Trigger Happy: The Positive Side of This Powerful Word

The first time I noticed a “trigger warning” it was about a year ago, at the top of a blog post containing a first-person account of the author’s rape. These days, these warnings are ubiquitous on stories about everything from eating disorders to abused animals. Some colleges are even considering putting “trigger warnings” on books and classes containing potentially traumatic content.

But are all triggers, by definition, necessarily bad? After all, a trigger is just an image, sound, word, or reminder that brings us back to something in our history. The scent of suntan lotion will never not remind me of Wildwood, NJ. The opening chords of “Clampdown” bring me back to an age when music had the power to make my heart surge (in a good way). Triggers happen before we can think —they skip our brain and go directly to our emotional center.

And that response is just as likely to be happy as it is sad or traumatic.

I first started thinking about triggers when I began taking the occasional copywriting gig with Leslie Zane, founder of The Center for Emotional Marketing. Zane has been using triggers to help corporations brand, rebrand and market new products since the early ‘90s. She even owns the trademark on the term.

“I noticed that in consumer research sessions, consumers’ eyes lit up when they heard and saw certain things that they connected with,” she says. “A snow-capped mountain, a Midwestern farm, the sun coming up over the horizon — these are universally shared images, phrases, sounds, smells, that consumers connect with positively.”

So Zane encourages her clients to accentuate the brand’s existing positive associations, while getting rid of any negatives. “I discovered that clients were often inadvertently communicating negative triggers without realizing it,” she says.

Because these triggers occur on a gut level, there’s very little thought involved. Which is why the smell of freshly cut grass still makes me smile, regardless of whatever else might be going on, while the opening notes of Boston’s “More than a Feeling” gives me a full-body cringe.

I mean, think about which scents are most appealing to men. In a scientific test, men were more likely to get erections when they smelled pumpkin pie, doughnuts, lavender, or cinnamon buns, rather than some designer cologne. Besides the wildcard of lavender, all of those smells were reminiscent of home cooking. These are triggers that spur positive emotional responses via the man’s nose. Of course I’ve known men who could get a boner standing next to an overflowing litterbox, so maybe that’s not the best example. But the power of scent is why some real estate agents will bake before showing a home. Even the most dilapidated teardown smells like home with an apple pie in the oven.

Sight can provide other powerful triggers. Just think about how many times you’ll be going about your day, virtuously sipping on lemon water, only to go completely off the rails at the sight of a delicious chocolate cake in the break room. Five minutes ago, that tuna salad from lunch had been enough to get you through until dinner, but now, suddenly, you’re ravenous for a bite (or ten) of that moist, decadent treat.

So you see, not all triggers have to involve something heartbreakingly awful. Sometimes triggers can bring out the best in a person. Or sometimes they can just release your inner glutton. Pardon me now — I need to go find some chocolate cake.

(Photo: Olga Danylenko/ Shutterstock)

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  1. Editor’s Note: Trigger Words | Tue Night

    […] Judy McGuire explores how positive triggers can prompt instant ahh’s. […]


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