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Guilt in Advertising

Sex. Truth. Smoke and Mirrors. Entertainment. Celebrities. Cats. But does overt guilt work in advertising? Especially to moms, the queens of guilt inducing?

I ask this question after my most recent trip to the grocery store. That’s where I was stopped in my tracks – enough to take a photo of this display.

This "If You Care" display throws down the moral gauntlet to grocery shoppers.
This “If You Care” display throws down the moral gauntlet to grocery shoppers.

Let’s start with the brand name. “IF YOU CARE.” In all shouty caps. You can see the guilt-inducing messaging from an aisle away, and if you disregard it you apparently don’t care. That’s one way of weeding out potential customers, especially moms – you know, the people who make zillions of sandwiches a day and shove them in bags that go in lunch boxes. Moms are also the people who invented guilt, so will this work on us?

For those who get sucked in to this bold messaging because we do care, we discover that this is a display for certified compostable snack and sandwich bags. The recycled-looking cardboard display adorned with a hand-drawn tree and tagline “Earth Friendly Products” offers up a feel-super-good-about-yourself alternative to the Ziploc plastic bags that lurk in the kitchens of many who do, actually, care. Why is that, I asked myself? Attention captured, I read on.

The “IF YOU CARE” bags are unbleached, totally chlorine free and made from 100% recycled materials. Vegetable-based inks are used for printing. They’re made from renewable and/or recyclable resources, with packaging crafted from recycled paper. And, of course, they are biodegradable and recyclable. These are all things that make my inner mom scream, “Yes yes yes!” They’re also a lot more expensive than Ziploc bags that keep smooshed strawberries from oozing all over my child’s lunchbox. But that’s no deal breaker – wet and leaky things can go in reusable plastic containers, and I’m willing to cough up extra green for things that are extra green.


So what is it that turns me off here? Normally I’m quite the fan of branding that is bold and beautiful. But I find the implied guilt trip and “judgy” nature of this branding a bit of a turn off. Here I am trying to teach my son that we don’t judge others, then we turn the corner and encounter a sandwich bag that is throwing down the moral gauntlet in aisle six.

The fact is I do care. I care about a lot of things, including trying to be a good earth dweller who leaves the planet in decent condition for future generations. I also care about shaping the next generation of my family to have an attitude of acceptance. And I care enough to say this publicly so that the brand can hear it and reconsider their guilt-inducing branding one that makes us feel good about our purchase instead of bad about others.


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