Guilt .. Guilt… Guilt Marketing

The encyclopedia of psychology defines guilt as an emotional state produced by thoughts, that we have not lived up to our ideal self and could have done otherwise. Extending on similar lines, consumer guilt has been defined as a negative feeling resulting from a consumer decision that is against one’s ideals. The psychological models of consumer decision making generally concentrate on cognitive processes like influence, motivation etc. These are derived by various emotions in the human brain like happiness, guilt, pride and others. “Open happiness” by Coca cola or “kuch meetha ho jaye” by Cadbury’s diary milk touch upon the happiness quotient.

A paper titled Conceptualizing Guilt in the Consumer Decision-making Process by Melissa S. Burnett and Dale A. Lunsford explores the guilt quotient in decision-making. They classify guilt in the following ways:

– financial guilt – e.g. spending more for yourself
– health guilt – e.g. eating junk food
– moral guilt – e.g. insurance for life cover
– Social responsibility guilt – e.g. Donate to an orphanage


They say the implication of the guilt depends on the following factors:

– state of the guilt
– purchase decision and
– focus of the guilt

Further, Guilt Appeals in Advertising Studies Pinto and Priest (1991) show that advertisements that are built to induce high guilt can actually cause the viewer to become angered and the effects can be reversed.


Though these frameworks do not apply strictly to the Indian context due to cultural variations, they more-or-less explain our promotion campaigns.

Let us look at a few promotional campaigns:

1) The recent Clinic plus ad, where the child asks her mom to stop working because the mother is unable to take care of her hair and because of which, she is forced to sport short hair, is aimed at working mothers.

Verdict: It can be classified under moral guilt. “Unable to spend time pampering your child’s hair? – Buy clinic plus”

2) Bourneville ad: The ad starts with a person who challenges the legend that one need not EARN a Bourneville – he agrees to the fact that it needs to be earned after he is punished

Verdict:  Why would you buy an 80 gm chocolate for Rs.75 when you’ve several cheaper options available?

“Please go ahead because you deserve it”. A typical example of financial guilt

1) Other examples of financial guilt would be
2) ASMI diamonds-‘You are worth it’ &
3) Kaya Skin Clinic’s communication of ‘get the glow’ with their expensive skin treatments
4) Horlicks Lite ad, where the husband is very unenergetic and hence, not romantic, and the Saffola ad, where the father loses race on the parents day event, and puts the child to shame, play on the food guilt aspect. This is also highlighted in Sugar free ad, where the boss asks his employees to jog instead of him.



Recent blogs are full of confessions on how bad people feel leaving that local grocer and switching to the nearby Reliance fresh mart to buy grocery. “He used to deliver goods at my doorstep even if I called him at 11 pm”. This is enough proof that companies can increase customer life time value and maintain customer loyalty through excellent CRM. All that the companies need to do to retain customers is, create anticipatory guilt in them – “The brand I grew up with” feeling is sufficient to kindle repurchase.

And thus…

Guilt can affect both, initial and repurchase decisions. This depends on what the marketer conveys, and the time when he targets them – before or after the activity that has led to the feeling of guilt. However, while designing the/ communication strategy invoking the guilt aspect, care must be exercised, as it is a very sensitive issue, and could backfire. We can see from various examples that guilt could be used in any stage of consumer decision-making process, the various stages being problem recognition, information search, evaluation of alternatives, purchase decision, purchase & post-purchase behavior.

Guilt marketing is an effective tool and produces the right results when used in the right amount.




Ashwin, Thanks!

Many brands have had failed miserably on establishing an EQ with the customers. To quote a few,

Kellog’s K Corn Flakes (Deepika Padukone’s endorsement),
Parle’s Monaco Smart Chips (Aamir Khan’s endorsement) ..

Though they try to target the touted “health conscious” customers, their pie in the consumer market is quite negligible resulting in lesser penetration levels.