The Psychology of Bad Marketing

Beware of the right appeal at the wrong time.

Posted Sep 26, 2019

You’re a marketing psychologist and your firm just landed two new accounts — one for a popular restaurant, and another for a less-known, new restaurant in an out-of-the-way neighborhood. The folks down in the creative department have put together a couple of attractive ads emphasizing each restaurant’s major appeal: The first suggests to potential customers, “Come join the happy crowd at the area’s most popular downtown eatery! Visited by over a million satisfied customers since 1990!” while the second offers, "Be one of the elite few to enjoy a unique dining experience at old town’s secret culinary treasure.” 

They also have to decide whether to book advertising time during one of two evening movies that will be showing next month — one is a scary remake of Silence of the Lambs, which depicts a sadistic serial killer who escapes from his maximum security jail cell.  The other has been rated the most romantic movie since Casablanca, described by one reviewer as likely to inspire even jaded couples who have been married for decades to want to fall in love all over again. 

The head of advertising wants to tap your knowledge of psychology to decide which ad to place during which movie. Would it be a good idea to advertise the popular restaurant during the romantic movie, and the secret new neighborhood gem during the horror movie? Or would it be better to advertise both restaurants during the romantic movie, when people will be feeling good, and neither during the horror movie, when people will be steeped in negative emotion? 

You could go with your naturally keen intuitions to offer some advice on the decision, as so often happens in the world of advertising. But remember, you are a psychologist, so you decide to consult the scientific literature. Good thing, too, because you discover that the appeal of one of these two advertisements would be amplified in the context of one movie, but actually backfire in the other. And the exact reverse is true for the other ad. 

Experimenting with persuasion and motivation

The situation I just described was in fact the set-up for a study conducted by Robert Cialdini and I, as part of a program of research led by several of our former graduate students — several of whom have gone on to become professors in business departments (Vlad Griskevicius, now at the University of Minnesota, Noah Goldstein, now at UCLA, and Jill Sundie, now at Radford University). Chad Mortensen was also on the research team, and he is now a psychology professor at Metropolitan State in Denver.  

In the actual experiment, we wanted to see whether two different and well-established, but very different, persuasion techniques — popularity and uniqueness, might work differently if they were used when people were in different motivational states.  

In the popularity condition, participants read a review of the “Bergamot Café,” that described it as: “the most popular restaurant,” and informed readers: “if you want to know why everyone gathers here for a great dining experience, come join them at the Bergamot Café.” In the uniqueness condition, the review called the Bergamot Café “a unique place off the beaten path” and readers were informed that the restaurant was a “one-of-a-kind place that is yet to be discovered by others” and told that “if you’re looking for a great dining experience different from any other, look no further than the Bergamot Café.” 

Before reading one of the two different restaurant reviews, participants were put in a fearful or a romantic motivational state by reading a short story. If you were in the fear condition, you would have imagined yourself alone in an empty house late at night, and beginning to hear strange noises, followed by the clear sounds of someone breaking into your house. The story ends with the stranger standing ominously in the doorway of your bedroom. If you were in the romance condition, you would have read about meeting someone you found highly attractive, falling instantly for one another, and then spending an enjoyable and romantic day together.

The reactions to the different ads were completely opposite in the two motivational conditions, as depicted in the figure.  

Original figure by Douglas T. Kenrick, based on data presented in Griskevicius, Goldstein, et al. (see references)
The same persuasive appeal can have opposite consequences, depending on the audience's motivational state.
Source: Original figure by Douglas T. Kenrick, based on data presented in Griskevicius, Goldstein, et al. (see references)

Compared to participants in a control condition (who had not had any emotion aroused), people in a fearful state of mind were very responsive to an appeal to popularity. But an appeal to uniqueness actually backfired for frightened subjects. On the other hand, people in a romantic frame of mind responded in the opposite way, reacting negatively to an advertisement that focused on popularity, but quite positively to an ad that focused on uniqueness. 

This flipped result was not limited to advertisements for restaurants, or to the particular motivational stories the participants read. The same pattern of results was found when people were asked to evaluate a museum (which was described as either very popular, or as a unique place to visit if you wanted to stand out from the crowd), and when the emotion had been triggered by watching a short movie clip (either The Shining — a horror story about a man who goes mad and begins chasing after his own family members with an ax, or Before Sunrise — a love story about two attractive young people who fall in love while traveling on a train through Europe). 

The punchline of this research is one that is important not only if you work in the marketing profession, but also in everyday life: If you want to sell someone on anything, your product, your idea, or your self, the exact same pitch can set off fireworks or blow up in your face, if your intended audience is in the wrong motivational state.  

Some background on fundamental motives and marketing decisions

One of the authors of that study, Robert Cialdini, has written a book that explores the wider question of how persuasive appeals can work or backfire depending on what happened just before you make your appeal (see Pre-suasion: Before You Try to Persuade Someone). And the other team members have gone on to explore various other interesting aspects of the links between fundamental human motives and social influence, including how romantic motives affect conspicuous consumption (see Deep Rationality II), and how the local ratio of men to women on the mating market can influence our decisions to take out credit card debt (see How Would More Women Help the Economy?). The lead author on that study, Vlad Griskevicius, went on to write a book with me on how evolved motives influence our decisions in various aspects of business and everyday life (see The Evolved Wisdom Behind Our Seemingly Stupid Decisions). 


Cialdini, R.B. (2016).  Pre-suasion: A revolutionary way to influence and persuade.  New York: Simon & Schuster.

Griskevicius, V., Goldstein, N.J., Mortensen, C.R., Sundie, J.M., & Cialdini, R.B., Kenrick, D.T. (2009).  Fear and loving in Las Vegas: Evolution, emotion, and persuasion. Journal of Marketing Research, 46, 384-395.

Kenrick, D.T., & Griskevicius, V. (2013).  The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think.  New York: Basic Books

Sundie, J.M., Kenrick, D.T., Griskevicius, V., Tybur, J., Vohs, K., & Beal, D.J. (2011). Peacocks, Porsches, and Thorsten Veblen: Conspicuous consumption as a sexual signaling system. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 664-680.