Connecting with the Disconnected

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By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist

Have you ever been ignored in a collective game of catch, or were purposely excluded from a social group at school or in the workplace? If so, you have first-hand experience with what psychologists refer to as ostracism. Being ignored or excluded by others tends to be a very negative experience. It can leave people feeling isolated and alone, as well as diminish their sense of purpose and meaning in living. Consumers who are lonely or who have been isolated view the world differently, and studies show that certain types of brands and messages are far more comforting and appealing to the ostracized brain.

Neuroimaging studies indicate that the social pain produced during moments of loneliness and isolation is processed with the same neural pathways and regions as physical pain and trauma (e.g., broken bones or lacerations). However, unlike the sensation of pain that accompanies physical trauma (which fades over time), the full intensity of ostracism’s pain can persist for months and even years after the event, long after any comparable physical wounds would have healed.

Next to hunger, thirst, and physical danger, the fear and reality of being excluded from the people around us is truly one of the most powerful drivers of human behavior. The desire to be accepted and belong to a group is rooted deep in our evolutionary history where being excluded from the group meant almost certain death for our ancestors. While modern life is less physically dangerous for loners separated from the herd, those same primal neural circuits are still with us, warning us of the inherent danger that might befall those who fail to create and maintain those all-important social bonds.

Studies show that feeling ostracized and being isolated from others reduces our self-esteem and self-acceptance, creates higher rates of depression, and contributes to an overall decrease in mental health and well-being. Additionally, research suggests that losing or failing to create those social bonds can significantly damage our long-term health and lifespan as well. In fact, as far as one’s overall health and longevity are concerned, the absence of social connections is roughly the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Which yes, is just as dramatic as it sounds.

These feelings of ostracism and exclusion not only have an impact on our physical and mental health but also play a large role in what kind of advertising we find to be most appealing. Recent research from the Journal of Psychology & Marketing finds that people who are lacking those important social connections respond much differently to stimuli in advertising.

In this research, the experimenters examined the behavior of two groups of participants following their participation in a ball-toss video game known as Cyberball. Participants in the “involved” condition were regularly included in the online game of catch, but participants assigned to the “ignored” condition were never passed the ball by their online teammates (unbeknownst to all of the participants, they were not playing with actual people but rather computer-controlled players who had been pre-programmed by the experimenters).

Following their experience playing Cyberball, the participants were offered a choice between two different gift bags as a token of the experimenters’ appreciation. One of the gift bags was emblazoned with the Tide laundry detergent logo, while the second had the cuddly bear logo associated with Snuggle’s laundry detergent.

This is where things got interesting. Participants who had been ignored during the game of online catch were significantly more likely to choose the gift bag with the Snuggle detergent logo, while those who had been included in the game tended to choose the gift bag with the Tide logo.

Across four additional studies, this same pattern was found to repeat itself. Participants who were lonely, excluded, socially isolated, and/or ostracized, significantly preferred brands that included a higher degree of “warmth” in their messaging and in their appearance. Even when told that the cuddly brands may not be as effective as the other options, the socially excluded consumers still preferred them, gravitating towards the softness and acceptance provided by the comforting messaging and images.

Today, while down from a historic peak in 2020, loneliness and social isolation in the general population is still alarmingly high. Marketers need to keep this in mind when developing their messaging for today’s general audience, and this is especially true when developing targeted campaigns. Understanding your target demographic’s mental state and whether they are currently feeling ostracized or excluded can make a big difference in successfully shaping your messages to come across in a reaffirming, comforting, and appealing way.

Happy Marketing!

-Dr. James