Shaming Our Way Into Happiness
Posted: September 25, 2012 | 12:18 ET by Nick Parish

Of all the things you thought you might see develop in the modern, networked world, fully rational ladies and gentlemen shaming themselves into action on behalf of an advertiser has to be low on the list. But, as behavioral psychologists snigger on their couches, it has come to pass, with the opposite side of motivational apps arriving.

We’ve seen a crop of executions focused on avoiding pain as opposed to pursuing pleasure, the pain being shame on your social network for laziness, sloth or other semi-deadly sins. Screw positive nudges: a little fear of social shaming goes a long way toward keeping people stuck on their goals.

At the heart of this are the organizational and connective properties of our smartphones, which control many infrastructural aspects of our lives, like our calendars, our phone books and our alarm clocks. With simple tweaks, brands are able to enter these domains and exert control over our access to them.

Meanwhile, people are getting more used to living their social lives in public, sharing data on runs and posting the latest photos of their new kitchen or homemade tapenade. As much as these postings are to share pride for personal achievements, they're also social status (the 'I ran 20km' update, after all, suggests you're quite the athlete). Brands started out enabling people to post their achievements more easily, but this has now morphed into assisting them in helping themselves in a variety of ways: for example, software that edits bad photos.

But they're also creating services that help late-risers to wake up on time, or for lovesick men to avoid calling their ex-girlfriends. If they fall foul of their promise, there's the threat of brands posting embarrassing comments to your social network. And that’s a powerful motivator.

Reebok / Promise Keeper mobile app

In helping promote its ZigTech shoe, Reebok's 2011 Promise Keeper mobile app let users set themselves exercise goals and dates by which to fulfill them. Users' phones monitor when they run or visit the gym, and automatically trigger updates to friend's walls. However, if they fail to hit their goals, their friends will also be alerted. Reebok also enlisted celebrity athletes including hockey player Alexander Ovechkin, boxer Amir Khan and racer Lewis Hamilton to send personalized tweets to keep people on track.

As running is one of the most-frequently-boasted-about activities, with many utilities like Nike Plus and RunKeeper making it easy to brag, it’s jarring and out of the ordinary to see activity in the social graph about missing runs, which makes it seem like the Promise Keeper tweets will stand out like a tubby gut.

Guarana Antarctica /Ex-Lover Blocker mobile app

The pitiful post-break up call to an ex-girlfriend is a well-documented social truth. Tapping into that, Brazilian agency DM9DDB created a mobile app for soft drink maker Guarana Antarctica that blocks the number of the user's ex, and posts a message to their Facebook page confessing their weakness if they still call them. Lovelorn Guarana drinkers must select loyal friends to help them stay strong. If they attempt a phone call, it is blocked, and friends are alerted, and they have to step in as quickly as possible to help their mate avert disaster.

This is by far the most complicated of these apps, as it specifies a part of the phone’s infrastructure to monitor, then actively sends out distress calls if the forlorn ex-lover attempts to rekindle their flame. The case video is honest about installation: you may have to forcibly put this one on your friend’s phone. Good luck convincing them it’s for their own good.

Okite / Alarm Clock

For those night owls who persistently ignore the alarm clock, Japanese iPhone app Okite provides a smart incentive to get people out of bed: embarrassment. Connected to the user's Twitter account, the app tweets embarrassing comments every time the snooze button is hit. Humiliations include 'Not enough talented people like me in the world' or 'Dressed as a sailor now.' Fortunately, for most of you reading this, your followers will not understand Japanese.

Anton Berg / The Generous Store

Remember those ‘good deed coupons’ you’d give your parents when you were younger, and promise to clean the house for them for Christmas? Premium Danish chocolate brand Anton Berg has replicated this taken this social status idea beyond simple humiliation, soliciting acts of kindness toward friends and loved ones in lieu of money.

Its pop-up earlier this year only accepted promises made on Facebook to people's social group as payment for chocolates. Visitors to The Generous Store pledged to do a number of kind things for a friend or partner, such as make breakfast in bed, or don't comment on your girlfriend's driving for a week, by logging into Facebook and posting their pledge on their page and the other person's for all to see. The brand’s positioning, ‘You can never be too generous’, was boasted about on hundreds of Facebook Walls and Newsfeeds, both as the initial promise was made and secondarily when the friend or relative received the service.


Digital peer pressure is in some respects an extension of the idea of branded utility, but with a bit of a twist. Rather than simply giving people what they want, these services show how people are becoming more dependent on technology, not merely to do what they want, but to help them to do the things they feel they can't do alone. That provides a niche within which brands can create services that help people to become their better selves, threat of embarrassment or promise of betterment.

Underpinning these apps is a simple psychological insight: people are much more likely to fulfill the goals they set themselves when they commit to them publicly. Social media facilitates that process, and widens the circle of commitment. However, brands seeking to tap into this trend need to tread carefully: clearly identifying individual problems in people's lives that pressure and support from their social network can solve, without bullying them into resenting the brand for that interference. Clear opt outs will help with that, as well as caution with how far they go in pushing people.

Nick Parish is Contagious’ North American Editor, based in New York. He tweets @paryshnikov and @contagiousmag. Sign up for Contagious’ free weekly newsletter at
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