Emotional Manipulation in Advertising


A teenager buying a pack of cigarettes is asked by the store clerk for more compensation for the cigarettes. The teen contemplates her choices and then decides to remove part of the skin from her face to give to the clerk as payment. “Cigarettes cause your face to wrinkle and ages you 19 years faster than normal,” says a man voicing over a television advertisement to quit smoking.  

A chemistry teacher instructing kids about the chemicals that cigarettes contain is mauled by a vicious monster born from a cigarette. “If cigarettes looked as dangerous as they are, you wouldn’t smoke them,” says another advertisement.   

People with breathing stomas in their throats, which are medical openings in the throat to allow for normal breathing, plead for smokers to quit on live television as they demonstrate the struggles of coping with the detrimental effects of smoking on their lungs. An old man talking in an electronically pitched voice says he used to love swimming, but now he’s unable to.  

Public health initiatives obviously want people to stop smoking tobacco. Tobacco Free Florida and many other anti-smoking organizations use billboards, television and radio ads, and all sorts of other advertisement techniques to flood our everyday lives with propaganda to quit smoking. Whether we like it or not, we see these graphic advertisements displayed on our televisions at home which should prompt us to ask ourselves, “Is this an advertisement or is this emotional manipulation?” and is there even a difference between the two?  

All advertisement seeks to influence people’s decisions, to educate the public, or to change people in some way or another. However, this is quite different from manipulating someone by triggering his or her emotional response system. Also, how many times must we see these graphic “stop smoking” ads? It is clear that a line must be drawn between advertising and emotional manipulation.  

It is no secret that quitting smoking is at the forefront of public health goals. According to the CDC, cigarette smoking is responsible for the deaths of 1,300 U.S. residents each day. As such, government initiatives trying to aggressively combat this deadly habit has increased and led us into an era in which we cannot go a week without encountering one of these dreadful ads.

The intent of the ads is good, but their overexposure feels invasive, to say the least. How explicitly graphic these advertisements are is horrifying and trigger unwanted feelings. A parent has little control over their child encountering these graphic ads on television because it is so pervasive in our society today.   

Clearly, a line can be drawn between the usual marketing and advertisement tactics we see every day and the emotional manipulation of our society through ads that promote quitting smoking. In one sense, we can see that all advertisement suffers from some form of manipulation because the advertisement’s goal is to spur some kind of action or decision from people.

Advertisements can also play on different emotions by making you laugh or cry. How then, should we measure if an advertisement is going too far in triggering emotional responses from us? Perhaps the line between emotional manipulation and advertisement is blurrier than it is clear. The ultimate answer is that at the core of advertising, emotional manipulation exists.

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