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Disempowerment: Why good intentions often backfire

By: Alison Earl

Alison Earl is the Director of Strategy for Burns Group and the founder of BG Hatch, a think tank dedicated to solving the most complex challenges in behavior change.

Alison Earl is the Director of Strategy for Burns Group and the founder of BG Hatch, a think tank dedicated to solving the most complex challenges in behavior change.

It’s a marketer’s dream to discover a big juicy problem with a suffering consumer. After all, the bigger the problem and the more desperate the consumer, the more they need us. Right? Wrong. After a decade of working with health and wellness brands I’m convinced that problem-solution approaches inadvertently take the consumer’s power away and, over time, lead to dysfunctional relationships fueled by resentment, reluctance and hopelessness.

Whenever there is drama, there is a drama triangle.

Let me introduce you to Karpman’s Dreaded Drama Triangle. The Drama Triangle suggests anytime there is drama three roles exist, including:

(1) Persecutor: this player acts as an attacker, an aggressor, innovator, initiator or anyone who disturbs the equilibrium.

(2) Victim: this player is subjected to the attack, could be undergoing change or has their equilibrium disturbed.

(3) Rescuer: this player serves as the servant-knight who tries to solve the issue, but for ego-based reasons.

We can see this dynamic play out in our relationships every day. Have you ever felt stressed out by a deadline that feels impossible or a demanding boss that is keeping you up at night? Maybe you vented about it to a colleague or partner in your frustration and desperation. Now think how annoyed you were when they just tried to fix it for you. Who are they to fix it? They clearly don’t understand what you are up against! Sound familiar?

It’s not hard to spot the persecutor, victim and rescuer in this situation. You may have seen yourself in one of the other roles in this scenario, not as the victim. In fact, you may even see yourself showing up consistently in one of these roles in many aspects of life. No matter what role you find yourself playing in the Drama Triangle, it’s clear none of them is a good place to be.

The Drama Triangle as a Communication Framework

The Drama Triangle is a useful framework for understanding roles in advertising and communications. In the problem-solution approach often used by advertisers, typically the persecutor is the problem, the victim is the poor suffering consumer, and the rescuer is the brand.

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This may seem like a beautiful thing but it implies that the consumer is unable to control their mind from racing. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to feel dependent on ZzzQuil or anything else for something as natural as sleep. Yes, he needed relief and he needed it now, but this approach doesn’t offer an opportunity for consumers to feel good about themselves in the equation. Instead they are the victims of bad food choices.

The end.

While these examples are extremely literal, if you look closely, you will see this dynamic subtly played out nearly everywhere you look. We embrace drama as a path to make our brands seem more relevant but there is a flaw, in this simplistic approach, especially when it comes to things that truly impact the consumer’s life, every day.

The greatest marketing fallacy is that people need their problems solved for them.

This may seem like a win:win. The consumer (or victim) feels a strong need to be rescued in their moments of weakness (“please help me”) and the brand (or rescuer) has a relevant and useful role. However, the psychology suggests it is a trap and ultimately leads to a lose:lose. Why? The very act of being rescued reinforces the consumer’s position of hopelessness and the inability to fix the problem themselves.

In the end, the victim always turns on the rescuer.

The Drama Triangle produces unhealthy and disempowering relationships. While the victim may feel dependent on the rescuer in the short term, the Drama Triangle suggests that, over time, the victim begins to resent the rescuer and, in some cases, this can even lead to reluctance to use the product or solution that’s been helping them.

Over many years of market research on pain sufferers, a sentiment I’ve heard many times is “every time I take the pill, I’m reminded how I couldn’t cope with the pain myself.” Over time, the brand that was once a “hero rescuer” has become a symbol of weakness, personal failure and resentment.

Likewise, many people who have tried to quit smoking and failed can become more mentally determined to quit cold turkey. Many quitters say, “I got myself into this mess, I want to get myself out of it.” The quitter is taking their power back by breaking free from their victim status. Their determination and internal willpower is growing, which is great, but not so good for smoking cessation brands. The act of using a product or solution is like “cheating.” They want the recognition and full glory of making the change themselves.

The brands that truly empower will win.

Typical problem-solution advertising is unimaginative. We need to go beyond this to forge powerful, long-term relationships with the consumer. One where the brand’s role is valued as part of the solution, not resented for being the solution. Yes, this is harder to pull off. It requires a much deeper understanding of what really drives the consumer, insights that go beyond surface thought and creativity that inspires hope-fueled action.

True empowerment means brands can no longer be the knight in shining armor. We need to give the power back to consumers and create a new dynamic of mutual respect, where consumers are capable creators and brands provide support as empowering coaches. This is essential for brand commitment.

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