Guilt is good: A Mother's Day affirmation

Heavy-handed PSAs may have ruined guilt-tripping for today's marketers. But years of research show it's still a powerful motivator.

Say what you will about Sally Struthers. The woman knew how to guilt people out of their money.

Need proof? In 1996, Save the Children Federation grew weary of its association with the much-mocked "All in the Family" actress, whom it had made its primary spokesperson after she severed her 20-year partnership with the Christian Children’s Fund three years earlier.

In place of the usual "flies in the eyes" PSA (think images of starving children, open sewage and Struthers begging viewers to send "just 70-cents a day"), the charity wanted to try a more positive message. The new ad featured a chorus singing jubilantly about "a light that shines from up above, seeds of compassion in the air."

Great idea, except it didn’t work. Struthers had helped grow CCF’s annual income from $29 million in 1976 to $103 million in 1991 with her tear-jerking spots. But the uplifting ad without her or the hungry kids simply failed to bring in donations, the SCF’s marketing director told the Boston Globe in 1998.

"You loosen wallets with guilt," Raphael Sonnenshein, a California State University professor who studied marketing, said at the time. "There is no point to the commercial if the child is in no danger of dying."

Marketing has come a long way since 1996. Today, even charities are loath to use such bald-faced appeals to consumer guilt, fearing a backlash from sophisticated viewers and the risk of appearing crass or manipulative.

"There’s a sense now that those emotions are slightly more complex and nuanced than that, and the idea of ‘having’ versus ‘not having’ isn’t quite so binary," said Alex Hesz, chief strategy officer at adam&eveDDB and co-author of Guilt Trip: From Fear to Guilt on the Green Bandwagon. "But I also think consumers have a sense they’re being played when those types of emotions are used so bluntly and forcefully. I think consumers, certainly in markets like the US and UK, have become a little smarter than that."

But smarter doesn’t mean less guilt-ridden. To the contrary, there are those who argue we’re living in a Golden Age of Guilt. Wilfred M. Mclay, in a recent essay for The Hedgehog Review titled "The Strange Persistence of Guilt," claims that guilt has become "an ever more powerful and pervasive element in the life of the contemporary West," thanks largely to the parallel rise in wealth and technology. 

"I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television, and know for a fact that I could travel to that faraway place and relieve that child’s immediate suffering, if I cared to," he wrote. "I don’t do it, but I know I could."

"I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless," he continued.

Likewise, parents can never feed their kids enough organic food, or restrict their screen time enough, or send them enough thoughtful emails before they can even read. None of us can ever exercise enough, or "resist" enough, or do whatever it is Oprah and Gwyneth tell us we should be doing.

"Women in America feel guilty about everything," said Martin Lindstrom, author of several books on marketing, including Small Data: The Tiny Clues that Uncover Huge Trends. In researching this latest book, Lindstrom spent time in the homes of more than 100 mothers in the US, and says he observed widespread feelings of deep inadequacy. "I would say around 85 percent of the women we’ve spent time with felt either a level of strong guilt or really strong guilt."

Still, despite decades of research suggesting that guilt, properly deployed, is a powerful motivator, strategists and creatives practically recoil at the idea that it has a place in today’s advertising. "Guilt has fueled so much advertising in the past," said Ted Royer, Chief Creative Officer of Droga5, in an email. "I hate making someone feel guilty. Is guilt persuasive? Maybe for a moment."

"If you're building a long-term relationship with someone, you don't want to use guilt as a starting point," Royer continued. "Why would a brand want to do that?" 

Asked to comment on the role that guilt played in the success of REI’s award-winning #OptOutside campaign, a spokeswoman for Venables Bell & Partners, the independent agency that created it, respectfully declined, saying that "guilt was not at all a factor in their strategy and approach for #OptOutside–rather the focus was solely on taking a bold action which reflected REI's values."

That may be so. But would that campaign have struck a nerve if we didn’t all have our mother’s voice in our head telling us to turn off the TV and go outside? 

Lindstrom believes that guilt is still a predominant force in modern advertising, it’s just being utilized in ways that are hard to recognize. Take, for example. Kraft Macaroni & Cheese’s new Mother’s Day ad. The 90-second video, created by CP&B, features "swearing expert" Melissa Mohr assuring mothers that it’s okay to curse in front of their kids. The kicker? It’s also okay to give your kid Mac and Cheese for dinner.

"Sometimes you can do better, and that’s why I’m here," says Mohr. "Other times you can’t, and that’s why there’s Kraft Mac and Cheese."


It’s not just a powerful absolution of the guilt mothers feel when being all-too-human in front of their kids. It’s a startling admission by a brand that its product often represents a small moment of failure in its customers’ lives. And they shouldn’t feel bad about that.

In less than a week, the ad has been viewed nearly 3 million times on YouTube, suggesting it has hit a nerve. Still, Rachel Drof, Marketing Director for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, said in a telephone interview that the ad wasn’t meant to imply that Mac and Cheese was a less-than-ideal dinner option. "Our intention was to show that Kraft Mac and Cheese is here and on your side," she said. "That was the point of it."

But Lindoff says the humbling strategy is becoming a common way for brands to leverage consumer guilt to help sell more products. "What brands are doing right now is trying to create empathy by making themselves vulnerable, to show weaknesses," said Lindstrom. While using vulnerability to promote a brand may not be entirely new—Dominos did it in 2010 with its "Pizza Turnaround" campaign, and Avis did it in the 1970s with its classic "We Try Harder" campaign—using it to assuage consumer guilt is a novel application of the strategy.

Of course, not everyone is against good old-fashioned guilt tripping—and there are still signs it can work. "I’d say that PETA doesn’t use guilt as much as we try to show people the truth, and then they often feel guilty for any habits that they may have where they unknowingly caused animals hardship," said Ben Williamson, senior international media director for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. As a recent example, Williams cited a video that PETA posted to its Facebook page in March showing a mother cow following behind a trailer carrying her newborn calf to slaughter. The video has so far racked up 1.9 million views.

"That was definitely an example of guilt [in] advertising," Williamson said.

PETA isn’t the only brand still using straightforward guilt appeals, and Mother’s Day ads provide plenty of evidence. For example, "Texts from Mom," one of the more clever Mother’s Day ads of recent years, couches a guilt trip in lighthearted comedy. Created by R/GA for Samsung, the video features a litany of typically irritating "mom texts" like "How do I hashtag your brother?" and "I gave my new podiatrist your phone number. Very handsome." But it ends with a woman terminating the text exchange by tapping on her phone’s "call" button, a not-so-subtle reminder of a classic message of guilt: You need to call your mother.

Kathryn Luttner contributed to this article.

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