Marketing and Emotional Manipulation

John Stavropoulos is one of the sharpest people I know, and a man I’m proud to call a friend. Some weeks ago, he wrote a fascinating post about marketing on a Story-Games thread:

People buy on emotion and justify with logic.

For context, I need to talk a little brain theory. Please note, I’m not a psychologist or a neuroscientist. I just have friends who are and love to read books they recommend me. And although the theories below are used by many psychiatrists, they are not accepted by all researchers in comparative, evolutionary neuroanatomy.

The triune brain theory says there are three distinct layers in the brain. Each layer dominates different brain functions.

The R-complex (reptilian brain) is responsible for physical survival and maintenance. It takes over in fight-or-flight situations and is responsible for establishing reproduction and social dominance. It’s obsessive, compulsive, rigid, and automatic. It’s not capable of change and will repeat behaviors over ad over, never learning from its mistakes.

The Limbic system is responsible for emotion, attention, and emotionally charged memories. It’s critical for creating links between emotions and events, and plays a dominant role in storing and recalling memories. It drives our value judgments, deciding if we like something, and dominates behaviors that involve avoidance of pain, compulsive seeking pleasure repeatedly, and determines the amount of attention we give something.

The Neocortex is responsible for voluntary movement, processing sensory info, logical thinking, and abstract thought.

The take away point here is that although the Limbic system can override the R-complex’s habitual and unchanging responses… the Neocortex is often reduced to simply rationalizing the Limbic system’s value judgments. Hence people buy on emotion and justify with logic. So marketing often focuses on our emotions, our avoidance of pain, our desire for pleasure, and our emotionally charged memories (which is why nostalgia is so potent)… all controlled by the Limbic system.

Not all marketing is bad or evil. As I mentioned in a previous post, a lot of effective marketing is very useful to customers and doesn’t lie. But there are issues above that if not handled carefully, make me uncomfortable.

Sadly, it was on a S-G thread so the message was lost by half the crowd. But, hey, that’s an internet forum for you. In any case, I wanted to archive it somewhere, so with John’s permission I’m reposting it here. And now for the color commentary:

I see everything involving interpersonal reaction like this. We buy novels in order to feel something from the story; we want the author to play with our heartstrings. We play games with each other in order to feel something and to produce feelings in others, whether it be joy from victory or from accomplishment of telling a great story, whathaveyou. We’re all about manipulating each other — usually positively — and it’s all a part of the social contract that is living in civilization.

So when I use my pitch for Mythender, Do you want to stab Thor in the face?, yeah, I’m totally emotionally manipulating you. Technically. But I’m not trying to coerce you. If you don’t feel anything when I pitch that to you, awesome, cool, I wish you a good day. But if you do feel something, if your eyes widen and you say “Yes!”, well, then that’s under the social contract of positive emotional manipulation.

I’m intentionally using loaded language of “emotional manipulation” here. I could easily avoid that and say “I’m passionate about my game, and if my pitch conveys that passion to you, awesome!” But then it would deflate my point: positive emotional manipulation exists and is a part of our greater social contract, and we do it all the time (both consciously and sub-). If you disagree, stop reading or watching media, stop communication with other human beings. John’s talking about marketing in specific above, but I see it as a general thing.

I find it sad that explicit knowledge of human interactions and psychology makes folks like John & I look like bad guys. Pro tip: if we were, we wouldn’t fucking tell you. Why would we out ourselves and share such a “weapon”?

– Ryan


8 Responses to Marketing and Emotional Manipulation

  1. jessecoombs says:

    Who says you’re bad guys?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      When people talk about this sort of stuff, invariably someone (often someone in the artiste crowd) gets all indignant about the topic. And I tire of that, because these same people expect other folks to sell their games.

      – Ryan

  2. ayvalentine says:

    I’m not totally sure what my ramblings will add to the conversation, but here’s my perspective on the issue. :)

    I teach rhetoric and composition to college freshmen. We talk about logos (logic and hard evidence), pathos (emotions and values), and ethos (presentation of self). It seems like this is another approach for talking about the same thing.

    My premise in the class is that all communication is persuasion on some level, even if it’s as simple as “please acknowledge my existence.” Logos without pathos lacks persuasive power – you need the emotional manipulation to drive your point home and to make your audience care (most 18 year olds have been taught that this is cheating and have to take some effort to overcome that).

    It’s in ethos where you become the good guy or the bad guy, though. Who are you? What are your motives? Are you trustworthy? Are you being honest? All too often, ethos is hidden in our communications, especially in marketing. (A definitional argument: I would include most political speech as marketing – the selling of a viewpoint. Too much of our public discourse probably fits this definition, as well.) This is where the transparency thing fits in – “You’re selling what to whom? Oh, yes, I fit that audience and would like to be a part of this!” As long as we know what we’re signing on for, pathos is a very important part of our communications – if you want your message to reach me through the din of life, make it appeal to my emotions and values. Just make sure the ethos is there to back it up once you’re reeled me in.

    • Mikael Andersson says:

      That is a mindbogglingly eye-opening way to present it. Can you suggest any literature (textbooks, whatever) that digs into this logos, pathos, ethos model a bit deeper? It’d be much appreciated!

    • Fred Hicks says:

      I think you’re on to something, Amanda. I’d probably phrase it as “transparency is a way to open a window through the layers of logos and pathos to allow the public to see the ethos behind it all”. And more importantly for me — when I phrase it that way, it clicks together with a lot of the style & manner of transparency I’ve been pursuing in a from-the-gut way with Evil Hat.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      This is me nodding in agreement and pointing to that saying “what she said.”

      – Ryan

  3. Kind of reminds of this line from the second season of Mad Men.

    Don Draper, the lead creative at the advertising agency is lecturing about writing effective advertising.

    His quote was: “You are the product. You feeling something. That’s what sells.”

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      And that, I think, has never been more true than today, with how thanks to social networking technology the barriers between creator and customer have been lifted.

      – Ryan