Marketing Implications for Guilt and Shame: Sentient Emotion Series

Nate Decker
Ph.D. Behavioral Scientist, Sentient Decision Science

Negative emotions tell us something important about ourselves; when we feel bad, it’s because something in our lives needs to be remedied to bring us back to neutral. Along this journey of the Sentient 26 emotions, I have chosen to touch on the emotions that keeps us awake at night, tearing at our conscience: guilt and shame.

These emotions are both exemplified by decidedly negative affect that is slightly energized (higher arousal). Both of these emotions are felt around actions that one knows shouldn’t be done.

Watch these two clips and try to get a sense for the differences between mitigations of guilt and shame in advertising.

Mitigating Guilt

Mitigating Shame

What Drives the Differences Between Guilt and Shame?

The difference is the focus on the self; the negative affect from feeling guilt is directed at external actions or behaviors whereas the negative affect from feeling shame is directed at oneself.

Guilt is reported to involve the desire to undo aspects of behavior, whereas shame is associated with the desire to undo aspects of the self. (Niedenthal et al 1994).

Guilt as a Motivating Emotion

Research into human morality typically focuses on guilt because guilt associations tell us which behaviors to avoid. In a recent article by Tangney, guilt is described as the moral emotion; guilt associations guide moral decision making by ascribing guilt to actions that betray one’s moral standards.

They found that remorse felt towards actions that betray a sense of personal morality are associated with guilt (Tangney, 2014). Ascribing guilt to different behaviors enhances our ability to determine how we should feel when we engage in certain behaviors.

Shame as a Motivating Emotion

By contrast, shame arises from humiliation felt when personal inadequacies are exposed (Eisenberg, 2000). Actions that are consistent with the self but are socially unacceptable ascribe shame to the self.

According to Scheff (1990), shame is an important motivator involved in the constant, iterative review of one’s social status and perceived self-worth. When something about ourselves being exposed causes shame, a desire to change things about ourselves is triggered to preserve/improve our personal self-worth.

Marketing Implications for Guilt and Shame

Isolating the potential negative impact of the pleasurable aspects of your brand from the potential negative impact of social perceptions on your brand provides targeted advice for brand management and new product development.

Evoking Guilt in Your Marketing

For example, the richness of your malted caramel coffee beverage might also give rise to feelings of guilt after consumption, whereas a “shark-fin soup” flavor offering in your product suite that satisfies a niche audience may be seen as socially unacceptable and could give rise to shame among your niche audience.
Additionally, guilt can cue behavior in ways that are positive. Feelings of guilt can be a ‘mental shortcut’ (heuristic) for recognizing a product’s anticipated pleasure or “hedonic value.” This hedonic value guides consumer behavior when evaluating products based on how pleasurable they will feel, and also informs behavioral economics effects like ‘mental accounting.’

For example, if a customer has a certain amount of their ‘mental budget’ allotted for treats when they have a ‘cheat day’ in their diet, when your brand of nacho cheese dip is seen as less indulgent than your competitors (i.e. you competitors product cues more guilt), your customers will choose the competitor!

The guiltier pleasure will win out!

Avoiding Shame in Your Marketing

By contrast, the feelings of shame associated with a brand is decidedly a bad prospect, especially in countries with cultures where society has a stronger impact on consumer decision making. Feelings of shame with a brand or product are likely to reduce willingness to trial and willingness to promote.

Reducing Guilt in Your Marketing

Reducing customers overall feelings of ‘guilt’ can be accomplished by on-package callouts that focus on achievement or advancement (i.e. healthy/nutritious), but if you need to increase guilt, you can obviously change these callouts to focus on more hedonic experiences (i.e. flavor, indulgence, ease of use).

Reducing Shame in Your Marketing

Reducing consumers overall feelings of ‘shame’ can be accomplished by including charity donations in your promotions or using creative materials that emphasize how your product prescribes to the social order and/or is community oriented (i.e. ‘family-owned’, ‘locally-sourced’, etc.).

Controlling Brand Messaging Requires Evoking Discrete Emotions

Understanding the nuanced differences between these emotions is essential to controlling your brand message, creative, packaging, promotions, and new product development to achieve maximum impact.

Many research providers will try to rely solely on valence (positive vs. negative) and/or arousal metrics, which by themselves are missing the necessary tools to elucidate differences in behavior that are driven by these distinct emotions.

To learn more about how to utilize all 26 emotions, contact us at Sentient!

Ad Testing Consultation

Niedenthal PM, Tangney JP, Gavanski I. 1994. “If only I weren’t’” versus “If only I hadn’t”: distinguishing shame and guilt in counterfactual thinking. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 67:584–95

Scheff, T. J. (1990). Microsociology: Discourse, emotion, and social structure. Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press.

Tangley JP, Stuewig J, Martinize AG. 2014. Two Faces of Shame: Understanding Shame and Guilt in the Prediction of Jail Inmates’ Recidivism. Psychol Sci. 2014 March ; 25(3): 799–805.

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