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Negative Emotions in Advertising and Game Design

This ad from Exec showed up in my inbox today. Total turnofff for me – and TARGETING FAIL for delivering this to a female. However, I’m curious to know the conversion rates on this ad — Exec may indeed be hitting a sweet spot/ pain point for their target market.

As we all know, negative emotions can be strong motivators. Advertising is rife with manufactured problems that are solved by the product being sold. Very smart people  advise us to use the Seven Deadly Sins to understand addictive products, and  tout the use of negative emotions to drive action.

Is that the experience you want to deliver to your players? Being driven to action by negative emotions? Not me. I don’t respond to that – and I don’t want to build products that embody that kind of manipulation.

So what’s the alternative? Can you motivate people and build habits WITHOUT using guilt, envy, pride, lust, gluttony, and shame to goad them into action?

I think there’s a clear alternative – and I’ll write about that in my next post. But first, I want to know what YOU think. If you’re a product designer, have you discovered a way to use positive emotions to drive behavior? Or are negative emotions (like the Seven Deadly Sins) the “gold standard” for building successful products? And is there a difference between how males and females respond emotionally to product design? I look forward to hearing your ideas and experiences in the comments.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ignoring the “targeting fail” part, here’s my sequential reaction (mitigated by the fact that I didn’t get the ad directly, so I was in a more analytical frame of mind):
    1 – Smile. Cute.
    2 – I just hate it that some guys only buy flowers when they’ve screwed up. It actually takes some of the pleasure out of flower-giving to have that “lame apology” association.
    3 – But hey, since I’m not that kind of guy, it’s probably been too long since I randomly gave my girl flowers. Hmm, I wonder if this deal is any good.
    4 – Wait a second! Maybe that’s what they were trying to do all along!

    I think that the key to using negative emotions without seeming manipulative is finding the people who genuinely feel those emotions and want relief from them–such as if you’re marketing something that makes dealing with diapers easier for new parents, and you focus on the frustration at feeling like your bundle of joy is really just a sleep-destroying poop dispenser. But as above, there are also side effects, both positive (people love to laugh and say, “gosh, I know that other parents are like that, but I just love taking care of my little bundle… however this would make me an even better parent!”) and negative (“how dare they suggest that I resent my kid for its natural bodily functions, even if I haven’t slept in six weeks!)

    I once tried a marketing strategy like that, that used a formula that was essentially “do your XYZ skills suck?” followed by an invitation to a workshop. It was intended to be a bit edgy, and sure enough, I had good responses (eg. workshop did well) but also one single negative response. Ironically the negative response focused on the wording more than the general use of negative emotions. It confirmed the two things I mentioned above: people will either love you for solving their problem (the negative emotions they’re already feeling and want resolved) or they’ll accuse you of trying to make them feel negative emotions that weren’t already present.

    September 27, 2012
    • Thanks for sharing your story and insights, Byron – your points ring true. As you point out, there’s a place for negative emotions in marketing and product design – ESPECIALLY to create the “bounce” in happiness when your product or service RESOLVES that emotion. I’m focused on designing positive emotions into product experiences, which is harder but ultimately more powerful – and better for the people playing.

      September 28, 2012

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