Can Disgust be a Good Thing?

  • Emotions in Advertising

Imagine opening a carton of curdled milk. Now raise that carton of curdled milk to your nose. What do you smell? What do you feel? If you feel disgusted, you’re not alone!

Can you imagine a scenario wherein a brand marketer would ever want to evoke that kind of emotion in relation to its brand? As part of our Emotions in Advertising series, we dug deep into disgust to understand its motivational properties and whether this most unusual of marketing emotions could move the needle in a positive way for brands.

This case study examined an ad that made us all groan every time we saw it. Mint Mobile’s “Chunky Style Milk”. The ads spokesperson is an animated fox that describes to a man how some things just aren’t right, like paying too much for wireless or chunky style milk. The ad presents a scene of a family starting their day by chewing down their chunks of wholesome milk. Cutting back to the man we see his expression of disgust and he comments “that’s not right”.

"This is a great illustration about how negative emotion is not the enemy of good advertising. It’s the absence of emotion that’s the enemy of good advertising."

Dr. Aaron Reid - CEO & Founder of Sentient Decision Science

While the ad is uncommonly cringeworthy, it is also exceptionally engaging. So how does an ad that evokes so much negative emotion while consumers are watching influence perceptions of the brand after they’re done watching?

In order to capture any negative impact on the brand, we use implicit association testing to measure cognitive association changes from pre to post ad viewing. While consumers are watching the video we use facial coding of expressions to measure the emotional experience. The combination of real-time emotional expression cut by change in implicit attitude toward the brands reveals not only what people are feeling, but why.


This video example displays facial coding of emotion of the ad, charting moment by moment expressions of people who thought the ad was funny. The overall valence is represented in white, happiness is in green and disgust is displayed as red. Interestingly, the people who thought the ad was funny actually expressed more disgust while watching the ad. Importantly, the more disgust people expressed while watching the less disgust they felt toward the Mint Mobile brand after seeing the ad.

To get insight into why, all we need to do is analyze the expressed emotional experience and we can see telling patterns across different groups of consumers. Notice the staggered cadence of disgust and happiness expressions among the group of people who thought the ad was funny, and among the group who felt less disgust for the brand. Disgust is triggered first at key punch lines “the wholesome chunks growing kids need” and “save some chunks for me”, followed by immediate expressions of happiness (humor), creating an effective recipe for imbuing positive emotional associations on the brand.

To provide additional evidence of the efficacy of the ad and the analytics approach, in this next video example we isolated the group of people who didn’t like the ad. The people who didn’t like the ad expressed no happiness at all. Disgust was present, but there was no cadence from disgust to happiness in their emotional experience, and thus the ad didn’t deliver for this group. Fortunately for Mint Mobile this group represents a very small proportion of the overall population – the majority of consumers find this ad quite funny.

The days when neuro-firms had to say “let’s do a focus group to figure out why we’re seeing this pattern of neural responses” are officially over. Testing changes in implicit cognition and combining that with measures of moment-by-moment emotional experience gives us deep insight into why an ad is effective or ineffective. This integration of cognitive-behavioral and emotional data reveals just how negative emotions can engage and improve brand perception.

So how did the ad perform in the market? Chunky Style Milk performed very well with an overall Subtext Score in the 80th percentile and an rank of 89% Positive Sentiment with a 9.0 for Engagement.

Save some chunks for me!

Subtext uses norms from thousands of similar ads to forecast performance using Attention, Affect, Memory and Desirability benchmarks. To learn more about these advanced measures of advertising effectiveness, explore more Subtext case studies by subscribing to our blog. Be the first to hear the next case studies on how shame, guilt and anxiety can be used effectively to endear consumers to your brand.

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