The Emotional Cost of Marketing


Concern for our dwindling attention span has become the chorus of our time.  Last year the Guardian suggested that the internet’s information overload was killing our brains; before that a Microsoft study found that we apparently have a shorter attention span than a goldfish.  We live in an overcrowded world, one in which the demands on our time are great and the attention we’re prepared to give to anything, or anyone, is a limited commodity.  It is this age’s gold to which marketing teams rush, a precious resource for which we mine avidly. So why open with the obvious, other than to test whether you are indeed just like a gold fish? Because, as all hardened miners know, every commodity has its cost.  And I wonder how many consumers and marketers realise the full extent of the price we're paying.


Whichever way you look, you will see brands looking to engage emotionally and marketing consultants giving advice on how to create that emotionally engaging strategy and content.  Banks are doing it – Santander’s Love Virtually; Nationwide’s latest is Fatherhood; and Lloyds Bank has raised the emotional bar year on year.  And whether it’s a Halfords bike taking you on a journey this year, Esso taking Sophie on one last year, or Apple taking you into The Archives whenever you want; the running thread throughout it all is the emotional charge.  Speaking of journeys, even Eurostar wants in on the action.

Emotion is hugely important, of course it is.  Our brains, as Roz Calder points out in a Kantar TNS Intelligence Applied report, are “hard-wired to respond to emotive language, [it’s] a code that our fast brain is constantly interpreting.” But as this marketing frenzy for emotion whirls on, there is no harm in slowing just for a second to consider the implications of overloading or misusing emotion in interactions with audiences. It can backfire quite aggressively, but as we all look over the fence at Pepsi, wryly thinking about how far it missed the mark by, shouldn’t we also be considering the overall cost of emotional marketing and feeling a bit sorrier for ourselves?


Dr. George Koob, a neuropharmacologist at The Scripps Research Institute in California, is cited in The Advertised Mind (Erik Du Plessis) explaining how the limbic system in our brain controls our basic emotions and drives:

“Performing like an emotional thermostat, the limbic system helps the brain sort through the zillions of sensory inputs and thoughts we experience each day by tagging them as emotionally hot or cold, or something in between.”

Everybody, especially a brand vying for consumer attention, wants to be successfully tagged and memorable.  There is a tendency in marketing, therefore, to see emotion as the tool with which to chip away at an audience’s awareness, rather than a precious resource within its own right.

The implications of getting caught up in the war for consumers’ attention are severe — not only can it result in a brand wrapping itself in a narrative that just doesn’t make sense to its position and offering; misuse of emotion also drives up the emotional threshold of consumers, making it harder for everyone to communicate successfully with their audiences.


Think about how we recall childhood memories. Each time we revisit a memory, we draw it out of its encoded place in our limbic system, and it becomes vulnerable to a change in how we perceive it and re-store it. Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, John Aggleton FRS, refers to this activity as “memory corruption.” It’s why you can never be certain if a childhood memory is entirely accurate to the event or if along the way it has been contaminated by recall and retelling. In a similar way, emotional marketing draws upon our memories, with the goal of shifting our associations with certain events, objects, or issues so that ultimately, our behaviour shifts too. But if brands do not have an acute understanding of their audience, or a sense of the responsibility to marketing themselves accurately, then they will collectively contribute to a corruption of our emotional states and cognitive abilities. And then everyone, and everything, really will be forgettable.

Malcolm Gladwell explores a multitude of complexities in the cognitive processes of the human mind in Blink, but specifically relevant to thinking about the impact of marketing is his assertion that: “Arousal leaves us mind-blind.”  Gladwell examines what happens to the human brain in states of intense arousal, when we are subjected to emotional over-stimulation.  Drawing together examinations of autistic reactions to emotional scenes in movies with theorisations of what happens to individuals in situations of extreme stress, he asks the question: “What if it were possible for autism — for mind-blindness — to be a temporary condition instead of a chronic one?”

What if, instead of the situations of warfare and policing that Gladwell looks at, we think about this question within the framework of marketing to consumers’ emotions?  Are consumers being overwhelmed by the emotional caterwauling brands surround them with? And, as a result, are consumers beginning to switch off?


To cut through the emotional immunity, brands need to work harder and smarter to connect with their consumers. That's a given, but who is getting it right at the moment?

Vodafone is the next brand looking for love, whose latest campaign features Martin Freeman.  In an interview with Campaign, Caroline Welsh, the head of brand and communications at Vodafone UK states, "We need mass appeal, we need people to love us, and this campaign and the brand’s association with Martin Freeman will help deliver on that."  With its principle of connectivity and the tagline ‘Power to you’ Vodafone UK could have jumped on the current emotional and political zeitgeist and yet, it didn’t.  The British brand gives its consumers what they need, which at the moment is light relief.  And this isn’t merely a ‘just for show’ moment; Vodafone has been in the process of investing £2 billion to improve its customer care, creating 2,100 roles at sites around the country, including 800 in Manchester, 600 in Newcastle and nearly 300 in Scotland.

When it comes to engaging emotionally with consumers, brands must look at every touch point and if, like Vodafone, you want to be loved, think about your consumers’ needs before your own.