New research from Yale SOM Professor Taly Reich reveals that after consumers have been exposed to certain types of sad content, they respond with a counterintuitive impulse: the need to sustain their blue moods. In the age of automated marketing, marketers must understand these emotional patterns—and take steps to avoid blunders.
As marketing becomes increasingly AI-driven—with news sites, streaming services, and social media platforms recommending ads based on consumers’ past search behavior and other predictive analytics—new research highlights the importance of remembering to account for consumers’ very real human emotions.
A recent study by Taly Reich of Yale SOM, Stephanie Lin of INSEAD in Singapore, and Tamar Kreps of the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa emphasizes the importance of sequencing content appropriately, so that marketers — whether human or AI— don’t commit the type of emotional faux pas that could backfire.
Across five studies, Reich and her colleagues investigated what people preferred to watch after they’d been exposed to sad, upsetting, and/or morally disturbing content.
The experiments were designed to reveal which emotions consumers aim to sustain in response to difficult content, especially when it involves human suffering. Would they be eager to jump into consumption of hedonic content (that which is enjoyable and mood-boosting) as some research on emotion regulation would suggest? Or might they feel it important to sit with their blue moods, and go out of their way to avoid light and frivolous media?
The results of each of the five studies delivered a consistent message: after exposure to content involving real human suffering, consumers believe the morally correct thing to do is allow their negative emotions to linger.
As the co-authors write, their research “offers clear prescriptions to marketers about when—and when not—to offer hedonic consumption as mood repair.”
Amid coverage of collectively devastating events like mass shootings, for example, advertisers should reassume control from automation services and ensure that streaming news stories, articles, and similar content not be paired with emotionally incompatible advertising.
“Interrupting morally relevant and negative content with advertising about frivolous hedonic products could be jarring,” the researchers write, “and could even potentially spill over to negative perceptions of the brand, or the service that inappropriately sequenced the content.”
Notably, the researchers found that this pattern didn’t hold for all sad content. After viewing negative content that didn’t depict real human suffering (like a dramatic fictional film), the moral impulse to sustain negative emotion afterward disappeared, and viewers were more likely to try to boost their moods.
In three of their studies, researchers asked participants to choose between two possible activities after consuming information about either real or fictional suffering. In one, subjects were given the option to either watch a clip from America’s Funniest Home Videos or sit in silence for thirty seconds after reading a disturbing passage. One group of participants had been given a real account of the Rwandan Genocide while the other group read a fictionalized version of the same passage.
The researchers found that the participants who had been exposed to the real account of suffering were less likely to watch the light-hearted video than those who had read the fictionalized passage.
Reich and her fellow researchers write that their findings indicate steps marketers can take to not only avoid costly brand blunders, but to “help create a more compassionate society.” Taking steps to strategically place content or even pause up-lifting content amid coverage of widespread negative events, could ultimately help marketers to better position their brands.
“Although hedonic principles of emotion regulation suggest that people wish to feel good,” they write, “we suggest that sometimes feeling good just feels wrong.”