Use, Non-use, and Mis-use of Emotions in Social Marketing
By Ranjana Kodwani

MPH Candidate at The George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health

On September 20th, 2016 – members of iSMA, SMANA, and The George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health met for an evening of networking with fellow social marketers and behavior change colleagues. Dr. Monique Turner, Associate Professor and Assistant Dean at the Milken Institute, was the guest speaker and used her time to discuss the use, non-use, and mis-use of emotions in social marketing.

Social marketing is a thoughtful, systematic, evidence-based, and theoretically driven subject. In order to appropriately market to cause change – social marketers need to consider the 4 P’s – product, price, promotion, and place. These are important to consider in order to ensure that people have the motivation, ability, and opportunity to change.  Product and Promotion need to especially be considered from an emotional standpoint because emotions are fundamental to motivation and ability.

In order to inspire people to change, the emotions social marketers use in campaigns must be chosen with precision. This is due to the fact that every emotion has an association. For example, fear is associated with fight or flight and guilt is associated with doing something good. As social marketers, it is important to ask yourself – what is it that we intend to spark?

Research has indicated that positive emotions have been able to better inspire individuals to make behavior changes. However, fear has been effective in certain scenarios, such as the Montana Meth case. It is important to note that if you choose to employ fear, you need to empower people with efficacy. Anger has also worked, for instance look at the truth inspired anger against the tobacco industry ( The word spread and people, mostly the youth, became influencers. However, as our society continues to move forward, people have started to equate emotional appeals with fear, which now has a negative connotation attached to it.

After providing the background information on the use of emotions in social marketing, Dr. Turner turned her focus more specifically on the obesity epidemic. Unfortunately, obesity has a bad stigma attached to it and the reason for that bad stigma can be linked to shame. Shame and stigma are controversial topics with regards to social marketing and in today’s campaigns – people with obesity are turned into an object. This type of marketing doesn’t inspire people, instead the stigma remains negative and this can lead to depression, mental-health and behavioral issues.

When looking at obesity, Dr. Turner said she initially asked why is the stigma so bad? The problem, she said, is that some marketing campaigns emphasize using shame tactics, which is associated with the statement that YOU are bad and YOU need to be changed. Less obesity campaigns have been using guilt tactics, which is associated with YOUR BEHAVIOR needs to be changed. Another issue is that campaigns are normalizing the term ‘obese people.’ This term is making a claim on the person rather than the disease. Instead, we need to use people first language and use the term ‘person with obesity.’ Also, the visual imagery in obesity marketing can be incredibly embarrassing, which could lead to more closeted eating. Now the question is, how do we fix this? Is it through more fat-shaming? Is it by only identifying someone through his or her disease?

The answer is NO! Campaigns need to start empowering people, helping them realize that it is possible to change. Emotions are key in a campaign – it’s how you get people fired up, however using the wrong use, non-use, or mis-use of emotion can clearly turn people off.