Emotional Advertising: How Brands Use Feelings to Get People to Buy

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



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Ads that make people share and buy can usually be summed up in one word: emotional.

That should be no surprise. Studies show that people rely on emotions, rather than information, to make brand decisions -- and that emotional responses to ads are more influential on a person’s intent to buy than the content of an ad.

As Douglas Van Praet, author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing, wrote in Fast Company, “The most startling truth is we don’t even think our way to logical solutions. We feel our way to reason. Emotions are the substrate, the base layer of neural circuitry underpinning even rational deliberation. Emotions don’t hinder decisions. They constitute the foundation on which they’re made!”

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Unruly, which ranks the most viral ads each year, found that the most-shared ads of 2015 relied heavily on emotional content, specifically friendship, inspiration, warmth, and happiness. Examples include Android’s Friends Furever and Kleenex’s Unlikely Best Friends.

This emotional awareness from brands hasn't always been the case, though. In the 1990s and early 2000s, advertisers were more concerned with humor and sarcasm. 

Pereira & O’Dell's chief creative officer PJ Pereira said: "I think what’s happened is that the ad industry has spent the last decade celebrating bitterness and cynicism and being mean to people. For a while it was great because it was different from everyone else, and then it became a trend and people got sick of it. It wasn’t funny or interesting anymore. So when things started to pop with a totally opposite voice, the customers totally reacted."

How Emotion Is Used in Advertising

Historically, people have recognized six core emotions: happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry, and sad.

However, in 2014, the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology published research stating that the distinction between four of these emotions were based on social interactions and constructs. Instead, human emotion is based on four basic emotions: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted.

Based on these four categories, let’s look at how brands are using emotions to drive connection and awareness:

1) Happy

Brands want to be associated with smiling, laughing, happy customers, and positivity has been shown to increase sharing and engagement. A study in 2010 of the most-emailed New York Times articles found that emotional articles were shared more often, and positive posts were shared more than negative ones. 

The most-shared ad of last year -- and of all time -- was Android’s Friends Furever, showing clips of unlikely and undeniably cute animal friends.

When Coca-Cola recently changed its tagline from “Open Happiness” to “Taste the Feeling,” it maintained its focus on happy images of people connecting and engaging one another, such as the below ad showing the bond between siblings.

2) Sad

I watch a lot of ads. (Hey, it’s a requirement for the job.) I've noticed that, increasingly, those ads have turn me into a blubbering, emotional wreck. There’s nothing like a good cry at work on a regular basis to make your desk neighbors question your stability.

In the past few years, as brands have recognized the popularity of emotional content, more and more companies have focused on creating inspirational and moving ads.

MetLife Hong Kong produced this heartbreaking ad featuring a daughter who describes all the things she loves about her dad, yet the story breaks down when she also describes all the ways he lies to her.

For the Sochi Olympic Games in 2014, P&G continued its theme of recognizing mothers and their unwavering support.

3) Afraid/Surprised

Fear is a natural instinct -- one that helps us to react appropriately to threats to increase our chance of survival.

Fear creates urgency and prompts us to take action; to change or more importantly for this story, buy something that will prevent terrible things from happening. As Don Draper said in a Mad Men episode, “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.”

A lot of scare-vertising tactics can be seen in commercials to prevent drunk driving and cigarette smoking. The World Wildlife Fund is one brand known for its controversial and fear-inducing imagery.

wwf climate change.

Image Credit: Trend Hunter Eco

However, this approach is risky. In 2015, Nationwide released an ad during the Super Bowl to promote conversations about child safety and preventable injuries in the home. The ad was disturbing to many viewers. The video features a young boy who talks about all the things he’ll never do, and ends with the line "I couldn't grow up because I died from an accident." While attention-grabbing, the ad was called depressing and insensitive by viewers and the CMO of Nationwide resigned from his position just a few months later.

Surprise can also take a positive form as can be seen in one of the best ads of 2015.

4) Angry/Disgusted

Most people think that it is best to avoid anger -- it’s a negative emotion that will cause negative associations. But in some cases, anger can wake people up and spur action. We become angry when we see another person hurt or an injustice. Disgust and frustration can cause us to reconsider our perspective and ask important questions.

A study of the most popular images on imgur.com found that while negative emotions were less common in viral content than in positive, viral success happened when the negative images had an element of anticipation and surprise.

Always’ Like a Girl campaign, which won an Emmy, a Cannes Grand Prix award, and the Grand Clio award, uses a famous insult to grab your attention. 

Save the Children’s ad reminding people of the effect of the Syrian crisis on children provokes both sadness and anger.

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