emotions—especially shame—are so intensely negative that people have a hard time coping with them. They can make people very defensive. And this can cause the PSAs to backfire.”

Shame v. guilt

PSAs and psychology papers alike tend to treat shame and guilt as one emotional state. And there are similarities. Both are negative and self-focused. Both arise from doing something bad and then realizing you are responsible.

But they are also different in important ways. “Guilt and shame are very intense negative emotions,” Agrawal says. “They can drive us into depression and anger and all sorts of complex behaviors. And we’re seeing more of them in our society. But we don’t understand them very well.”

Her work is defining and distinguishing the related emotions, while offering positive ways of coping with them. According to Agrawal, guilt is a negative emotion in response to a particular instance of regrettable behavior. Shame is negative emotion associated with one’s overall identity.

“Guilt is easily fixed by taking positive actions,” Agrawal explains. “But shame is not so easily erased. It tells you, ‘I am bad and I will always do bad things.’ In this case, avoidance is sometimes the only solution.”

Vulnerable populations

Agrawal and co-authors Adam Duhachek and DaHee Han of Indiana University surveyed 1,200 undergraduate students after viewing a series of ads that evoked feelings of self-disgust associated with binge drinking. One depicted an inebriated young woman hugging a toilet bowl with the slogan: “Best night of my life.”

Agrawal says that the feelings evoked by such powerful imagery can be manipulated by the accompanying headlines and text. But once an emotion is activated, it requires a particular type of message to help a binge drinker make better decisions in the future.

When the appeal is couched to elicit guilt, the most effective message is positive: how to engage in responsible social drinking to avoid winding up in an embarrassing position. But when the appeal is couched to elicit shame, the most effective message is negative: how to avoid putting yourself in this destructive situation completely.

“It’s a subtle difference between ‘do these good things’ or ‘don’t do those bad things,’ ” Agrawal says. “But even those subtle differences in an ad’s framing had a big effect on how people responded.”

Misaligning the emotion and message—evoking shame then offering positive social drinking tips—can result in a defensive response. Intensify the shame and a person already feeling shameful will react against PSAs and drink even more.

Broader implications

The insights of this study, says Agrawal, could extend to any context that involves self-control, from shame-based PSAs targeting drinking, smoking, drug use or sexually transmitted disease to wellness appeals by health clubs and weight-loss programs.

“It’s easy to evoke an emotion in an ad,” she says. “You can make people feel shame, but you can’t leave them there—especially when you’re talking about vulnerable populations.”

“We need to understand the emotional place that our customers or message recipients are in, then design messages precisely to target those people. If we don’t, those messages will have a counterproductive effect.”

“Guilt Versus Shame: Coping, Fluency, and Framing in the Effectiveness of Responsible Drinking Messages” is forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing Research.