The second of our posts focusing on the primary emotions we all share, and how researchers and marketers use them.
Contempt is the least studied of all the primary emotions – in fact not all emotional researchers recognise it as something separate from disgust or anger. But Paul Ekman makes a convincing case that it is separate – contempt is expressed towards people (or constructs like brands) but not objects or actions, and it can predict things other emotions cannot. Ekman cites a study of marriages where wives who believed their husbands felt contempt towards them suffered quite different negative effects from those experiencing disgust or anger.
As with any “negative” emotion, contempt is constructive and useful – it can act as a warning system for more powerful emotions, or as a kind of insulation against them. And as Ekman points out, because it’s rooted in a sense of superiority, it needn’t be unpleasant to feel. As with Anger, contempt can be something we like to feel vicariously. Here’s the great R&B group TLC, singing “No Scrubs”, their enormous worldwide hit which drips with contempt for men who wrongly imagine they’re up to dating the band members!
But even if contempt is constructive to feel, it’s never enjoyable to suffer. For brands, in fact, it’s perhaps the most disastrous of all emotions.
Consider the difference between contempt and anger. Anger flares up but can be appeased and mollified. Contempt denies its subject that opportunity – and for a brand, dealing with an angry customer is easy than dealing with somebody who thinks you’re pathetic, or a joke, or just despises you.
Luckily, contempt for brands is rare, right? Unfortunately not. It is unusual for ads to elicit much contempt – the highest rating BrainJuicer has ever recorded was 16% of people feeling it as the primary emotion, not great but nothing like the heights reached for disgust or sadness. But ask about brands in general, and several banks top that score with only a logo as stimulus.
Contempt is also an issue for retailers. When we ran our “visceral shopper” experiment – looking at the emotional experience of shopping – we discovered that for 1 in 10 shoppers contempt was the primary emotion their shopping trip left them with. Interestingly, for online retail this drops to 1 in 50 – an illustration of how much more powerful contempt can be when it focuses on a person.
Can marketers use contempt? Since contempt can feel good, they can try, but it’s fraught with risk and not recommended. A long-running campaign like UK price comparison site Go Compare’s – with an irritating character who then becomes the butt of each advert’s joke – is flirting with contempt. And there’s a long tradition of ads which trash-talk the opposition. But it’s a double-edged sword – pitch your contempt wrong, or too strongly, and it might rebound on you, making your audience pity the victim and dislike you.
Next we’ll look at Contempt’s more visceral cousin – Disgust. For more on emotion in advertising, sign up to next week’s Webinar where BrainJuicer’s Alex Hunt talks us through some of 2013’s most emotional ads.