When imagining a vacation, which resort do individuals prefer: a quiet retreat to relax at or an active destination to explore? Derek Rucker (Kellogg School of Management, marketing department) and Richard Petty (Ohio State University, psychology department) examined the influence of specific emotions on consumer choices and the implications of those influences for persuasion.

The study of emotion and persuasion has a long history, an important strand of which has been the role of the valence, a positive or negative charge, of an emotion and its influence on judgments and persuasion. Rucker and Petty build on this area and focus on emotions with the same valence. Previous research has shown that some negative emotions, such as anger and anxiety, involve a state of high psychological and physiological arousal (such as increased heart rate, increased left-prefrontal activity in the brain). Other negative emotions, such as sadness and depression, involve a state of low arousal. Using these facts, Rucker and Petty examined how the level of emotion activation affects persuasion. Since people use emotions as sources of information, emotions may signal what type of action is more appropriate or desired. The authors proposed that emotions with high arousal levels may signal that activity is desired and lead consumers to prefer action-oriented events. Emotions paired with low arousal levels may signal inactivity and lead consumers to prefer passive events.

… emotions with high arousal levels may signal that activity is desired and lead consumers to prefer action-oriented events. Emotions paired with low arousal levels may signal inactivity and lead consumers to prefer passive events.To test this hypothesis, Rucker and Petty conducted an experiment in which the participants, undergraduate college students, were induced into angry or sad moods through reading an emotion-evoking narrative disguised as a magazine article. They were asked to imagine the events being described as they read the article. The article used to induce anger described hatred and protests against the United States in the Middle East. The article used to induce sadness described the effects of a natural disaster on a small village in Africa.

Participants in the experiment were then presented with advertisements for two vacation resorts in Orlando, Florida, and were asked to rate their preferred vacation. One vacation advertisement described a relaxing resort (passive frame), while the other advertisement described an active resort (active frame). The passive frame characterized “a perfect place for people to relax and rest,” while the active frame characterized “a perfect place for people who want to actively explore.”

The results were consistent with the hypothesis, and the interaction between emotion and the framing of the message was statistically significant. Anger-induced individuals indicated a preference for the active resort. On the contrary, individuals that were induced to sadness showed a significant preference for the passive resort. This suggests that there is a matching effect between the consumer’s emotional state and the level of activity, passive or active, evoked by the location.

Can persuasion be increased, or consumer choice affected, by matching perceived activity level to a particular emotional state? Rucker and Petty would answer affirmatively and present this research to bolster that idea. They mention examples that put this result into practice: television marketers may decide to display a more passive activity in their advertisements following a drama show in order to connect emotionally with the audience. Car advertisements during a movie like “Fahrenheit 911” could benefit from focusing on the action of driving, while commercials aired during a sad movie such as “Hotel Rwanda” would be more effective featuring the relaxation and comfort of driving a car. These results are noteworthy for advertising, marketing, and business strategies in that advertisements can be designed to resonate with the activity level of emotions and thereby increase the effectiveness of the advertising.