Believe It Or Not: Persuasion, Manipulation and Credibility of Guilt Appeals

Robin Higie Coulter, University of Connecticut
June Cotte, University of South Carolina
Melissa Lunt Moore, University of Connecticut
ABSTRACT - This paper presents a framework for understanding the relationship between consumers’ persuasion knowledge, their cognitive and emotional reactions to an ad, and their attitudinal and intentional responses resulting from exposure to a guilt appeal. We adopt an active reader perspective for why some guilt ads Awork,@ while others do not. Specifically, we suggest that when consumers see a guilt ad, they draw upon their persuasion knowledge and make cognitive evaluations, assessing ad credibility and advertiser motivations. Additionally, they experience emotional reactionsCthe intended emotion (i.e., guilt) and/or unintended emotions (e.g., annoyance), as well as form Aad and behavioral intention.
[ to cite ]:
Robin Higie Coulter, June Cotte, and Melissa Lunt Moore (1999) ,"Believe It Or Not: Persuasion, Manipulation and Credibility of Guilt Appeals", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 288-294.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 288-294

BELIEVE IT OR NOT: PERSUASION, MANIPULATION AND CREDIBILITY OF GUILT APPEALS

Robin Higie Coulter, University of Connecticut

June Cotte, University of South Carolina

Melissa Lunt Moore, University of Connecticut

ABSTRACT -

This paper presents a framework for understanding the relationship between consumers’ persuasion knowledge, their cognitive and emotional reactions to an ad, and their attitudinal and intentional responses resulting from exposure to a guilt appeal. We adopt an active reader perspective for why some guilt ads "work," while others do not. Specifically, we suggest that when consumers see a guilt ad, they draw upon their persuasion knowledge and make cognitive evaluations, assessing ad credibility and advertiser motivations. Additionally, they experience emotional reactionsCthe intended emotion (i.e., guilt) and/or unintended emotions (e.g., annoyance), as well as form Aad and behavioral intention.

Recent research has introdced the perspective that consumers are active recipients of the advertising attempt (see Hirschman and Thompson 1997; Meline 1996; Mick and Buhl 1992; Scott 1994). The basic argument for this meaning-based approach to advertising research is that consumers are not passive, easily influenced product attribute information seekers when they read ads. Rather, they are active, skeptical readers and participants in the persuasion attempt; they assign meaning to the ad cues and make inferences about the intended meaning, the tactics used, and the ad sponsor (Boush, Friestad and Rose 1994; Friestad and Wright 1994; Meline 1996; Scott 1994). Some research has investigated what happens when consumers are active readers, and the findings suggest that consumers can and do make inferences about advertisers’ intentions (Friestad and Wright 1994; Kirmani and Wright 1989; Wright 1986), they are capable of discerning what the advertiser intended them to feel (Coulter, Cotte and Moore 1997), and/or they assess the motives and manipulative intent of the advertiser (Campbell 1995).

This paper focuses on how active readers react to emotional advertising appeals, in particular, guilt appeals. Most advertisers presumably expect that an emotional appeal will culminate in the viewing audience experiencing the intended emotion (Aaker, Stayman and Hagerty 1986). Thus, for example, in the case of guilt appeals, one would argue that the advertiser expects the audience to feel guilty, to have some feeling of failing at their own ideals or ethical principles (Ruth and Faber 1988; Wolman 1973). However, there are no guarantees that the viewing audience actually feels the intended emotion associated with the appeal (Englis 1990; Stout, Homer and Liu 1990).

In this paper, we propose a conceptual framework that examines the congruency between representation (the advertisement) and consumers’ responses (Scott 1994) in the context of guilt appeals. Our approach is conceptually related to the research that treats readers and viewers of ads as active participants in the process of creating meaning in the ad. We posit that one explanation for a lack of congruency between advertisers’ intentions and the consumers’ reactions is that consumers are active recipients of the advertising attempt. Thus, consumers draw on their knowledge of advertisements and tactics, and evaluate ad credibility and advertisers’ motivations. Further, we believe that when consumers perceive the advertiser as ill-intended, the intended emotion associated with the appeal (guilt) may be attenuated such that the consumer doesn’t feel guilty, and that the consumer experiences emotions not intended (e.g., annoyance). In contrast, when an ad is perceived as credible, our expectation is that the consumers experience the guilt intended by the advertiser.

Our research makes several key contributions. First, we continue in the emerging stream of advertising research focusing on meaning construals, on consumers as active participants in viewing and understanding an ad. Second, we provide an organizing framework for the effects of persuasion knowledge, cognitive evaluations and emotional responses which we believe will offer insights into why some ads work as they are intended, and other ads don’t. Additionally, we offer testable propositions for future research.

OUR PROPOSED MODEL

The proposed conceptual framework (Figure 1) draws on and integrates key ideas from recent research into reader response theory (Scott 1994) and traditional advertising models in the context of guilt appeals. This model represents a framework for understanding the relationship between consumers’ persuasive knowledge, cognitive evaluations, emotional reactions, and attitudinal and intentional responses resulting from exposure to a guilt appeal. Our goals are (1) to provide an organizing framework for understanding how consumers evaluate ads and react to emotional (guilt) appeals; and (2) to establish a theoretical fundation for future empirical work.

In brief, we suggest that marketers create guilt appeals using one of three types of guilt: reactive, anticipatory, or existential (Huhmann and Brotherton 1997). Consumers exposed to these appeals, based on their persuasion knowledge, make cognitive evaluations of the ad, i.e., assess ad and sponsor credibility, fairness of the ad, and manipulative intent on the part of the marketer. These cognitive evaluations result in emotional reactions, including either the intended emotion (guilt) and/or unintended emotions (for example, annoyance, sadness, or unhappiness), as well as evaluations of attitude toward the ad (Aad), and behavioral intention (BI).

Consumers As Active Participants

Recent research has focused on consumers being active processors of advertisements. Theoretical work suggests that people observe and construct meaning in an observed ad (Freistad and Wright 1994; Meline 1996; Scott 1994). People can "learn as they go" and progress from a naive state to a situation where advanced persuasion knowledge is used as an adaptive strategy for dealing with advertising and other persuasion attempts. This learning happens at both an individual and a societal level. For example, the perception of something in an ad as a commonly used "tactic" will happen for an individual ("Hey, they are trying to use this tactic on me to make me buy this") and for a society (when "everyone" knows that drunk-driving ads use fear tactics). When a tactic is recognized as a tactic, there is a "change of meaning" and the tactic is no longer seen as an innocuous feature of the ad. At this stage, consumers may question the appropriateness and effectiveness of the tactic (Friestad and Wright 1994), potentially altering subsequent evaluations such as Aad, Abr, and purchase intention. Specifically, tactic recognition may disrupt other message responses, create offense, and disrupt comprehension and elaboration of topic-related statements in the ad (Boush, Friestad and Rose 1994; Friestad and Wright 1994). However, such reactions and evaluations must be balanced against the consumer’s stage of tactic conception development. "People whose tactic conceptions are at different stages of development may disagree in their assessments of a persuasion attempt’s effectiveness and also in any refinements of their attitude toward a marketer that are based on their effectiveness judgments" (Friestad and Wright 1994, p. 14).

FIGURE 1

A FRAMEWORK FOR PERSUASION, MANIPULATION AND CREDIBILITY OF GUILT APPEALS

The Persuasion Knowledge Model (PKM, Friestad and Wright 1994) outlines a theory of persuasion that acknowledges an active, thinking consumer whose overall goal is not necessarily to reject ads, or accept them, but to maintain control of the choice of how to respond to persuasion attempts. Consumer knowledge and inferences about the product or brand in the ad (topic knowledge), the sponsor of the ad (agent knowledge) and the tactics used in the ad (persuasion knowledge) are the three critical knowledge structures in this theory of persuasion. The relative influence of each of the three knowledge structures will vary across persuasion attempts (Friestad and Wright 1994; Meline 1996). These knowledge structures develop over time and so are not limited to one ad or one point in timeCconsumers can access their cumulative persuasion knowledge as they face each new persuasion attempt. This idea of cumulative knowledge is consistent with Scott’s (1994) reader response approach to advertising, "Collective wisdom about persuasive tactics in general and past experience with the advertising genre in particular directly informs the process of reading ads" (p. 464).

Persuasion knowledge, as one of the three knowledge structures, is a system of beliefs. This system includes beliefs about psychological mediators in ads (like emotional appeals), beliefs about marketer tactics ("agent actionBpsychological event connections;" see also Boush, Friestad and Rose 1994), beliefs about one’s own coping tactics (including rejecting by ignoring, etc.), beliefs about theappropriateness and effectiveness of the marketer’s tactics ("Is it fair/ manipulative?" and "Will it work?"), and finally, beliefs about the marketer’s persuasion goals and one’s own coping goals. Friestad and Wright maintain that in some situations persuasion knowledge can be more extensive and accessible than topic or agent attitudes (for example, when you see an ad for a new unknown company, with a new, unknown product, but the ad uses a "well-known" type of tactic or appeal).

Guilt Advertising Appeals

Before applying our conceptual framework in the guilt appeal domain, we provide examples and briefly review three types of guilt (anticipatory, existential, and reactive) and advertising appeals that tap into those types of guilt (Huhmann and Brotherton 1997).

Ad Scenario 1:   It’s Saturday morning. The long-awaited (and many times postponed) trip to the beach is finally here. You and the kids are excited about the day’s activities. Then the phone ringsIt’s your boss. He wants you to contact a potential multi-million dollar client, today. Your youngest daughter, mortified by what might be another "Well, we can go to the beach next week" bleats "Daddy, when can I become one of your clients?" If only you had a cellular phone. You could avoid disappointing your kids and talk to the potential client en route to the beach.

Ad Scenario 1 describes an appeal that attempts to create anticipatory guilt. Rawlings (1970) defined anticipatory guilt as guilt that results from an individual contemplating a potential violation of one’s own standards. Ad Scenario 1 is an ad that offers consumers the ability to avoid disappointing their children by purchasing a cell phone. Huhmann and Brotherton (1997) find that these appeals are most often constructed for consumer non-durable goods, health care products and services, and charities.

Ad Scenario 2:   It’s 6:00 p.m., and you’re swamped with work, but you promise your wife..."I’ll be packing up soon. I just have to read one or two more reports." Predictably, you become engulfed in your work and the next thing you know, it’s 9:00! Well, she’ll understandAs you walk through the dining room, you stumble upon what once was a magnificent dinner for two. But, the food is cold and the candles have burned down. Staring you in the face is a card saying, Happy Anniversary, Darling. You can’t believe it. How could you let such an important date slip by? If only you had signed up for that "Special Event" phone calling service that would have reminded you of important dates.

Ad Scenario 2 describes an advertisement attempting to elicit reactive guilt, i.e., a guilt response to having violated one’s standards of acceptable behavior (Rawlings 1970). Huhmann and Brotherton (1997) determined that this type of guilt appeal is most frequently used for advertising consumer non-durable and durable goods, and health care products and services.

Ad Scenario 3:   An emaciated child is perched on a log in the barren waste of the desert. He can barely move, as he has no muscle to support his frail body. His eyes tell a tale of a boy who, if only someone had helped to provide him nutrition, could have blossomed into a bright young man. In the background, a vulture looks on. With just a small contribution, you can help stop such famine and the tragedy faced by these innocent youths. You can make a life-saving difference.

Ad Scenario 3 is an ad attempting to evoke existential guiltBguilt that is experienced as a result of a discrepancy between one’s well-being and the well-being of others (Izard 1977). Huhmann and Brotherton (1997, p. 37) find support for their contention that, "Charity ads often emphasize the reader’s responsibility to alleviate the suffering of victims of poverty, famine or natural disasters."

Common to all of these appeals is the notion that the ad will 1) make the reader feel guilty, and 2) cause the reader to take some action (e.g., buy a product or make a donation) to relieve the guilt feelings. We believe that the extent to which consumers actually do feel guilty as a consequence of seeing an ad is due, in part, to their persuasion knowledge, ad credibility and perceptions of manipulative intent.

The Effects of Persuasion Knowledge

Huhmann and Brotherton (1997) document the frequency with which marketers use particular guilt appeals in particular product categories. Based on their findings, one could argue that, due to the frequency of particular appeals for particular product categories that consumers would have more persuasion knowledge about those appeals in those product categories. This argument would suggest:

P1a:  Consumers are more likely to have persuasion knowledge with regard to anticipatory guilt appeals for consumer non-durable goods, health care products and services, and charities than for other products or services.

P1b:  Consumers are more likely to have persuasion knowledge with regard to reactive guilt appeals for consumer non-durable and durable goods, and health care products and services than for other products or services.

P1c:  Consumers are more likely to have persuasion knowledge with regard to existential guilt appeals for charities than for other products or services.

Cognitive Evaluations of Advertisements

We believe that understanding more about the effects of ad credibility, perceived fairness of the ad, and perceptions of the advertiser’s motivations will help to explain why some guilt ads "work," i.e., have their "intended" effect of making the viewer feel guilty, and other guilt ads "don’t work," i.e., have the "unintended" effects of making the viewer annoyed, and possibly angry.

In the consumer and advertising literature, ad credibility has been defined as the "extent to which the consumer perceives claims made about the brand in the ad to be truthful and believable" (MacKenzie and Lutz 1989, p. 51), and inferences of manipulative intent has been defined as "consumer inferences that the advertiser is attempting to persuade by inappropriate, unfair, or manipulative means" (Campbell 1995, p. 228). While ad credibility and inferences of manipulative intent are related, they are conceptually distinct. Ad credibility is a consumer’s evaluation of the truth and believability of the advertisement, whereas inferences of manipulative intent concern a consumer’s assessment of the advertiser’s motivations as well as the extent to which the ad is perceived as fair. In general, we believe that ad credibility and inferences of manipulative intent would negatively covary. Nonetheless, a consumer could read an ad and think that the claims in the ad are true and credible (for example, one may agree that many children around the world are starving), yet concurrently can perceive that the advertiser is attempting to manipulate them (i.e., they are trying to make me feel guilty so that I will donate to the charity whose mission it is to help starving children ). Based in this discussion, we posit:

P2:  an inverse relationship between perceived ad credibility and inferences of manipulative intent.

The Effects of Ad Credibility and Perceived Manipulative Intent on Attitudes

Research has theorized about and empirically examined the effects of ad credibility and perceived manipulative intent on measures of ad effectiveness, including Aad. This research suggests that ad credibility is likely to have a positive effect on consumer reactions to the ad (Kavanoor, Grewal and Blodgett 1997; MacKenzie and Lutz 1989) and overall ad effectiveness (Goldberg and Hartwick 1990). Further, inferences of manipulative intent (IMI) have a negative effect on attitudes toward the ad (Campbell 1995). Consistent with this research, we posit:

P3:  a positive relationship between perceived ad credibility and Aad.

P4:  a negative relationship between inferences of manipulative intent and Aad.

THE EFFECTS OF AD CREDIBILITY AND PERCEIVED MANIPULATIVE INTENT ON EMOTIONAL RESPONSES

Research on persuasive communications has indicated that consumers have a variety of emotional responses to emotional advertisements (Englis 1990; Stout et al 1990), and that those responses are not always the intended responses. For example, with regard to guilt appeals, Englis (1990) found that consumers experienced high levels of anger, disdain, disgust and embarrassment. As we have noted previously, we believe that whether a guilt appeal will have its intended effect is, in part, due to the viewers’ assessment of the advertiser’s motivations and ad credibility. We discuss each, in turn.

The Effects of Manipulative Intent. Research by Eagly and her colleagues (Eagly, Wood and Chaiken 1978; Wood and Eagly 1981) suggests that when a viewer perceives manipulative intent by the advertiser, that they are likely to "resist" the message. We believe that this resistance not only can negatively affect Aad , as discussed above, but also has an impact on the viewers’ emotional responses (Batra and Ray 1986). Research on guilt appeals provides some support for our contention (Coulter and Pinto 1995). Specifically, Coulter and Pinto examined working mothers’ responses to low, medium and high intensity guilt ads, and found that for high intensity guilt appeals, the mothers did not feel guilty, but rather were angry. We believe that this reaction to the high-intensity guilt ad was a function of the subjects evaluating the ad and perceiving it as inappropriate and unfair. Consequently, they did not feel guilty, but rather, extremely annoyed and irritated. In fact, this may indeed be a reason that Englis (1990) found such high correlations between guilt appeals and the "unintended emotions," of anger, disdain and disgust. Relating our contention to Ad Scenario 1, we would suggest that if viewers believed that linking cell phone ownership to good parenting was inappropriate, they would be less likely to feel guilty and more likely to feel annoyed.

Thus, with regard to our model, we propose that as appeals, particularly guilt appeals and potentially other types of "negative" (e.g., fear, sad) appeals, are perceived as more manipulative, consumers are less likely to experience the emotions intended by the ad and more likely to experience some unintended emotions. Specifically, with regard to guilt appeals, we posit that as consumers perceive more unfairness, inappropriateness or manipulative intent that they are:

P5a:  less likely to feel guilty.

P5b:  more likely to experience "unintended" emotional rections (e.g., annoyance, unhappiness).

The Effects of Ad Credibility. Cognitive response theory and empirical research suggest that when persuasive communications are perceived as more credible, or include "strong arguments" for the product or topic, that cognitive responses and Aad are more favorable (Petty and Cacioppo 1986). We believe that ad credibility will also affect emotional responses. We suggest that if consumers believe an ad and perceive no manipulative intent, inappropriateness or unfairness in the execution of the emotional appeal, then, indeed, consumers’ emotional responses will be more congruent with the intent of the advertiser. In our context, this means that the viewer seeing a credible guilt appeal will feel guilty, but not angry. To illustrate, consider Ad Scenario 3. If viewers perceive that the children are starving, and that people should take responsibility for helping, then they are likely to feel guilty. Thus, we posit that the greater the perceived ad credibility:

P6a:  the more likely the consumers will feel guilty.

P6b:  the less likely they will experience "unintended" emotional reactions (e.g., annoyance, unhappiness).

The Effects of Emotional Responses on Aad

Consistent with other theoretical and empirical research, our model suggests that emotional responses have an impact on Aad (Batra and Ray 1986; Holbrook and Batra 1987; MacKenzie and Lutz 1989). Research has documented that positive emotions (e.g., feeling happy) yield a positive influence on Aad (Holbrook and Batra 1987), and that negative emotions (e.g., feeling annoyed) can result in a negative Aad (Burke and Edell 1989; Edell and Burke 1987). Coulter and Pinto (1995) report a significant negative relationship between "felt guilt" and attitude toward the ad. Based on these findings, we posit:

P7: a negative relationship between feelings of guilt, annoyance, and/or irritation and Aad.

The Effcts of Feeling Guilty and Other Intended Emotions on Behavior

While the research reviewed above suggests that the greater the negative emotional response, the more negative Aad, interestingly, research has found a positive relationship between intended negative emotional responses and behavior. For example, studies have found that when ads are intended to be annoying, feeling annoyed can evoke a positive influence on behavior (Bagozzi and Moore 1994; Ray and Wilkie 1970; Sternthal and Craig 1974). Research on fear (Shelton and Rogers 1981) and sadness (Cialdini and Kenrick 1976) suggests that these emotions can have a strong influence on creating a positive attitude toward helping. Further, in the guilt domain, research has supported the idea that a moderate guilt appeal can positively affect behavior (Bozinoff and Ghingold 1983; Yinon et al. 1976). The findings provide support for theoretical perspectives, e.g., balance theory (Heider 1958) or dissonance theory (Festinger 1957), in that these negative feelings will cause people to act, to behave in some fashion so as to assuage their negative feelings. In fact, it is likely that marketers use guilt and fear appeals because they "work" to produce behavior, even though the ad may not be liked. Consistent with this perspective, we posit:

P8:  a positive relationship between feeling guilty (and other intended negative emotions) and intention to take action.

The Effects of Unintended Emotions on Behavior

We have argued that consumers’ perceptions of manipulative intent have resulted in negative Aad, as well as some unintended emotional responses (e.g., anger, disdain, disgust; Coulter and Pinto 1995; Englis 1990). We further suggest that these consumers’ negative emotions will adversely affect behavioral intention. Indeed, Coulter and Pinto (1995) report a strong negative correlation between anger and purchase intention. Therefore, we posit:

P9:  a negative relationship between unintended emotions and intention to take action.

DISUSSION

We have presented a conceptual framework that we believe offers insights about why guilt appeals (and possibly other "negative," e.g., fear appeals) work. We suggest that because consumers are active readers of advertising, they may or may not respond as the advertiser expected, i.e., they may or may not feel guilty as a consequence of seeing a guilt appeal. Three factors seem to be important: persuasion knowledge, ad credibility and inferences of manipulative intent. First, persuasion knowledge or consumers’ experiences with and exposure to particular guilt appeals are likely to impact their reactions to ads. Recent research has yielded insights regarding the frequency with which anticipatory, reactive and existential guilt appeal are employed for various product categories. Second, when consumers perceive that an ad is credible, they are more likely to have a positive reaction to the advertisement, feel guilty, and take some action. In contrast, if consumers perceive that the advertiser is using unfair or inappropriate tactics or is attempting to manipulate them, they are likely to have a negative reaction to the ad and, instead of feeling guilty, become annoyed.

In their recent meta-analysis, Brown, Homer and Inman (1998) report a strong positive relationship between negative appeals and negative ad, brand and sponsor attitudes. Nonetheless, they document research which demonstrates positive effects of negative appeals. Our model provides a means of reconciling these conflicting results. Even if attitudes are negative, negative appeals can still "work" because of their positive effect on behavior. Our framework proposes that if a negative appeal ad (in our case guilt) is credible, the ad can result in negative attitudes, but also in positive behavioral intentions.

Although we did not include individual differences in this framework, research indicates that some people are more prone to feeling guilty, or feeling emotions in general (Basil et. al. 1998; Moore and Harris 1996; Mosher 1979). Future research could examine the role dispositional (trait) guilt plays in evaluating the advertiser’s intentions, and the ad itself (see for e.g., Basil et al 1998). Additionally, we posited a model in which emotional responses are preceded by cognitive evaluations. Given that research has documented that cognition and affect can co-occur (Sojka and Giese 1997; Zajonc, Pietromonaco and Bargh 1982), consideration should be given to testing the causal order of relationships.

We believe that our framework offers insights into guilt appeals, a growing strategic choice of advertisers. We have developed testable propositions. Empirical support of our propositions would lend evidence to our conjectures that, in this era of increasingly market-savvy consumers, advertisers need to avoid well-known guilt "tricks," and rather develop appeals that provide credible information and opportunities for resolving the guilt that the ad created.

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