Negative Emotions As Mediators of Attitudes in Advertising Appeals

ABSTRACT - This paper examines the conditions under which negative emotions mediate attitude toward helping and attitude toward the ad in public service advertising appeals. The theoretical framework which we have outlined suggests that the effect of negative affect on attitude toward helping is dependent upon: a) the extent to which the perceiver's attention is focused on the needs and feelings of the victim; and b) the degree of empathic concern that is generated toward the person in need. Theoretical implications for future research are also discussed.


David J. Moore and Scott Hoenig (1989) ,"Negative Emotions As Mediators of Attitudes in Advertising Appeals", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 581-586.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 581-586


David J. Moore, University of Michigan

Scott Hoenig, University of Oklahoma


This paper examines the conditions under which negative emotions mediate attitude toward helping and attitude toward the ad in public service advertising appeals. The theoretical framework which we have outlined suggests that the effect of negative affect on attitude toward helping is dependent upon: a) the extent to which the perceiver's attention is focused on the needs and feelings of the victim; and b) the degree of empathic concern that is generated toward the person in need. Theoretical implications for future research are also discussed.


The decade of the 1980's has witnessed a significant increase in the attention advertising and consumer researchers have devoted to the role of emotion in advertising appeals. Most of these studies have focused on positive affective responses such as joy, peaceful relaxation and social affection (Batra and Ray, 1986; Holbrook and Batra, 1987), warmth and tenderness (Aaker, Stayman, and Bruzzone, 1986). The general conclusion emerging from there investigations is that positive affective responses do have a positive influence on attitude toward the ad, as well as attitude toward the brand (Holbrook and Batra, 1987). In other words, a positive emotional appeal is likely to enhance the persuasive impact of an advertising message (Holbrook and O'Shaughnessy, 1984).

However, in spite of the progress that has been made in understanding the role of positive emotions, very little is currently known about the mediating role of negative emotions (such as anger, fear, distress, pity, etc.) on attitude toward the ad and behavioral intentions. If positive emotions tend to enhance persuasion, do negative emotions induced by an advertising message necessarily reduce persuasion? Does an advertising message necessarily have to create a positive emotion in order to produce a positive attitude to the message? Under what conditions can we expect negative emotions to have a positive effect on attitudes.

These issues do have practical managerial relevance. For example, there has been a recent increase in the number of marketers in the food and drug industry who are capitalizing more aggressively than ever before on consumers' fears of cancer and heart attacks (Wall Street Journal, 1987). Public service announcements (PSAs) sponsored by nonprofit organizations (e.g. American Diabetes Association, Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse, etc.) have been designed to evoke emotions such as fear, guilt, sympathy, pity, or compassion. While the objective of many PSAs is to stimulate listener awareness and influence attitudes toward a given issue, many PSAs do utilize affective responses to motivate helping behavior. Very often consumers are urged to make financial contributions to the sponsoring organization.

Recent research has demonstrated that experimentally induced negative moods or feelings such as fear (Shelton and Rogers, 1981), guilt (Hoffman, 1982), sadness (Cialdini and Kenrick, 1976) and empathy (Coke, Batson and McDavis 1978) can have a strong influence on creating a positive attitude toward helping.

To date, very little marketing research has been conducted in this area in spite of its relevance to the advertising strategies for mass media campaigns. Recognizing this void in our knowledge about emotions, consumer researchers (Allen, Machleit and Marine, 1988) have recently underscored the need for more research on the effects of negative emotions in advertising appeals.

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the role of negative emotions in communication appeals and to examine the process by which these affective responses mediate the message recipient's attitude and behavioral intentions. First, we will review some of the major categories of affective responses that previous research has traditionally define as negative emotions. Second, we will examine the role of affect and its influence on consumer responses to advertising appeals. Third, the paper will examine the relationship between negative emotions and attitudes toward helping. In this context, the mediating roles of focus of attention and empathy will be discussed. Finally, given these theoretical relationships, we present a communication framework which proposes that the arousal of negative emotions may sometimes lead to positive rather negative attitudes toward helping and towards the ad. This relationship is dependent upon two mediating conditions: a) The extent to which the perceiver's attention is focused on the feelings and the plight of the victim; and b) The amount of empathic concern that is generated toward the victim. The theoretical implications for advertising and public service appeals are also discussed.


Much has already been written about the classification of positive and negative emotions by both social scientists (Izard, 1977; Plutchik 1980) and consumer behaviorists (Allen et al. 1988; Batra and Ray 1986; Havlena and Holbrook 1986; Holbrook and Westwood 1987). Izard (1977) identified ten fundamental emotions; interest, joy, surprise, sadness, anger, disgust, contempt, fear, shame, and guilt. Holbrook and O'Shaughnessy (1984) attempted to develop a positive/negative typology of emotional responses. This typology draws heavily on Mehrabian's (1977) three emotional dimensions: pleasure, arousal and dominance and Osgood, Suci, and Tannenbaum's (1957) studies on the semantic differential (evaluation, activity and potency). In Holbrook and O'Shaughnessy's work, for example, joy (positive) versus sadness (negative) are the bipolar representations of the emotional dimension classified as pleasure. (Complete details of this classification of emotions are available in Holbrook and O'Shaughnessy 1984, p.541. According to Holbrook and O'Shaughnessy, the systematic classification of typologies of emotions should help marketing researchers to improve their understanding of the role of emotional content in advertising and may also help to clarify the underlying strategic managerial issues.

In their empirical investigation of the role of feelings in understanding advertising effects, Edell and Burke (1987) reported a wide range of both positive and negative emotions. Subjects' negative emotions were described as: angry, annoyed, critical, depressed, disinterested, fed-up, irritated etc. Interestingly, Edell and Burke found that: (1) both negative and positive feelings toward advertising appeals can co-occur; for example, individuals may experience both sad and happy feelings during exposure to different parts of the same advertisement; and (2) both categories of emotions play a significant role in predicting the effectiveness of the ad.

Although researchers have made reasonable progress in exploring the mediating role of emotions in the consumer's responses to advertising, most of this work has focused on positive feelings (see also Aaker, Stayman and Hagerty 1986; Batra 1986; Batra and Ray 1985; Holbrook and Batra 1987; Holbrook 1986; Holbrook and Westwood 1988). Recognizing the need for future research, Batra and Ray (1986) suggested that "a wider sample of commercials needs to be studied that includes negatively valenced affective responses such as fear and anxiety, among others" (p. 247). Allen, Machleit and Marine (1988) expressed the sentiment that negative emotion, given its cognitive complexity, may prove to be more difficult to evoke than positive emotion (Isen 1984). Consequently, ads designed to produce negative emotions such as fear and guilt may not " work as often or as reliably as those designed to yield joy or interest" (p. 14). For these and other reasons, Allen et al. emphasized the need for additional advertising research on the role of negative emotions.

In the next section of this paper, we will discuss some of the highlights of previous research in social psychology on the role of negative emotions on attitudes -- particularly attitudes toward helping. Within this context the concept of empathy and its influence on helping behavior will be discussed.


The effects of negative emotions and moods on helping behavior are somewhat inconsistent and have therefore generated considerable debate (Cialdini, Baumann, and Kenrick 1982; Batson 1987). In contrast, the results of experiments manipulating positive emotions have been generally consistent: people who are happy, joyous, successful etc., are more likely to offer help to someone else than those people who are made to feel depressed, sad, angry, etc. (Dovidio 1984; Rosenhan, Salovey, Karylowski, & Hargis 1981. In general, negative emotions have been shown to enhance attitudes toward helping (Carlsmith & Gross 1969; Cialdini, Darby & Vincent 1973; Donnerstein, Donnerstein & Munger 1975). However, in other cases negative emotions have produced a reverse effect (Moore, Underwood & Rosenhan 1973; Underwood et al. 1977), and in a few instances no significant effect was reported (Harris & Siebal 1975; Holloway, Tucker & Hornstein 1977). These apparent inconsistencies have motivated researchers (e.g., Carlson & Miller 1987) to examine the possible role of moderator variables which may be influencing the impact of negative emotions on helping behavior. Two relevant theoretical perspectives on this issue will be briefly reviewed (see also Rogers, Miller, Mayer & Duval 1982).

The Negative-State Relief Hypothesis (NSR)

This theoretical explanation (Cialdini, Baumann & Kenrick 1981; Cialdini & Kenrick 1976; Cialdini, Kenrick & Baumann 1982; Kenrick, Baumann & Cialdini 1984; Manucia, Baumann & Kenrick 1984) suggests that when an individual observes another person being harmed or in need of help, it produces a negative emotional state which itself motivates an internal drive to reduce this negative feeling. Presumably, helping others is used as an instrument to alleviate this negative state (Harris 1977). While this theoretical account may be intuitively appealing, recent research (Carlson & Miller 1987) designed to examine the validity of various explanations for the effect of negative affect on helping behavior has concluded that the negative state relief model seems incapable of accounting for the variety of situations in which negative affect enhances helping behavior.

As Carlson & Miller (1987) argue, if the NSR model assumes that the desire to help is based on a conscious and deliberate attempt to relieve a negative state (Clark & Isen 1984; Manucia et al. 1984), three conditions must be satisfied for the effect to occur: (1) the helping act should be perceived as pleasant (2) the individual must be convinced that his/her negative state can be changed, and (3) there must be empirical evidence that the helping act was performed specifically to relieve the negative state. The negative-state relief model does not seem to provide an adequate explanation for the role of negative affect on helping behavior (Carlson & Miller 1987).

The Attentional Focus Hypothesis

This theoretical model (Rosenhan, Solovey, Karylowsky & Hargis 1981; Thompson, Cowan & Rosenhan 1980) proposes that negative emotions increase the desire to help to the extent that the perceiver's attention is being focused on the needs or misfortunes of others; conversely, negative emotions may decrease helpfulness when the perceiver's attention is directed inwards to his/her own personal needs or problems. Thompson et al. (1980) exposed subjects to an audio tape containing the story of an imaginary close friend who was supposedly dying of cancer. To induce negative affect in the attention-to self condition, subjects were exposed to emotions that described 'their own' worry about their friend's illness. In the attention-to- other condition, subjects focused on the suffering and distress experienced by the friend as death approached. The results provided support for the hypothesis that focus of attention mediates the relationship between negative affect and helping behavior. Negative affect enhanced willingness to help among subjects who were encouraged to concentrate on the feelings of the victim but not among those who were instructed to focus on their own feelings.

Thompson et al. (1980) suggest two theoretical arguments to account for the attentional focus effect (see Carlson & Miller 1987). First, subjects whose attention is directed to the misfortunes of another are presumably afforded greater opportunity experience empathy for the victim. This empathic concern, in turn, stimulates the belief that helping could be personally rewarding and consequently produces greater willingness to help. The second argument suggests that the decision to help is strongly influenced by the thoughts or cognitions that are activated when the attention is focused on the misfortunes of the victim. As a result, when confronted with a request for help, subjects whose attention has been directed toward the distressing needs of another may be likely to think first of solving the problems of others. Additional empirical evidence in support of the notion that adopting the perspective of another significantly influences helping behavior has also been reported (Hoffman 1975; Stotland 1969; Underwood & Moore 1982).


In harmony with the attention focus hypothesis, empathy has been defined as a special type of emotion vicariously experienced by taking the perspective of the victim who is perceived to be in need of help (Batson 1987). Shelton & Rogers (1981) defined empathy as "an individual's emotional arousal elicited by the expression of emotion (usually distress) in another" (p. 367).

Coke, Batson & McDavis (1978) have demonstrated that the role of empathy as a mediator of helping behavior can be represented as a two-stage process: (a) taking the perspective of the victim who is perceived to be in need of help elicits an empathic emotional response, which, in turn, (b) enhances the perceiver's motivation to offer help or protection.

Roger's (1982) Protection Motivation Theory offers an interesting theoretical explanation for the relationship between negative emotions, empathy and helping behavior. In its original form, Protection Motivation Theory predicts that when the individual feels personally threatened by some impending danger (knowledge of this danger, for example, may be acquired from mass media fear appeals), one basic human response to such an appeal is to attempt to protect oneself. Shelton & Rogers (1981) demonstrated empirically that this theory could be extended to explain the empathy/helping behavior relationship. It is argued that as the focus the danger shifts from oneself to someone else, the motivation to 'protect' the other individual will be aroused. In other words, to the extent that a negative emotional appeal is capable of persuading us to protect ourselves, to that same extent we may also be persuaded to protect others. The intensity of this empathic arousal is determined by the extent to which respondents are motivated to focus their attention on (i.e., to take the perspective of) the plight of the victim.


Perspective Taking

Taking the perspective of another requires the perceiver to imagine how the other person is affected by his/her situation (Stotland 1969). In laboratory settings, perspective taking is usually induced by instructions (Stotland 1969; Coke, Batson & McDavis 1978). Alternatively, perspective taking can be measured on an individual difference level. For example, Davis' (1980) recent perspective-taking scale includes items such as, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place"; "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining--how things look from their perspective". (For the entire scale, see Green et al. 1984, p. 380).

Empathic Concern

Several approaches have been utilized to measure or manipulate empathic response; however, only some of the more significant approaches will be mentioned here. One approach uses respondents' self-reported paper-and-pencil responses to individual difference scales which presumably measure the respondent's predisposition to be empathetic (e.g., Davis 1980; Hogan 1969; Mehrabian & Epstein 1972; Hogan 1969). For example, the Mehrabian & Epstein (1972) Emotional Empathy Scale treats empathy as a tendency to respond emotionally to the experience of others, while the Hogan (1969) Empathy Scale is a more cognitive measure of empathy. The Interpersonal Reactivity Index (Davis 1980) views empathy as a multidimensional construct and uses four separate but related subscales to measure the various dimensions of empathy: perspective taking, fantasy, empathic concern and personal distress. Examples of items measuring empathic concern are: "When I see someone being taken advantage of, I kind of feel protective toward them"; 'I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than I" (Davis 1980). In many studies, the high and low empathy conditions are determined by a median split on the empathic concern index (Coke, Batson and McDavis (1978)).

Another method of measuring empathy is to analyze the respondents' self-reported emotional responses to encountering a person in need. For example, Batson and colleagues (reported in Batson (1987)) asked respondents to report on a 7-point scale (1 = not at all; 7 = extremely) how strongly they were feeling each of a series of emotions using a list of 14 adjectives. Factor analysis revealed two separate factor loadings: (a) Eight adjectives loaded on one factor identified as personal distress -- alarmed, grieved, upset, worried, disturbed, perturbed, distressed, and troubled. I b) The six other adjectives loaded on a second factor presumably relating to empathy -- sympathetic, moved, compassionate, tender, warm, and softhearted. Analysis of the data indicated that greater self-reported empathy was associated with increased helping, whereas greater self-reported personal distress was not (Batson 1987, p. 107).



To summarize, what can be said about the conditions under which negative emotions may mediate attitudes toward helping in communication appeals? An affective advertising message such as a fear appeal, is likely to elicit from the respondent a variety of negative emotional responses. Associated with these emotional reactions is an empathic arousal to do something to help or protect the victim. However, the degree of empathic concern may be determined by the extent to which the individual's attention is self-focused or specifically directed toward the needs or misfortunes of the victim (Thompson et al. 1980; Batson 1987). Finally, the greater the level of empathic arousal, the more positive the attitude toward helping (Batson & Coke 1981; Batson 1987).


The theoretical relationships underlying the role of negative emotions and attitudes towards helping present challenging research propositions for advertising researchers. Today, more than ever before, an increasing number of non-profit organizations are relying upon mass media public service announcements to persuade consumers to make contributions to their programs. Furthermore, many organizations such as The American Heart Association, The American Red Cross Society, The Society For The Prevention Of Child Abuse and so on, have chosen to use emotional appeals to enhance the persuasive impact of their communication appeals.

The theoretical relationships depicted in the Figure represent a very simplified illustration of the role of negative emotions as mediators of attitudes toward helping in a typical advertising appeal. This figure is not meant to represent a theoretical model.

The Figure illustrates a message recipient's response to a highly emotional public service appeal, presumably for an organization such as the Society For The Prevention Of Child Abuse. This TV advertisement shows a young child desperately running and screaming through his home trying to escape from someone (not shown in the picture, but presumably a parent) who is threatening to do him harm. Predictably, this type of ad should evoke a variety of negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, anger, distress, sympathy, compassion, and so on.

According to the Protection Motivation Hypothesis (Rogers and Mewborn (1976)), these negative emotions should motivate the message recipients to express a desire to protect the child (the victim) from the impending danger. This protection motivation, in turn, evokes strong feelings of empathy for the child. However, this empathic response is more likely to be elicited from subjects whose attention has been directed toward the feelings and the plight of the child than from those individuals whose attention has been focused on their own personal problems and needs (Thompson et al. 1980). Moreover, it is expected that individuals demonstrating the highest level of empathic concern, are likely to exhibit positive attitudes towards the advertisement as well as positive attitudes toward helping the child. In this case, for example, helping is measured by the subject's willingness to make a financial contribution to the sponsoring organization. In general, it is expected that negative emotions should be highly correlated with positive attitudes.


In this paper, we have attempted to examine some of the current literature which suggests that negative affect can sometimes be instrumental in producing positive attitudes. The dependent measure of interest is attitude toward helping, an attitude concept which is of major importance to fund-raising and charitable organizations. However, what is interesting about the theoretical framework that we have outlined is that the effect of negative emotions on attitude toward helping is dependent upon: (a) the extent to which the perceive 's attention is focused upon the needs and feelings of the victim and (b) the -degree of empathic concern that is generated toward the victim.

With the exception of recent research on the effects guilt appeals (Bozinoff and Ghingold 1983; Ruth 1988), very little is known about the mediating role negative emotions in mass media advertising.

Future research should attempt to test the theoretical assumptions presented in this communication framework. First, we need to know for sure what are the categories of negative emotions that likely to be produced by certain types of message appeals. Second, we need to know what are the conditions under which negative emotions are likely to generate genuine empathic concern for the needy victim. Third, it is quite likely that affect is not the only factor operating when the decision to help is being made. Before the decision is made, consumers conceivably engage in some form of "hedonic calculus" or benefit analysis to evaluate the benefit versus the cost of helping (Batson 1987). More research should be conducted in this area.

Finally, we must emphasize that the use of negative emotions as an advertising technique should not be abused. If this technique is employed in public service appeals, advertisers should proceed with caution. Attitudes toward helping can be enhanced through mass media appeals.


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David J. Moore, University of Michigan
Scott Hoenig, University of Oklahoma


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16 | 1989

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