by Anne Landman April 28, 2010 PRWatch.org
A recent PRWatch blog discussed how corporations are increasingly turning to cause marketing to get around people’s ability to
tune out their daily deluge of advertising. Cause marketing, or
“affinity marketing,” is a sophisticated PR strategy in which a
corporation allies itself with a cause that evokes strong emotions in
targeted consumers, like curing cancer, alleviating poverty, feeding
the hungry, helping the environment or saving helpless animals. The
relationship avails the company of a more effective way to grab the
attention of their audience, by telling them compelling stories linked
to the cause, for example tales of survival, loss, strength, good
works, etc. Once the company gets your attention, it links its name and
brands to the positive emotions generates by the cause. The company
then leverages that emotion to get you to buy the stuff they’ve linked
to the cause — and improve its corporate image.
Cause marketing works, which is why its use is spreading like wildfire. The operative word that the whole idea turns on is “emotion,”
because the ability to manipulate people depends completely on
generating an emotional connection that the company can exploit.
Entire industries exploit emotions not just to sell goods, but also to influence public policy. Tobacco industry documents provide an excellent example:
In 1998, California’s Proposition 10, a measure to raise cigarette taxes, made it onto the ballot was headed for a statewide vote. Naturally, the tobacco industry opposed it.
To influence the election, Tobacco Institute consultants did careful studies using focus groups to find specific themes that resonated
with specific blocks of voters. In an internal strategy memo,
an Institute consultant discusses how to influence gay and lesbian
voters in California to oppose Proposition 10. The consultants knew
this would be difficult because leaders of gay and lesbian groups often
opposed the tobacco industry. Nevertheless the memo indicates
strategists planned to do an “end-run” around the gay/lesbian
…Since it is apparent that we are not going to have the endorsement of most Gay and Lesbian leadership, it is important to use these campaign tools to bypass that and go directly to the Gay and
Lesbian voter with a message that will resonate…
“Messages that resonate” means finding themes that have strong emotional pull among the targeted groups, in this case gays and
lesbians. Weaving anti-tax messages in with these themes would enable
the tobacco industry to push people’s emotional buttons and persuade
them vote against the tax. The memo singled out several themes of
importance to the gay and lesbian community that were ripe for
“There are several areas that would have special interest to this community. That would include lifestyle regulation, government intrusion into private lives, and removing choice as an option for
one’s life decisions. These themes need to be developed carefully
by focus groups and polling.” [Italicized emphasis in original.]
Accordingly, industry consultants crafted
messages designed to manipulate the emotions of gay and lesbian
voters to convince them to oppose the cigarette tax. One of the themes
they developed was the following:
“Wrapped in a cloak labeled ‘health,’ this initiative tries to legislate a change in behavior by encroaching on an individual’s freedom of choice. This argument will appeal to …
gay/lesbian groups concerned about politicians trying to achieve ‘social
engineering’ through a tax.”
Corporations, PR people and political strategists have found that influencing emotions allows them to exert control over an audience. The
stronger the emotions they can generate the bigger the clout they can
The technique, now in widespread use, explains a lot of the crazy public discourse of late:
The financial industry front group “Stop Too Big to Fail” (STBTF) assumed a name
designed to tap into tremendous popular anger against big banks, while
its real purpose is getting people to oppose measures that
would rein in big banks. STBTF seeks to do the opposite of
what its name indicates, but that doesn’t matter. Whoever created the
group is counting on people to react only to the name, and in turn
trust its message, and look no further than that.
The wacky claims spread by Betsy McCaughey, Sarah Palin, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and others that health care
reform legislation would lead to government “death panels” is a good
example of a highly emotional message dominating over sane and logical
discourse, no matter how bizarre the claim.
Recently, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) claimed that financial
reform legislation would “institutionalize” taxpayer-funded bailouts
for Wall Street banks — exactly the opposite of what the bill
would really do. But the strong emotions McConnell could generate by
using phrases like “perpetual bailouts” gives him manipulative power.
People respond to such words from their gut, not from their heads, and
again, the ability to manipulate people depends on them not
using their heads or checking facts.
Messages that President Obama is a “socialist” and a “Marxist” influence people to believe the President is inherently evil. It
doesn’t matter that card-carrying socialists have completely dismissed
the proposal that Obama is a socialist. It doesn’t matter whether he is
or not. The mere words “Obama” and “socialist” together stimulate
strong negative feelings, and thus generate strong general opposition
to the President — a goal of those spreading the message.
Emotional manipulation works. That is why so many entities are using it against us at every turn. Pinkwashing, greenwashing, cause-related marketing,
industry-funded front groups with deceptive names spewing extreme
political claims, politicians making weird, baseless statements about
proposed legislation — they all get the desired results. Some
legislators still try to use facts, reason and truth in public
discourse, but there are now so many strident, paid corporate and
political messaging efforts going on that stimulate people to react
from their gut and not think, that reason, truth and facts are
now weak public voices by comparison.
Emotional manipulation cannot exist in a culture where people ask questions and delve beyond the superficial. We at PRWatch" href="http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=PRWatch" ... urge you to be wary and observant of
attempts to emotionally manipulate audiences. Be skeptical of messages
and marketing techniques that try to get you to feel and not think.
Insist on investigating any entity delivering an emotionally-loaded
message before you buy into it. Ask questions about cause marketing
campaigns, too, since they are designed to manipulate as well.
Democracy depends on an inquisitive and informed public that resists being hoodwinked.