How many messages do you encounter in a day? Discounting the ones that come from your own head (and lord knows those can be interesting), how many bits of info do you process on a daily, hourly, or even minute-by-minute basis?
Let’s dig a little deeper: how often do you consider the tone of those messages? This is a pretty important question when it comes to evaluating the suitability or reliability of information. In our hyper-marketed world, the emotional tone of professional communication is one of the first – and most effective – tactics in generating an overall message.
It is difficult to divorce emotion from communication; after all, we’re emotional beings and our daily experiences are largely understood through the emotional state in which we perceive them. Heck, the entire pathos branch of rhetoric is based around appeal to emotion. When creating a message, I always consider the sort of emotional effect I’m going for. Appealing to your audiences feelings is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It’s another tool in your toolbox.
I draw the line, however, when emotional appeal becomes overly exploitative. This is very easily seen in advertising directed at a vulnerable audience base. Fear-based selling is common and nearly unavoidable. It sells products, services, and media outlets (think of the use of disaster and fear-based stories on most cable news channels). It is ruthlessly leveraged against audiences whose circumstances involve some form of instability or unpredictability.
As I’m preparing for the birth of my first child, I’ve been rummaging through plenty of pregnancy-related magazines. Expectant mothers and fathers are concerned about the health and future of their child, which makes them ripe for fear based advertising. In one issue of Fit Pregnancy, I counted no less than six advertisements for cord blood banking, three of which occupied entire pages, and one of which was a spectacular two-page spread. All of these ads featured messages such as “secure your family’s future” and warnings about the likelihood that the child will develop a severe or terminal illness. One particularly dreadful ad shows a picture of a baby’s foot, with each toe labelled thus:
- This little piggy has a 1 in 17 chance of getting juvenile diabetes.
- This little piggy has a 1 in 2 chance of getting cancer.
- This little piggy has a 1 in 303 chance of getting cerebral palsy.
- This little piggy has a 1 in 217 chance of needing a stem cell transplant.
- This little piggy has a 1 in 66 chance of getting leukemia.
While it is reasonable for services such as cord blood banking to use illness information to sell their product, the way these ads communicate the risks borders on cruel. I believe that ethical communication involves educating your audience about different sides of an issue, not whipping them up into a panic that leads them to a blind purchase.
In today’s blog post, Seth Godin summed up top level business practices as having focus on “respect and dignity and guts…”. Most fear-based communications is neither respectful, dignified, nor gutsy. Don’t fall into the trap of relying on fear to communicate your message.