How can our emotions be exploited?

How can our emotions be exploited?

Is it possible to cut emotion completely out of our decision making? It’s hard to think of many examples of where we are able to say we have not been influenced by our emotions. The example of the car, for example: you may still ‘feel’ something for one car above another, even if it is hard to find any differences in terms of what you get for your money. It is this ‘feeling’ that the advertising industry seeks to exploit in order to brand their products with a quality that we subconsciously pick up on. Their methods for doing so have become increasingly sophisticated through time, and no longer involve telling us in a straightforward way that the product they are selling will bring us benefits. Instead, modern advertising is all about trying to persuade us without us realizingthey are trying to persuade us that we need their product.
We may, then, get into a luxury German car and not only like the features offered by that particular model, but also feel that we need them in order to prove and promote ourselves as successful human beings. One brand may do this more effectively than another, based on the emotions that have been aroused in us during a particular advertising campaign. Techniques that we generally respond to positively include the use of trusted celebrities, attractive models, amusing messages, artistic images, and clever methods of reaching us. Other strategies that we may not even be aware of include product placement in movies and sporting events, subliminal messages, and the targeting of more vulnerable audiences, such as children.

Advertisers and manufacturers are also very good not just at appealing to our emotions, but at assisting our emotions

Advertisers and manufacturers are also very good not just at appealing to our emotions, but at assisting our emotions. If, for example, we see a pair of jeans that we particularly like, we obviously want them to be affordable, in order to justify to ourselves (or others) that we should buy them. Almost certainly, they will be priced at $9.99 rather than $10.00. Our reason should inform us that this means they are, for all intents and purposes, $80.00 – for the difference of a single cent means very little. But if we are so emotionally attached to them, we will willingly allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking that they ‘cost less than $80’.
Another way in which manufacturers and advertisers understand that emotion is a more potent than reason when it comes to buying products is how they still promote those products despite the presence of warning messages or disclaimers. A good example is found in the beauty industry, and how they sell mascara. It is common on TV to see models promoting mascara to make eyelashes longer and thicker by wearing fake eyelashes. In other words, the fact that their eyelashes are long and thick is because their eyelashes are not their eyelashes; it has nothing to do with whether or not they are wearing that particular make of mascara. During commercials for such products, a disclaimer will appear at the bottom of the screen (though not for long) saying something along the lines of, ‘model wearing artificial extensions’.
Our reason should then determine that, 1) not only is there no evidence that this product will do anything for our eyelashes, but also, 2) this is a company that resorts to underhanded methods in order to sell its products, so perhaps is one that should not be trusted. However, the fact that the company has chosen to sell its products in this way suggests that the adverts are still effective in promoting the product. This is probably because our emotional response to the advert, instinctively linking the product to beauty – ‘if I wear this mascara, I could be as pretty as her’ – overrides our ability to reason that that is probably not the case.
Should advertising agencies be allowed unlimited access to us and our children? Some would argue that the controls that are already in place should be tightened up. Others say that in terms of both freedom of speech, and our own ability to control our rational and emotional responses to advertising, there should be less control over what reaches us in this respect. This argument is discussed in more detail in Ethics.

Research task: Find examples of advertising that appeals to our emotions


  1. What techniques to they use to do this?
  2. What other ways of knowing/areas of knowledge do they touch on (eg do they also appeal to our reason? Do they draw on statistics – ie human sciences/maths – to state their case? Do they use scientific evidence to support their claims?)
  3. Which way of knowing/area of knowledge do you think advertisers particularly focus on, and why?


Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. How can our emotions be exploited? (10th May 2013). Last accessed: 19th March 2018


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