Does your company use marketing to guilt consumers into ethically-sourced purchases? Research shows you may be driving them to your competitors.

People are twice as likely to buy an ethical product when the marketing makes them feel good about the purchase, than when the marketing makes them feel guilty about the unethical alternative.

Good > Guilt

Though consumers are generally willing to pay a premium for ethical products so long as function and quality remain the same, new research shows that guilt plays an important role in the buying decision. NBS topic editor John Peloza and colleagues demonstrated that consumers were more than twice as likely to purchase products marketed for their ethical attributes when consumer’s accountability to their own ethical standards is behind the decision. Conversely consumers were less likely to purchase a product or service if the marketing used explicit, guilt-inducing ethical appeals about competing products.

Consider a consumer in the coffee aisle. According to the authors, a person buying coffee would be more likely to select a product that promises smooth, deliciously flavoured beans, with packaging that reads, “Our Fair Trade coffee contributes to equitable conditions for workers.” Having found a product that suits her needs, the consumer may feel additional satisfaction in making an ethical choice, leading to a heightened sense of doing the right thing. Though she may be partial to other brands, feelings of anticipated guilt from buying less ethical coffee would dissuade her from buying them.

However, when faced with advertisements that bash drinkers of non-sustainable coffee and pose questions like, “How can you enjoy a cup of coffee knowing that the people who produce it are not being treated fairly?”, a consumer is more likely to feel an immediate sense of guilt and negativity, and is considerably less likely to purchase the ethical brand.

Guilt Works When People Feel Watched

Worth noting are the authors’ findings that consumer behaviour changed in the presence of others. In public areas such as retail locations, products with deliberate ethical appeals are more likely to be purchased. The authors find that the presence of others both activates the motivation to appear moral in front of others and the accountability to one’s standards of right and wrong. In the absence of observers, though, consumers are more likely to buy products with subtler ethical cues.

So avoid touting your company’s principled commitments by plastering your products with climate change statistics and harrowing pictures of stranded polar bear cubs. Your consumers shouldn’t feel morally obligated to save the world one hormone-free hamburger at a time. Rather, encourage consumers to buy your product by making them feel a little better about their purchase, and themselves. In the end, it’s simply the ethical choice.


Peloza J, White K, & Shang J. 2013. Good and Guilt-Free: The Role of Self-Accountability in Influencing Preferences for Products with Ethical Attributes. Journal of Marketing. 77: 104-119.