Under the Influence (CBC) has been a favorite program of mine for some time. Terry O’Reilly, the host, explores the evolution of marketing from the 20th century into the 21st century…it’s really fascinating stuff. I always enjoy O’Reilly’s honey-smooth vocal intonations as he creatively grounds his observations in real-world scenarios. In this podcast from 2013 called Shame: the secret tool of modern marketing, Terry “…peels back the layers of shame in our modern world.”
To understand how marketing works today, O-Reilly says “we first need to go back in time”. Unlike today, in the early to mid 1800s we didn’t really care a great deal about how we smelled or what color our teeth were. Through an effective advertising strategy of “social shaming”, companies have been able to position their products and gain market share for the past 150 years. This approach is characterized through messages like: “Control that body odor, people are talking about you!” or “Halitosis is making you a social pariah” or “if you have whiter teeth you will attract the right partner”.
What do bad breath, yellow teeth, and body odor have to do with this blog post? Nothing really. But this whole notion of “social shaming” certainly does. By explicitly promoting the benefits (i.e. whiter teeth) of a given product, companies are implicitly communicating negative social impacts by not using the product.
Setting the “shaming” scene
Last fall, I attended a local community event in rural Alberta where there were a number of young moms in the room, balancing cherubic babies on their hips. I eavesdropped in on an exchange that went something like this:
Mom #1 says proudly: “Jacob just moved up from rice cereal to baby food.”
Mom #2: “Oh, what are you feeding him?”
Mom #1: “Oh, I picked up [Name Brand] baby food at [Store Name]. We are trying that for now. We bought a selection of different vegetables and fruits to see how he likes them.”
Mom #3: “Well, I certainly hope that it’s organic!”
Mom #1: “Um… I don’t know. Well, I don’t think so…I…”
Mom #2: “I only feed Kaelynn organic baby food. In fact, I special order it in from [Specialty Baby Food Company].”
Mom #3: “I’ve heard about that! I feed my baby natural baby food with no preservatives that I get from [Local High-Priced “Natural” Grocery Store].
Mom #1: “But isn’t that expensive?”
Mom #2: “Yes, it is more money than the supermarket-bought brands but my Kaelyn is worth it.”
Mom #3: “…After all, Mom #1, the safety and health of our babies is important.”
Mom #1 looks awkwardly at her feet and shifts healthy, cherubic Jacob to the other hip.
Mom #2 and Mom #3 mentally un-invite Mom #1 from the next play date.
We humans are social animals
As Matthew Lieberman says, we are “wired to connect” (2013). Our nature is to elevate and preserve status we have within the social ‘herd’. To do so, we need to abide by the collective rules of that social network. If necessary, humans will go to great lengths to protect a position. This is reflected in our “conforming” behaviors (see Christakis and Fowler 2009). We pick up on social cues (behaviors) of others to know if and when we have “fallen out of favor” or crossed the boundaries of social norms. When it appears that we have broken away from “what is acceptable”, we risk being penalized by our network. Our social environment has changed a great deal over the years where platforms like Facebook and Twitter have grown into central components of our daily human-to-human interactions:
“…social media increases the ability of aggrieved individuals to rally a large group of people around their cause, or publicly expose and embarrass someone they define as a deviant…A virtual mob can be mobilized overnight to spread the word of someone’s alleged wrongdoing, flood his or her inbox with hate mail, and apply other kinds of pressure.”
– Jason Manning, Assistant Professor, West Virginia University –
Tapping into our base fears
Because we are pack animals, we rely on our personal networks for affirmation and survival. If socially ostracized, our visceral response is that our ‘survival’ is in jeopardy. Advertisers are well-aware of these fears. It is not only companies that employ these kinds of tactics to persuade consumers to buy their products. The ‘social shaming’ strategy is effectively used by different actors in various parts of our social world to influence behavior and public opinion. Via social media, we can easily lob shame-bombs at anyone we disagree with while ducking real accountability for those actions (often shielded behind anonymous profiles).
And sadly, as the above story illustrates, we often use these same shaming tactics on our own friends, family, and community members.
Suggested things to read, see, and listen to:
- Brown, Brene. (2012). “Listening to Shame.” TedTalk.
- Christakis, Nicholas and James H. Fowler (2009). Connected: the surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives. Little, Brown & Company.
- Christakis, Nicholas. (2010). The Hidden Influence of Social Networks. TedTalk.
- O’Reilly, Terry. (2013). “Shame: The Secret Tool of Modern Marketing.” Under the Influence. CBC.
- Popova, Maria. (2013). “The Science of Why our Brains are Wired to Connect.” BrainPickings.
- Rutledge, Pamela. (2015). “Shame on Social Shamers.” Psychology Today.
- West Virginia University – Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. (2015). “Social shaming and the search for validation.” ScienceDaily. 16 April.