The Dangerous Power of Emotional Advertising

It takes less than three seconds to have a gut reaction. According to Dan Hill in Emotionomics: Leveraging Emotions for Business Success, “Emotions process sensory input in only one-fifth the time our conscious, cognitive brain takes to assimilate that same input.” Emotions, rather than cognitive thinking, have a more profound impact on our actions; create lasting, instinctual impressions; and actually predispose us to follow the same course of action in the future.

For brands, this is an incredibly powerful piece of information, and many are capitalizing on it by creating emotional ads designed to go straight for the gut. Emotional advertising isn’t merely images and slogans that try to educate and persuade viewers. They strategically manipulate consumers’ feelings and stimulate the emotional triggers that influence how we make decisions. An emotional ad may be designed to incite anger, sadness, or joy—all targeted toward the brand’s end goal. While this can be a wildly successful strategy, the best emotional ads reach a resolution instead of leaving viewers wallowing.

Take the irresistible “Puppyhood” video from Purina and BuzzFeed, which barely feels like an ad at all. It’s the story of a single man adopting a puppy, but it takes the viewer through a complete narrative as the cute pet and owner get to know each other in the man’s apartment. The tale of companionship has over 29 million YouTube views and segues into Purina’s other content marketing project: a high-level puppy care website that guides consumers through every step of dog ownership.

While “Puppyhood” was a hit, not all emotional ads are winners, and misjudging an audience’s reaction comes with its own set of risks. For brands using emotional storytelling, the wrong tone or context can make advertisements feel more like con artistry.

Feelings are gold

Brands are latching onto emotional ads because when they work, we reach for our tissues and our wallets. Trend Hunter Marketing analyzed 55 emotional marketing campaigns, with categories ranging from “nostalgic storytelling” to “waiting dogs,” and found the average popularity score to be 8.0—higher than flashier categories like “adventurous auto” and “scandalous undies.”

Emotional ads aren’t just likable, they also drive higher conversion rates. A study by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising found that ads with purely emotional content generated twice as much profit as ads based on rational content (31 percent vs. 16 percent). According to Nielson, “Emotions are central to advertising effectiveness,” and ads that generated the best emotional response generated a 23 percent lift in sales volume. Per Psychology Today, fMRI neuro-imagery shows that consumers use emotions rather than information to evaluate a brand.

Since emotional ads create a deeper and more visceral impression on the memory centers of the brain, marketers are now measuring more cerebral responses to content using neurometrics tools like facial coding, implicit response testing, eye tracking, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

BrainJuicer, a behavioral science-based research and strategy company, offers its clients proprietary tools that access what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “system 1,” or the emotive part of the brain that guides the majority of consumer decisions.

Alex Hunt, the president of BrainJuicer’s Americas market, told me that while the traditional marketing research models assume that persuasion produces desired behavior, consumer decisions aren’t guided by linear thinking nearly as much as by feeling.

But not all feelings are created equally. When an emotional ad fails, audience reactions can veer from their intended course. So how do brands get what they want without manipulating the audience? Let’s examine some emotional content—both good and bad—to find out.

Some hard feelings

Novartis, a pharmaceutical company, made some waves recently with a heart disease ad featuring a man sitting in an armchair, blissfully unaware as water slowly floods his room. Even though Novartis never mentions its products, cardiologists, professors, and marketers still slammed the ad, calling it “shameful” and “terrifying.” The tone, they claimed, was a subtle threat that manipulated vulnerable patients—maybe the right angle for selling heart disease drugs, but the wrong tone for winning an audience’s trust.

For Graeme Newell, marketing consultant, speaker, and founder of 602 Communications, successful emotional ads must strike the right tone: “Fear is a viable emotion to use, but it’s got to appeal on an instinctual, subconscious level, which is where more advertising happens.”

Context is essential for emotional ads, a lesson learned from the fallout of Nationwide’s “Make Safe Happen.” The ad, which aired during the 2015 Super Bowl, begins with a sweet touch—a child listing the milestones of boyhood—but then, wait, actually he’s dead, due to a totally preventable car accident. The punchline was more like a sucker punch, delivered during a celebratory occasion and sandwiched between feel-good ads about puppies.

Nationwide misjudged both the tone and context of its ad, eliciting some scathing reviews, an audible “ugh” that echoed around living rooms nationwide, and Twitter backlash:

“One key component to successful emotional advertising is to find and capitalize on the core value of the brand, not just reach blindly for an emotional reaction,” Newell said. Otherwise, companies risk mocking an audience’s emotional intelligence. In this example, Nationwide blindsided audiences with emotion just for effect, which came across as manufactured and heavy-handed.

That’s not to say successful emotional ads have to be saccharine and cheerful. In fact, negative emotions can be a powerful tool to elevate a brand’s message, as long as they’re not delivered too bluntly. Newell cautions brands to strategically resolve negative emotions and leave audiences with a positive takeaway.

For example, Thai Life Insurance’s aptly named “Unsung Hero” tackles the dark subject of poverty but ends the story on the protagonist’s random acts of kindness. The ad, which tucked away the Thai Life Insurance logo on the closing screen, received over 27 million YouTube views and a top rating on BrainJuicer’s FeelMore50 best-of awards.

Ogilvy & Mather Bangkok, the agency that created “Unsung Hero,” was also responsible for an emotional ad in 2012 that, according to Vocativ, industry experts called “the best anti-smoking ad ever.” “Smoking Kid” shows the results of a series of pranks when young kids approach smokers and ask them to light up their cigarettes. The ad went viral in 30 countries and coincided with a 40 percent increase in hotlines that help smokers quit, effectively using a dark truth and the power of “sadvertising” to power the campaign’s call to action.

According to documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, “All storytelling is manipulation,” and in many cases, manipulation is just one of the many tools brands can rely on to stand out. But to create great content—with the added goal of driving ROI—they have to tap into a universal truth. That’s the only way to make sure a gut reaction doesn’t turn into a stomach ache.

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