At the beginning of March 2020 I joined a video call with Mrs. Mila for the first time. Although I had met Mila in person a few times in the boardroom, this time she behaved differently. Mrs. Mila put more emphasis on her facial grimaces and generally seemed affected. It was like watching the overexposed face of an adolescent youtuber. She laughed louder, thought harder, occasionally rolled her eyes. She wasn’t looking at the charts I sent her. She had a strangely fascinated expression. She was looking at herself.
We’ve gotten used to it now, but if you Skyped before 2020, you were probably surprised at how static and emotionless our faces looked. Our grimaces don’t match our feelings at all. How can it be that when I’m surprised, I don’t roll my eyes with my mouth open like Joey from the Friends? How come my mouth isn’t open from ear to ear when I’m feeling amused? Why do I look like a complete jerk just when I’m concentrating? And so the video call participant is staring into the camera, trying on expressions and ignoring you.
According to Malcolm Gladwell, the belief that we can read a person’s emotions from their body language is one of the misunderstandings of our time that has cost us many lives. Body language cannot be reduced to universal schemas. Our inability to guess someone’s emotions is in contrast to our self-confidence that we know how someone is feeling by their body language and expression. Something like universal body language is simply nonsense. We’re just too different as people. We can interpret something that is simply stage fright as a lie. We can mistake paralysis for disinterest. And humble modesty can be played by a calculative psychopath in front of a jury. People don’t appear like characters on a TV show. Except those who are currently playing the show in their heads and have included you in the plot without your consent.
Moreover, the emotion itself is culturally and historically conditioned. It’s not some kind of biological constant. While marketing research tries to reduce the number of emotions to twelve or even six, the brain has hundreds of different emotion cocktails on its menu. What we in marketing research call basic universal emotions are really just reactions to danger. For example, laughter is a biological response to the fact that a suddenly identified insecurity is not actually dangerous. That’s why a repeated joke is always awkward.
Most emotions we can’t even name, and therefore we can’t even become aware of them. It is only the very naming of an emotion itself that leads us to become aware of it at all. And that includes love. For example, Goethe described unrequited bittersweet love in the sadness of young Werther. His bestseller has caused the contemporary generation of adolescents to discover bittersweet love. A wave of youthful suicides followed. Quite contrary to our view of emotions, throughout history emotions come and go. The perception of emotion changes. In the 16th century, for example, sadness was considered a desirable emotion and the key to an active lifestyle.
Emotions have become a fetish for market research, much like Jung’s archetypes. It may be true that emotions are behind everything human, but this is a similarly useless claim as saying that everything is based on a rational desire to satisfy one’s needs. It is the useless truth of the economist, who has been taught to look for a universal principle behind everything, and so only substitutes homo economicus for homo emocionalis.
Marketers in good faith exploit emotions. And big plans need big feelings. All the marketing budget is spent on building a barrier between the customer and the benefit. Overplayed joy, enthusiasm, pride and other emotional cocktails serve as material. Not feeling enough enthusiasm and joy? Then maybe you’re not good enough for our brand. Yet what gives most brands their raison d’être is emotion, which researchers don’t know they actually measure. So-called spontaneous brand awareness measures the degree to which people feel fear. Specifically, fear of the unknown and fear of being different. It’s human laziness and, above all, good old xenophobia that protects all those leaders in the spontaneous awareness race from the newcomers to the market.