How Marketing Helps Us Feel Better about Doing Bad Things

by Graeme Newell

  • Guilt is one of the most powerful motivators in marketing. Some of the best brands in the world have mastered the art of making us feel good about doing unhealthy things.
  • These companies have successfully turned vices into virtues by showing that being not as bad as the next guy makes that bad behavior okay.
  • “Greenwashing” is a hot advertising fad that has companies wrapping themselves in the environmental movement in hopes of showcasing moral character.

I call it the side-salad delusion. It is the weird thinking that if you simply add a side salad to any meal, that meal is magically made healthier. “I’ll have the double cheeseburger, fries, large Coke…and a salad.” The masters on Madison Avenue have made a science out of taking the guilt out of any indulgence. By carefully adding a minuscule virtue to the feature list, they can make the most gluttonous excesses seem downright progressive.

This Carl’s Junior ad shows their turkey burger, complete with healthy turkey and a whole-wheat bun. Most customers would never dream it weighs in at almost 500 calories, just a few calories shy of a Big Mac. But that whole wheat and turkey distract us from the calorie bomb inside.



This Bud Light “Real Men of Genius” ad mockingly salutes the inventor of the enormous taco salad and asks, “Is it healthy? Of course it is. It’s called a salad isn’t it!?”



Nowhere is this phenomenon more rampant than in the ever-growing world of green marketing. Notice how this ad attempts to wrap Walmart in the green movement by simply pointing out that it sells a green product. As this earth mother meanders through green hills with her cherub son, she dreams of saving the world by getting everyone to buy Walmart vacuum cleaners.



NBC-Universal did the same thing with its “Green is Universal” ads. The company wrapped itself in the warm earthly glow of sustainability. Their web site features recycling games, pithy food tips such as “buy organic produce,” and water-saving advice such as “take shorter showers.”



This phenomenon of wrapping a company in the environmental movement is being called “greenwashing” and has been taken up by some of the most environmentally reprehensible companies in the world. BP, the company responsible for the Gulf oil spill, changed its logo to a nature-friendly green and yellow sun more than a decade ago. Since that time, ads like this one have marketed environmental progressiveness.



Ads from the coal industry have done the same thing, wrapping coal in both the green movement and Americana.



However, environmental groups have been quick to call their bluff with biting ads like this one that use the exact same imagery.



This sarcastic ad pokes fun at the coal industry’s insistent use of the word “clean.”


Lessening the Guilt

Sure, we all make lousy purchase choices all the time. We eat the wrong foods, drive wasteful cars, indulge at Starbucks, and watch too much TV. But the advertising industry has found a clever way to assuage our guilt and give all of us a free pass. Some of them have even managed to create an entire myth around a product category that allows us to give in to our vices, yet still feel good about ourselves.

Who amongst us doesn’t feel a little bit healthier when we start our day with a good breakfast? The ad industry continually shows that orange juice is the best way to get going in the morning. It’s tasty and good for you, however research shows that drinking this highly processed breakfast staple is not much different than starting your day with a sugary soda, yet Minute Maid ads like this one have inspired the entire world to start their day with the nature-steeped nutrition of OJ.



Another one advertisers use – cold temperatures cause illness. Colds are caused by viruses, not temperature. Want to avoid a cold? Wash your hands a lot. While they never say a chill causes a cold, they use imagery that affirms our misguided belief. This Claratin ad shows a man bold enough to brave the cold weather because his cold medicine magically protects him.



So many of our social standards are taken directly from the misleading product claims of advertisers. Their goal is not to provide truth, but to make all of us feel a little less guilty about doing bad stuff. Myth becomes fact because we WANT to believe this stuff. For example:

Beer is relaxing.

Green lawns are environmentally responsible.

Sugar makes kids hyper.

Eating fish makes you smart.

Premium gas makes cars run better.

Margarine is healthier than butter

Less Bad is Good

Another clever guilt-lessening ad technique is the “I’m not as bad as everyone else” tactic. They turn being less bad into a virtue. Sort of like, “Sure, I beat my wife, but what’s great is that I don’t do it as much as some other people.”

This Cadillac ad makes the case that driving a gigantic SUV is environmentally sound because it uses less gas than its colossal cousins. The strategic minds on Madison Avenue are turning a product criticism into a positive feature. The simple truth is that consumers want to drive these behemoths, and the wizards on Madison Avenue have given their customers a story so they can feel better about it. The hybrid SUV story makes the mental leap that doing less damage to the environment actually makes that product good for the environment – mission accomplished.












This Windex ad shows the Johnson Wax president meandering in nature as he proclaims that his business is a “family company” that uses “natural ingredients.” What most consumers fail to grasp is that harsh chemicals like ammonia and isopropyl alcohol are quite corrosive, but perfectly natural. We want the cleaning power of these caustic chemicals without all the environmental side effects. Windex has found a way to give us a clean window AND a little environmental story that makes us feel better.











Things to Remember

Your brand must do more than just position a product. Your brand must also meet the needs of how that product fits into your customer’s identity. Guilt, worry, and fear are some of the most powerful motivators in our lives. Most brands tend to deal with these very strong emotions on a strictly product level.

Take toothpaste for example. The simplest forms of marketing use fear of cavities, and attractiveness to others as the brand motivators; but life-long brands such as Crest have learned to turn their brand into a catalyst for personal identity. They have skillfully injected the complex emotions of personal care, guilt and social climbing into their brand. Sure, it looks like a toothpaste brand on the surface, but peel back the layers, and you’ll find an entire emotional motivation story that bonds people to these products for life.

Is your brand merely a product story, or is it an emotional catalyst in your customer’s life?

Next week, the new trend of “conspicuous conservation,” and using green to social climb.

Download this as a PDF Whitepaper (26.1mb – includes embedded videos)

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