Laura Toth MSc Entrepreneurship and Innovation
This paper is investigating the role of emotions in advertising. Due to various CSR scandals, corporate miscommunication, and the emotional gravity of environmental content such as global warming, the consumer’s emotional responses towards green ads are inherently negative. This qualitative study is based on grounded theory and adopts a semi-structured, in-depth, expert interview approach to identify the two main pillars of negative emotional responses in consumers: 1) mistrust and scepticism, and 2) guilt, shame, and sadness.

Emotions are what make us human. It is when we get emotional, we are drawn to act. In fact, it is established that our rationality makes up for only 5% when making purchasing decisions. The other 95% are allocated to the subconscious – our emotional state is in charge of our purchasing behaviour.[1] In the US, the top three emotions triggering shopping are happiness, excitement, and loneliness.[2] So it is of no surprise, that marketers have long sought to elicit emotional responses from consumers in persuasion efforts.[3]

While the effectiveness of emotions in advertising is established[4], a specific consumer interest has emerged over the past decades to have gained momentum as one of the most substantial international trends of the 21st century: sustainability.[5] Consumers show an appetite for saving the planet through their own and corporate sustainable behaviour. The corporate world acknowledged the societal shift by integrating sustainability approaches into their business and communication strategies.[6] Consecutively, researchers increased the focus on the field of green marketing within the past decade.[7] For the purpose of clarification, this paper provides a definition of sustainability applied in this conducted research: sustainability means “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”[8]. Sustainability – or green campaigns are thus dealing with communicating corporate approaches on how and what they do good for the planet.

Given the contemporaneousness and relevance of the sustainably trend as well as the crucial role of emotions in marketing, it is logical to research the role of emotions in sustainability advertising. There is already a growing research body in this specific research field, with the common sense of agreement that consumer’s emotional responses towards sustainability ads are inherently negative.[9] As positive emotions are more likely to lead to brand success[10], there is a specific need to investigate how to reduce these negative emotions. This paper aims to add to the existing literature the analysis of negative emotional responses towards sustainability ads and ways to overcome and manage these responses effectively. More specifically, it will attempt to answer the following research question:

How can advertisers reduce or prevent consumers' negative emotional responses associated with sustainability advertising?

The conductor of this empirical study chose a qualitative research approach, based on grounded theory, to capture every aspect of a complex phenomenon justly.[11] Semi-structured, in-depth, expert interviews are employed to research strategies of reducing negative emotional response from participants who have experienced and managed the issue. Negative consumer emotions are identified in the context of sustainability campaigns and holistic strategies are introduced to counteract these emotions most effectively. The reader will first be led through a critical literature review, analysing the three established literature streams on consumer emotions in sustainable advertising: consumer behaviour, ad design, and company performance. The methodology will be introduced before research results are presented. Implications for theory and practice are discussed.


Through the application of a qualitative research approach using semi-structured, expert interviews triangulated with secondary data, this paper was able to provide an answer. In conclusion, two pillars of consumer’s negative emotional responses were identified:

  1. Mistrust and scepticism
  2. Guilt, shame, and sadness

Strategies to manage these responses ideally in the advertising context are provided in the chapters above, and an especial focus is put on the creator strategy, as it has the power to contest both pillars of negative consumer emotions and is relevant due to its contemporality. Overall, consumer trust, company strategy, sustainable audience, and the reframing strategy were found to be appropriate to manage negative emotional responses towards sustainability advertising.

While this empirical study did answer the research question successfully, a few limitations to have to be taken under consideration. First, given the academic student environment this study was conducted in, the experts are all in geographical alignment with the university, either based in Edinburgh or across the UK, with some experts showing experience across EMEA. It would be ill-advised to blindly blueprint these findings to other geographical areas with different consumers, cultures, and behaviors. As such, it is difficult to assess the applicability of findings with certainty beyond the UK and Europe. To increase the external validity, experts from a broader international background need to be included in the research.

The second limitation to be mentioned is the construct validity. Although this paper provides sufficient construct validity by specifying a detailed chain of evidence and carrying out vigorous data triangulation, it could have been largely strengthened through the integration of multiple researchers.[12] In addition, the cross-sectional approach undertaken for this paper is deemed suitable due to the irrelevance of time in the investigation of emotions in sustainability advertising. Hence, the necessity of a longitudinal research approach is invalidated.[13] Notwithstanding, there are circumstantial factors that must be considered as they may have caused participant’s bias: interviews were conducted between July 18–August 7, 2022, which means interviewees may have experienced disruption from summer vacation period, ongoing heatwaves in the UK, or mental distractions due to the Ukrainian war, a faltering British government, or the economic living crisis, which was all occurring at a similar time as interviews. A longitudinal study or follow-up interviews over the course of a few months could have circumvented this likely participant’s bias.

Lastly, this empirical study opens new pathways for future research. Findings on how to combat negative emotional responses towards sustainability advertising have provided valuable insights into proactive strategies on the matter. This study found that negative consumer emotions can and should be reframed to positive feelings such as optimism, as long as these positive emotions are classified as activating. Research into reframing deactivating emotions into activating ones seems decidedly worthwhile. Furthermore, I present strategic findings on the industry-specific factors of sustainability advertising: environmentally questionable industries are found to elicit even higher levels of consumer mistrust, which needs to be addressed accordingly. Case study research in these specific industries might be add insights and data on the applicably of these findings. And finally, this study identified the marketing strategy of sustainable creator advertising has major influence on the negative emotional responses in social media spaces. Given that only one of the interviewed experts specialised in creator advertising, though sufficiently triangulated with secondary data, this paper highly recommends the exploration of emotions towards sustainability ads in the social media space.


[1] Zaltman, G. (2003). How customers think: essential insights into the mind of the market. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press.

[2] Tighe, D. (2021). Emotions motivating shopping trips, US 2018 (Statista).

[3] Huang, M. (2001). The theory of emotions in marketing, Journal of Business and Psychology, 16(2), pp.239–247.

[4] Gaur, S.S., Herjanto, H. and Makkar, M. (2014). Review of emotions research in marketing, 2002–2013. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 21(6), pp.917–923. Huang (2001).

[5] Polonsky, M.J. (2011). Transformative green marketing: Impediments and opportunities. Journal of Business Research, 64(12), pp.1311–1319.

[6] Christensen, L.J., Peirce, E., Hartman, L.P., Hoffman, W.M. and Carrier, J. (2007). Ethics, CSR, and sustainability education in the Financial Times Top 50 Global Business Schools: Baseline data and future research directions. Journal of Business Ethics, 73(4), pp.347–368.

[7] Chamorro, A., Rubio, S. and Miranda, F.J. (2009). Characteristics of research on green marketing. Business Strategy and the Environment, 18(4), pp.223–239.
Dangelico, R.M. and Vocalelli, D. (2017). ‘Green Marketing’: an analysis of definitions, strategy steps, and tools through a systematic review of the literature, Journal of Cleaner Production, 165(2017), pp.1263–1279.
Kumar, P. and Polonsky, M.J. (2017). An analysis of the green consumer domain within sustainability research: 1975 to 2014. Australasian Marketing Journal, 25(2), pp.85–96.

[8] United Nations Brundtland Commission (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future Towards Sustainable Development 2. Part II. Common Challenges Population and Human Resources 4. pp.1–300.

[9] Baek, T.H. and Yoon, S. (2012). Guilt and shame: Environmental message framing effects. Journal of Advertising, 46(3), pp.440–453.
Cox, M.J. (2008). Sustainable Communication: A Study of Green Advertising and Audience Reception within the growing arena of Corporate Social Responsibility. Case Study: British Petroleum. Earth & Environment, 3(2008), pp.32–51.
Kadirov, D. and Varey, R.J. (2013). Neo-structuralist analysis of green-marketing discourse: interpreting hybrid car manufacturers and consumers. Consumption Markets & Culture, 16(3), pp.266–289.
Khandelwal, U. and Bajpai, N. (2011). A Study on Green Advertisement and its Impact on Consumer Purchase Intention. Journal of Creative Communications, 6(3), pp.259–276.

[10] Schneider, C.R., Zaval, L. and Markowitz, E.M. (2021). Positive emotions and climate change. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 42(2021), pp.114–120.

[11] Creswell, J.W. (2014). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. 4th ed. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc.

[12] Creswell (2014).

[13] Saunders, M., Lewis, P. and Thornhill, A. (2009). Research Methods for Business Students. 5th ed. Harlow, England: Pearson.

08 November 2022