Don’t Tell Me What to Do

Negativity in Online Marketing may Lead Consumers to Double Down on Freedom of Choice

LBornkam HeadshotLeanna Bornkamp, VP, MBA ‘18

In the past few months I’ve seen an increasing number of passive-aggressive ads, especially online. While asking consumers to “take advantage of a one-time-only opportunity,” advertisers often make it seem like turning down these offers is a decision against our better nature.

When advertisers give us options like “sign me up!” right next to “no thanks, I don’t like to save money,” and make us choose one to get to the content we were searching for, it can seem like they are condemning our decision—which we haven’t even made yet—in a way that can guilt and, possibly, alienate us.

Guilt has been used to motivate consumers for decades. Its value was attributed to loss-aversion; even if a consumer wasn’t keen on the added value of a particular offer, they would theoretically be more motivated by a loss in status or standing that could come from turning down that offer, if it were framed in a particular way.

Above left: agressively pushes its paid service, TabPro. Above right: Ever more common, the pop-up that suggests, maybe, you just really hate money.
Above left: agressively pushes its paid service, TabPro. Above right: Ever more common, the pop-up that suggests, maybe, you just really hate money.

For example, someone might not sign up for a gym membership just because it’s on sale, but they may sign up if they believe that others will know they actively turned it down due to a lack of interest in maintaining personal health.

However, as time goes on, research has been building that indicates these tactics may ultimately backfire.

“The idea is that if you feel like someone is trying to force you to make a decision, it may make you back up and re-establish your freedom of choice,” said Alix Barasch, Assistant Professor of Marketing at NYU Stern. In accordance with reactance theory, she explained, consumers may attempt to reassert their autonomy by making a decision in favor of the threatened option—for example, when a child refuses to heed the directive of a parent in an effort to assert independence.

In the case of online marketing, it may end up creating an unwanted reverse psychology effect, working against the marketer; if a brand tells us what to do, we may decide to act to the contrary to assert power over our own decision-making. The danger for brands using this tactic, however, can be greater than just pushing the consumer away for that particular interaction or purchase opportunity—it can actually damage the brand as a whole, through the spillover effects of a consumer’s negative response to the communication.

Cause-related marketing—like PSAs from non-profit organizations about local initiatives—can, in many ways, use guilt to successfully compel individuals towards some form of contribution (look no further than the ASPCA’s Sarah McLachlan-filled TV spots about animal cruelty). Research has shown that, for some, the fear of being seen as turning away from engagement with pro-social causes is a strong incentive for pursuing involvement.

However, this can backfire in its own way. For those who aren’t compelled to act on behalf of the cause, they frequently walk away from it entirely.

“Seeing communications like that may make people want to disengage,” Barasch said. “For example, if you force me to see that I’m being a bad person, I may not want to even look at what you’re showing me anymore.”

For consumer offerings without pro-social connotations, however, the stakes aren’t as high—so guilt may not be such a motivational force. Turning away from an ASPCA commercial can feel like turning away from all mistreated animals. However, turning down aggressive promotions from a particular restaurant isn’t the same as swearing off restaurants entirely. In an effort to compel consumers to accept meal coupons for their business, for example, companies may just be knocking themselves off certain consumers’ lists of possible places to eat.

By using language clearly meant to frame one option as correct and the other as incorrect, brands communicate very obviously that they are trying to elicit an action meant to help the brand, not necessarily the consumer. This can make people skeptical or suspicious. Rather than imposing negative language upon consumers, advertisers might be better off with a positive approach.

Take, for example, a pop-up on website, asking site visitors to submit their email address and receive additional communication from the career resource company. The affirmative option, as is to be expected, is positive and enthusiastic (“Yes! I want to improve my career”). The choice to avoid submitting the email address is, rather than negatively-framed, refreshingly respectful of the decision-maker (“No thanks, just give me the goods I came here for.”). The Muse respects a consumer’s choice to avoid signing up for unwanted emails, and simultaneously reaffirms to the consumer that they are on that website for some value-gaining purpose that (hopefully) hasn’t been diminished by the unexpected interruption.

By framing both proposed options in a website pop-up or some other communication as positive, marketers don’t infringe on the consumer’s choice in such an obvious way. By saying “sure, sign me up!” and “no thanks, just give me what I came here for,” communication can acknowledge consumer autonomy and can, if worded properly, remind consumers that they are still getting value out of the interaction with the brand.

At the rate the internet has been filling up with pop-up ads, instant promotions and other blaring advertisements, it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing the end of such negative marketing tactics any time soon, if only for their value as differentiators in a crowded space.

With that in mind, however, advertisers would do well to recognize that consumers are capable of making their own choices, and to adjust ad language to reflect that understanding—it may go a long way to acknowledge and respect consumers’ increasing decision-making power rather than attempting to shape it with thinly-veiled tactics filled with guilt and negativity.

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Leanna Bornkamp


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