Researchers Find That an Intense Guilt Trip in Advertising Turns Consumers Off to Brands

Cause-related marketing needs to balance a fine line

The Pepsi ad that missed the mark with consumers. Pepsi
Headshot of Doug Zanger

The patron saint of heavy-handed cause advertising is likely Sally Struthers. Though her intentions for Save the Children are laudable, some of the ads that she starred in during her two decades as a spokesperson for the charity used massive doses of guilt to loosen wallets and, ultimately, raise a great deal of money. Today, however, brands continue to dive deeper into their own cause and purpose-led activities, and new research published by the Journal of Advertising Research shows that a more heavy-handed approach can negatively impact consumer perceptions.

Engage for Good noted that, in 2019, advertising for cause-related marketing (CRM) among the world’s top 100 brands is predicted to reach $2.23 billion, an almost 5% increase over 2018. Additionally, 64% of consumers choose, switch, avoid or boycott brands based on societal issues, and 76% of younger consumers said that they have either purchased or would consider purchasing a brand or product to show support for the issues a brand supported.

While that trend shows a clear pathway forward for brands, Jaywant Singh, a professor of marketing at Kingston University London and Benedetta Crisafulli, a marketing lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, decided to dig deeper on how messaging can impact perception in a seemingly jaded world.

“There’s a great deal of skepticism about socially responsible behavior,” noted Singh. “People are inherently suspicious of intent—that companies are out to make a profit then, suddenly, they’re investing in socially responsible activities.”

At issue today are what ads and marketing look and feel like, specifically, the intensity in which a cause is portrayed. The researchers’ theory was that high-intensity ads—which include more vivid imagery like severely malnourished children, strong language and melancholic music—are more manipulative and a turn off for consumers.

In a more practical and real-world sense, brands have created advertising that illustrates the theory well, with the best example likely being Pepsi’s 2017 turn to weigh in on social unity through its regrettable Kendall Jenner ad.

To that end, Singh and Crisafulli developed spec campaign ads (both high and low-intensity) on child hunger relief and child cancer awareness using H&M, Samsung and Subway as example brands. Overwhelmingly, the panel of close to 200 participants, ranging in age from 18 to 65 and split by gender, preferred the lower-intensity approach. The results indicate that both the corporate image and purchase intent were enhanced when the creative was a softer sell in cause-related marketing.

Armed with the feedback, Singh and Crisafulli developed some key takeaways for brands to consider as they approach their cause marketing and, specifically, in the way messaging is constructed.

First, they advocate that brands exercise caution in the way they communicate. Being too overtly intense could potentially damage a brand’s image. Ironically, they found that Save the Children, once known for its “in your face” ads, shifted to stories of empowerment and testimonials with a much softer sell.

Secondly, it is vital for a brand to communicate its genuine motives and determine better alignment. Singh noted that a 2010 KFC campaign supporting breast cancer received a great deal of backlash due, in part, to the fact that the brand itself wasn’t necessarily aligned with the cause.

“As consumers, our mind still perceives that a brand [through cause-related marketing] is trying to leverage its reputation,” said Crisafulli. “We know that they do it for competitive reasons, but knowing there is a genuine commitment is important.”

That feedback leads to the third suggestion: that brands ensure that they are either endemic or somehow plausibly connected to a cause. The duo’s research showed that food brands tend to be highly compatible with social related to food, including fighting child hunger.

Singh pointed out Kellogg’s “Breakfast for Better Days,” a program to provide cereal and snacks to families in need, and General Mills’ commitment to Feeding America as good examples.

Finally, Singh and Crisafulli advise brands that they should be realistic in the outcomes of cause-related marketing in the first place and that research and testing are crucial elements that are sometimes missed.

“The key is to understand what will lead to minimizing the skepticism that people have about [cause-related marketing] activities,” noted Singh.

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.