Psychological Repor&, 1991, 69, 375-385.

O Psychological Reports 1991

GUILT APPEALS IN ADVERTISING: AN EXPLORATORY STUDY1 MARY BETH PINTO AND SUSAN PRIEST College of Business Administration Universiiy of Maine Summary.-A two-stage exploratory study was conducted to assess the effect of guilt as an advertising appeal. A sample of 46 working mothers were asked to respond to three advertisements for a microwavable dinner product in which the message intent was to create g d t (i.e., low, medium, and hgh). The advertisements were constructed following a content analysis of several popular women's magazines. A set of 18 adjectives covering both guilt- and nonguilt-related items was provided for each advertisement. The adjective sets had a five-point response range, with endpoints labeled "Not at All" to "Very." A varimax factor analysis yielded a three-factor solution, including factors of guilt, anger, and happiness. An analysis of variance identified significant changes in subjects' perceived guilt, anger, and happiness across the three advertisements. Further, medium guilt appeals were more effective in inducing guilt in respondents than those either low or high in guilt. Finally, as the level of guilt represented in an advertisement increased, the subjects' anger also increased.

Marketing and advertising practitioners are continually looking for more effective ways to persuade consumers to buy their products and services. Interest in the persuasive effects of various advertising appeals (e.g., fear and humor) rests on the belief that attitude affects intention which in turn influences behavior (Howard & Sheth, 1969; Fishbein, 1967; Ajzen & Fishbein, 1969, 1970, 1972, 1973). Much marketing research has examined the persuasive effects of fear (Sternthal & Craig, 1974) and humor (Stewart & Furse, 1984); use of other persuasive appeals such as guilt have been almost neglected (Ghingold, 1980). Recent social trends and demographic shifts such as an increase in the number of working mothers have added to the power of guilt as an advertising technique for inducing purchases of a variety of products and services (cf. Edmondson, 1986). As the number of women in the work force has risen, so too have pressures on both parents to maintain a core family unit to provide for the needs of their children. Further, weight loss and exercise centers, as well as a number of food-product categories (e.g., prunes, crackers, and ice cream) regularly use guilt appeals to induce purchase. Even a cursory examination of advertisements in various media reinforces the frequent use of guilt in approaches to consumers. The purpose of this paper is to report results of a study of the effect of guilt appeals in marketing communications. Specifically, this research was

'Address correspondence to M. B. Pinto, Ph.D., College of Business Administration, Stevens Hall South, University of Maine, Orono, M E 04469-0158.





done to measure guilt feelings of working mothers and to assess whether guilt, which has been examined primarily in the marketing literature within the context of volunteerism and charitable contributions, is efficacious for inducing purchase of consumer items. Finally, our study examined changes in response to guilt-inducing advertisements. We sought to answer the question, "How do consumers react to advertisements depicting low, medium, and high guilt?"

Theoretical Background While little is known about guilt within the marketing context, the concept has been explored in a number of other fields, including philosophy (Johnson & Johnson, 1977), theology (Izard, 1977), and psychology (Dougherty, 1986; Yinon, Bizman, Cohen, & Segev, 1976). Gaylin (1979) suggests that guilt "signals us when we have transgressed from codes of behavior which we personally want to sustain . . . feeling guilty informs us that we have failed our own ideals" (p. 52). Wolman (1973) describes guilt as "the realization that one has transgressed a moral, social or ethical principle" (p. 165). Further, Ghingold (1980) contends that guilt is "an a posteriori emotional response which follows a particular thought or action" (p. 443). Guilt is associated with the perception that one has done some injustice and prompts behavior that will "make up" for the offense (Izard, 1977; Freedman, Carlsmith, & Sears, 1970). Guilt was originally assumed to be simply a form of fear appeal as both guilt and fear motivate individuals to alleviate unpleasant emotional states (Janis, Mall, Kagan, & Holt, 1969). There are, however, substantial differences between the two constructs (Gaylin, 1979). Whde guilt is defined as an a posteriori emotional reaction, fear represents an a priori response (Ghingold, 1980), that is, fear is anticipatory and associated with perceived danger, leading to avoidance or prevention of a dangerous outcome. It motivates escape and subsides at a safe distance from the source of harm (Izard, 1977). Recent research by Ghingold (1980) has empirically validated the conceptual distinction between the constructs of guilt and fear. The effects of guilt upon an individual can be a powerful behavioral motivator. Research indicates that experiencing guilt can impel individuals to act in one of two ways, (1) to avoid confrontation with the source of guilt or (2) to "make up" for a wrongdoing by doing something considered good (Freedman, et al., 1970). The latter behavior suggests a guilt-compliance effect, thac is, an individual is more likely to comply with a requested behavior after guilt has been induced. Guilt compliance has been examined through a number of empirical studies (McMillen, 1971; Carlsmith & Gross, 1969; Konoske, Staple, & Graf, 1979). For example, following experimentally induced guilt, subjects complied more frequently with requested behaviors, e.g., donating money to aid in a research study (Regan, 1971).


Use of Guilt in Marketing Guilt compliance is of prime interest to marketing practitioners. According to Edmondson (1986), "Parental g d t and anxiety have been used to sell products since the 1920s but the maturing of the baby boom generation makes this pitch especially inviting todayH (p. 56). I n approximately 50% of American f a d e s both parents are employed full time (Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1990). These two-income families with children are especially vulnerable to "guilt spending" (Quint, 1990). Opportunities exist for advertisers to suggest that working parents' guilt can be alleviated by purchasing products. For example, Deveny (1990) reported that, "A flock of marketers are betting that . . . yuppie guilt will encourage parents to buy a host of fancy new shampoos, body lotions and even deodorants designed to pamper children" (p. B I.). As with fear appeals, marketing practitioners must be cognizant of the need to manage carefully the intensity of guilt-arousing communication. Research has indicated an inverted-U (or c u r d n e a r ) relationship between the intensity of guilt and the amount of change in attitude or behavior. To illustrate, Yinon, et al. (1976) reported that moderately guilt-arousing appeals were more effective than either high or low guilt-arousing appeals in motivating students to volunteer to the civil guard.

Guilt and Gender While overlooked in previous research, guilt advertising also appears to be highly gender-specific. A principal target for many advertisers are worlung women. The United States Bureau of the Census indicates that between 1970 and 1988, the percentage of women in the work force has risen steadily (Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1990). Further, according to a recent issue of Marketing News (April, 1991), 75% of mothers in the United States work, at least part-time. Considerable research suggests that to fulfill the myriad demands placed on them by these external pressures, these women report experiencing a variety of guilt-induced forms of stress (Marshall, Barnett, Baruch, & Pleck, 1990). Those who care for and have responsibility for the well-being of others (e.g., children) are primary targets for guilt-advertising appeals (Edmondson, 1986). Even with the changing views of women's roles, mothers still hold the traditional role of primary caregiver for their children regardless of their work or social status (Johnson & Johnson, 1980). To increase a mother's responsibility further, when problems occur with a child, blame is often placed with the mother, an occurrence likely to stimulate guilt (Johnson &Johnson, 1977). Working mothers are often "guilt-motivated" and may try to make up (or overcompensate) for the time they spend away from their homes with special purchases or activities (Hoffman, 1963). Consequently, an increasing



number of advertisements, for a variety of diverse products, appear to use guilt-focused inducements as their principal persuasive technique.

Guild and Product Category In addition to not examining the effect of gender-based responses to guilt appeals, research on guilt in advertising has focused on a narrow set of product categories. Typically, such guilt research has concentrated on services such as (1) volunteering for the civil guard (Yinon, et al., 1976), ( 2 ) telephoning for public service campaigns (McMillen, 1971), or (3) helping with community projects such as "meals on wheels" (Dougherty, 1986). Other studies have investigated the effect of guilt arousal on obtaining donations to aid a research study (Regan, 1971), or to overseas charitable organizations (Bozinoff & Ghingold, 1983). To date, however, no attempt has been made to assess whether the previous research on guilt appeals can be generalized to frequently purchased products. Subjects A convenience sample of 46 worlung mothers from a northeastern metropolitan area participated in this study. Subjects were identified through the authors' personal contacts at a variety of organizations including a university, a hospital, an oil company, a real estate agency, and a bank. Participation was voluntary and no compensation was offered. The average age of the subjects was 35.5 yr. (SD = 5.6), with a range from 24 to 48 years. For household income, subjects were asked to indicate a range rather than to give a specific figure. As a result, median household income was between $20,000 and $34,999. All subjects were high school graduates, and 67% had completed some college or vocational training. Eighty-eight percent of the subjects were employed full time, and 70% of the subjects were married. Procedure This exploratory study was conducted in two phases. In Phase One, a microwavable frozen dinner was chosen as the subject of the advertisements and five advertisements were developed. This product was selected because targeting is aimed at working mothers who may not have the time to prepare home-cooked meals. An additional justification for the use of a microwavable frozen dinner product stems from the frequent purchase of convenience products by most mothers regardless of their employment status (Edmondson, 1986). Five advertisements were developed to encourage the purchase of a microwavable frozen dinner. Four of the advertisements were designed to include a guilt appeal. The fifth advertisement had no guilt message and was intended to act as the control. The four advertisements were designed to



evoke varying Components of each of the advertisements were . - levels of guilt. taken from advertisements that appeared in popular magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and Parents Magazine during the period from 1988 to 1990. Relying on techniques discussed by Carney (1972), a content analysis of all advertisements appearing in these magazines during that period was conducted by a research assistant to identify guilt arousing-persuasive communications. The content analysis uncovered a variety of information including product category, copy/slogan utilized, models present, color, design, and size of advertisement. Drawing from this information, five advertisements were pieced together, employing text and images intended to evoke varying levels of guilt feelings. For example, the high guilt advertisement pictured a young child slumped over his school desk with a caption that read, "Mothers who don't teach their kids to eat good meals have luds who don't always learn." The text then introduced a nutritionally balanced, quick and easy microwavable meal for children. Likewise, the control advertisement was designed to contain little or no potentially guilt-inducing stimuli, either in its text or images. Specifically, it consisted of a srmling mother surrounded by laughing children with the caption, "Whoever said luds will eat anything had to be joking." The text then presented the same information regarding the microwavable meal for children. In a similar manner, the total set of five advertisements was constructed. The advertisements were assessed by a panel of 10 independent judges (all of whom were working mothers). The judges were used to evaluate independently the intent of each of the five advertisements' message. They were asked the question, "In your opinion, how was the advertisement attempting to make the reader feel?" A set of 18 adjectives covering a wide range of responses was provided for each of the advertisements. The adjective list contained both guilt- (e.g., ashamed, regretful, guilty) and nonguilt-related items (e.g., angry, annoyed, pleased, good) to test for convergent and discriminant validity and followed a procedure used by Edell and Burke (1987) and Bozinoff and Ghingold (1983). The adjective sets had a five-point response range, with endpoints labeled "Not at All" to "Very." O n the basis of their responses, three advertisements were identified as evoking different levels of guilt. The control advertisement had a low rating (M = 1.7, SD = .8) on induction of guilt feelings. The other two advertisements were judged to contain medium (M = 2.8, SD = 1.0) and high (M = 3.9, SD = .8) guilt. In Phase Two, personal interviews were conducted with each of the 46 subjects. The purpose of the interviews was (1) to explore the presence or absence of guilt in working mothers and (2) to uncover whether purchases are made to alleviate the guilt and anxiety. Subjects were told that the study dealt with the purchasing patterns of working mothers. Because the research



topic had potential for making individuals uncomfortable, the researchers attempted to explore subjects' guilt feelings without explicitly mentioning the emotion. For example, the following questions were posed during the interviews, "As a working mother, do you ever feel that you are missing out on anythng? If so, what? How does that make you feel?" With the permission of each subject, the interviews were taped to minimize note-taking and to allow for easier analysis. Following the interview, booklets which contained the set of printed advertisements were distributed to each subject. The procedure for data collection was based on a modification of the approach employed by Bozinoff and Ghingold (1983). The respondents were instructed to read each advertisement in the booklets and then to answer two requests. The first asked for the subjects' message-evoked thoughts, "Please write down any thoughts, ideas, reactions you had while reading the advertisement." Message-evoked thoughts were obtained because most theories of persuasion contain message mediators which act between the transmitted message and any resulting change of attitude or behavior (Wright, 1980). The second question asked respondents, "Please indicate how well each word below describes how you felt while reading the advertisement." The same 18-item adjective list that was utilized by the independent judges was provided to the respondents. Each advertisement in the booklets was followed by both questions. The final page of the booklet contained a series of questions pertaining to demographic issues. An orthogonally rotated, varimax factor analysis was conducted, using the factor analysis procedure of the SPSS commercial package. The results of the factor analysis on the set of 18 adjectives are given in Table 1. The analTABLE 1 FACTORANALYSIS: ROTATEDLOADINGS FORADJECTIVE SET Adjective

Anger Factor 1

Guilt Factor 2

Happiness Factor 3

Tense Distressed Angry Uneasy Annoyed Ashamed Guilty (continued on next page) Note.-Adjectives Bored, Accountable, Blameful, and Amused had insignificant loadings (less than .40) and/or insignificant cross-loadings across more than one factor and so were eliminated. Cross-loadings for adjectives Distressed and Happy were significant ( p < .05) and are included in the factor table.


Anger Factor 1

Guilt Factor 2

Happiness Factor 3

.71 .77

Regretful Bad Happy Pleased Good Responsible Elated


.66 .89 .86 .58 .66

Eigenvalue 6.88 38.3 Variance Accounted For, % 65.9 Total Variance Accounted For, % Kaiser-Meyet-Olkin* Statistic .75 *Test of Sampling Adequacy. Note.-Adjectives Bored, Accountable, Blameful, and Amused cross-loadings across more than than .40) and/or ~ns~gnificant nated. Cross-loadlngs for adjectives Distressed and Happy were cluded in the factor inhle.

3.56 19.8

1.41 7.8

had insignificant loadings (less one factor and so were elimisignificant ( p < .05) and are in-

ysis resulted in a three-factor solution-anger, guilt, and happiness. These factors together accounted for 65.9% of the total variance. As tests of Sampling adequacy, both Bartlett's test of Sphericity (B = 161.3, p < .001) and the Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin (KMO) statistic (.75) suggested the sample size was adequate for factor stability (Hair, Anderson, & Tatham, 1987). Table 2 gives the means and standard deviations for the three attitude factors of guilt, anger, and happiness across the three levels of guilt advertising. These scores correspond with the results illustrated in Fig. 1. TABLE 2 MEANS,STANDARD DEVIATIONS, A N D SCHEFF~ PAIRWISECOMPARISONS FORTHE THREEEMOTIONFACTORS (N= 46) Guilt Levels

Factors Anger

Guilt M


Low Guilt .95 1.60 Mehum Guilt 2.98 1 16 High Guilt 2.22 1 28 Groups not significantly different ( p < .05).


1.67" 2.23" 3.31


Haooiness M SD L.

SD .90 1.13 1.19

2 91 2 ljb 1 80'

1.00 .87 .86

As a further test of the changes in levels of guilt, anger, and happiness across the three advertisements, one-way analysis of variance tests were conducted. The F tests for the three attitude factors indicated significant changes across the three levels of guilt advertising. Guilt (F,,,,, = 9.82), anger (F,,,,, = 15.42), and happiness (F,,,,, = 13.05) showed statistically significant






Guilt Level of Advertisement FIG. 1. Responses of guilt (N = 46)

(O), anger ( o ) , and happiness ( V ) across advertisements


level of guilt

( p < .01) changes across the advertisements. Scheffe tests of painvise comparisons were also generally indicative of significant changes in mean response scores across low, medium, and high guilt advertisements. Table 2 also shows the results for pairwise comparisons. D~scussro~ Several interesting findings emerged from this study. First, the results reinforce the importance of managing the guilt arousal in advertising appeals. As found by Bozinoff and Ghingold (1983), our research reconfirmed the belief that guilt can be aroused to varying extents by different advertisements. Consistent with much of the research on fear appeals (Sternthal & Craig, 1974), the findings suggest a curvilinear relationship between the intensity of the guilt appeal and the actual amount of guilt aroused. Specifically, the moderate guilt advertisement prompted greater perceived guilt than the low or high guilt advertisements. When subjects saw the high guilt advertisement, they reported feeling less guilty than when exposed to the medium guilt advertisement. As suggested by Yinon, et al. (1776), "an immediate im-



plication of this finding- is that, in order to achieve maximal effectiveness, a guilt-arousing message should not be too extreme . . . or too mild" (p. 494). A second, and perhaps more important finding stems from the emergence of another response made by consumers (i.e., anger) to advertisements showing high guilt. While subjects reported less guilt when confronted with the high guilt advertisement as compared to the medium guilt advertisement, they expressed greater feelings of anger. As one subject responded in the message-evoked thought section, "Working moms feel enough guilt. Companies don't have to lay any more on them!" This finding reinforces the notion that marketing communications can arouse guilt independently of other emotions, and further, that higher guilt presentations may actually have a "boomerang effect" through creating negative emotions such as anger. This study also is an initial investigation into the use of guilt appeals for frequently purchased consumer products. I n their research on the use of guilt appeals to induce charitable contributions, Bozinoff and Ghingold (1983) suggested that researchers needed to examine the extent to which the effectiveness of guilt appeals can be generabed to a broader set of products and services. I n addition, other researchers (Ruth & Faber, 1988; Edmondson, 1986) have pointed to the possibilities that guilt offers as an inducement to consumers' purchases.

Limitations and Further Research While this study permits some important applications for marketing researchers and practitioners, there are some potential limitations. First, it is possible that some bias may have existed in the responses due to the varying page lengths of the advertisements used as guilt treatments. The subjects responded to a one-page advertisement, a two-page one, and a three-page one. Their attitude toward the advertisements could unintentionally have been influenced by the varying size of the three advertisements. Although other physical characteristics of the advertisements were similar (e.g., color, layout, amount of text), researchers should modify these manipulations to ensure consistency in size and complexity among the advertisements. Second, in this study, no pretest measures were included to assess the subjects' attitudes toward the product prior to its use in the study. There is potential response bias associated with subjects' attitudes regarding the product; this may render the manipulation of guilt ineffectual. The subjects' message-evoked thoughts indicated that many of the women had negative feelings about microwavable food products. Some of their comments included: "too expensive," "small portions," "not family style," and "not nutritious." I t would be helpful to ensure that the subjects had similar or neutral attitudes toward the product prior to exposure to the advertisements. A somewhat lengthier, yet more controlled procedure to anticipate this limitation would have been to employ advertisements whose products were bal-



anced for purchasing desirability prior to the experiment. See Ruth, Mosatche, and Kramer (1989) for an example of this approach. Another potential limitation stems from the fact that individual difference variables were not included in this exploratory study. According to Ruth and Faber (1988), "Personality . . . plays a key role in determining one's susceptibhty to guilt, the anxiety aroused by guilt, and the likelihood that one would follow the recommendations of the guilt inducer" (p. 11). Research should consider individual difference variables such as self-esteem (Konoske, et al., 1979; McMdlen, 1971) and locus of control (Brownell, 1982; Rotter, 1975) as potential covariates in helping to explain the guilt-compliance phenomenon. This study offers some insights into the effect that moderate levels of guilt can have on consumers' attitudes. Equally intriguing was the finding that strong guilt approaches can actually backfire, evoking anger and negative emotions toward the product rather than the intended feelings of guilt. Researchers must explore the effect of guilt-evoking messages on consumers' behavior. It appears that many advertisers take for granted that guilt has an important effect on attitudes and purchase decisions. This research represents a first step toward developing a better understanding of the relationship between the use of guilt-advertising and consumers' decisions. REFERENCES AJZEN,I., & FISHBEIN,M. (1969) The prediction of behavioral intentions in a choice situation. Journal ofExperimenta1 Social Psychology, 5, 400-416. AJZEN,I., & FISHBEIN,M. (1970) The prediction of behavior from attitudinal and normative variables. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 6, 466-487. AJZEN,I., & FISHBEIN,M. (1972) Att~tudesand normative beliefs as factors influencing behavioral intentions. Journal of Personalrty ond Social Psychology, 21, 1-9. AJZEN,I., & FISHBEIN,M. (1973) A t t ~ t u d n dand normative variables as predictors of specific behaviors. Journal of Personali~and Social Psychology, 27, 4 1-57. BOZINOFF,L., & GHINGOLD, M. (1983) Evaluating guilt arousing marketing communications. Journal of Business Research, 11, 243-255. BROWNELL, P. (1982) A field study examination of budgetary participation and locus of control. The Accounting Review, 4 , 766-777. CARLSMITH, M. J., & GROSS,A. E . (1969) Some effects of gullt on compliance. Journal of Personaliiy and Social Psychology, 11, 232-239. CARNEY, T. F. (1972) Content analysis: a technique for systematic inference from communications. Winnipeg, Canada: Univer. of Manitoba Press. DEVENY,K. (1990) Toiletries for kids wash away parental guilt. Wall Street Journal, CCXVI (September 20), 57, B1. DOUGHERTY, l? H. (1986) New spot for meals program. New York Times, CXXXVI (December 17). 46991. D21. EDELL,J. A,, & B&, M. C. (1987) The power of feelings in understanding advertizing effects. Journal of Consumer Research, 14, 421-433. EDMONDSON, B. (1986) The demographics of guilt. American Demographics, 3, 33-56. FISHBEIN,M. (1967) Attitude theory and measurement. New York: Wiley. FREEDMAN, L., CARLSMITH, J. M., & SEARS,D. 0 . (1970) Social psychology. Englewood ClifL,. NJ: - Prentice-Hd. GAYLM,W. (1979) Feelings: our vital signs. New York: Harper & Row



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Accepted August 20, 1991.

Guilt appeals in advertising: an exploratory study.

Psychological Repor&, 1991, 69, 375-385. O Psychological Reports 1991 GUILT APPEALS IN ADVERTISING: AN EXPLORATORY STUDY1 MARY BETH PINTO AND SUSAN...
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