Emotion — Advertising’s most mis-understood ingredient

15 min read
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Human beings.

Motivated by rational strategies to get ahead in life.

Rational beings.

Setting our financial goals and sticking to them.

Thoughtful and sensible.

Guided by principles, ethical or otherwise.

Fully in control. 

Society would have us believe we’re these highly evolved, rational people who aren’t influenced by advertising unless we think the offer is a good one. 

The data says otherwise. 

At our core we’re distinctly emotional creatures. When it comes to advertising and branding at least. We looked at the numbers and did some investigating. The science is clear: Your editorial advertising strategy needs to focus on the emotional story you are telling over the rational information you’re trying to convey. It’s less of an information problem and more one of communicating emotion. Storytelling has never been so important.

Why emotion, why now?

Desire, love, contempt. Fear, jealousy, shock, satisfaction. Whether we like it or not we are driven by our emotions and we post-rationalise when it comes to advertising. But when we think of storytelling – and in particular great advertising – it’s easy to get “clever” really quickly. What we like to think of as brilliant advertising often falls flat in the real world. 

What does work however is appealing to the heart. It might sound like a subjective strategy, but that’s the point. As humans, we want first, and rationalise second. 

How many times have you whispered to yourself (at the end of the month say, when you get paid) that you deserve that new pair of trainers, well cut jacket, shirt, pair of jeans, ring, necklace, iphone. Maybe because from a young age we’re taught to justify our spending, we think selling works the same way. It doesn’t. Because buying is so emotional, it’s always being questioned by our rational side. We need to get out of this confused trap and understand what’s really happening with humans in advertising, storytelling and ultimately purchasing.

Knowing how powerful this technique is, we might even shy away from emotion, arguing that it’s too persuasive. Too powerful a weapon. Outright manipulation. Pushing people into buying things they can’t afford and don’t need. When brands use “aspiration” to elevate their product and create associations that don’t exist as a tangible benefit. Trends or fashion fit into this. I’d tend to agree. A nicer way of thinking about it is that if used carefully, we can pair brands with people who want their product or service, to make a happy buying “match”. ith emotion at the core of any storytelling idea, we hold a powerful tool in this matchmaking process. It’s up to us whether we abuse it or not. 

The obvious emotions come to mind, like happiness or sadness, but it can be much more interesting than that. Emotion is a rich playground for creativity. It opens up a whole world of possibility and gives way to lots of different angles for a particular subject:

Credit: Pari Dukovic / Harpers Bazaar
“Winnie Harlow—the 23-year-old Canadian model of Jamaican descent who has helped demystify the skin pigmentation condition vitiligo—to reexamine Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece with a critical eye.” [1] – Harpers Bazaar

The reason the image on the right works is that it says something that demands a reaction. There’s a direct route in that bypasses the rational – That’s not how the Mona Lisa looks - there’s no time to think. It might evoke feelings of anger that its creator messes with something so well known, or maybe intrigue at our understanding of different skin tones, race and it’s presence in fine art tradition. Either way there’s an emotional reaction of some kind, that leads us to try and rationalise after the act.

We’ll dig into why it works and how you can use it mindfully in your editorial or advertising strategy. Taking learnings from advertising and applying them to social editorial strategies is one way to get your content noticed above all the noise.

Storytelling that uses emotion wins over rational arguments

We wanted to look at emotion in advertising and storytelling. Here at Untitled we often look at the psychographics of a brand’s ideal customer, digging into their personality traits and what makes them tick. It’s only natural to then formulate a creative response to this information that uses corresponding emotional messages at it’s heart. However we’ve never really researched the “why” behind this approach. It just felt right. 

When you start to look at emotion in storytelling the research is pretty conclusive. Simply put, research supports the success of emotional advertising. 

According to a study conducted by the University of Southern California, 31% of ads with an emotional pull were successful, compared to the 16% success rate of ads that focused on rational content [2]. It’s twice as effective. Just let that sink in.

“Emotional response to an ad has a far greater influence on a consumer’s intent to buy a product than the ad’s content” [2]

If you’re sitting there carefully crafting a logical message stop right now. Read on. Kantar's research goes further. 

They found that ads which evoke strong emotions have four times the impact and are more likely to drive brand equity and go viral [3]. The IPA holds the same view:

“The ability of emotionally-oriented advertising to help brands connect with audiences and achieve business goals such as increased profit, has been consistently shown in IPA research.” [4]
Credit: IPA

So Why don’t more brands tap into this? Is it that we don’t believe that it works? Is it that we think it only applies to certain brands? Whether it’s for our own brand or for our client’s brand we have a duty to use the best techniques available.

One view is that people don’t think it’s right for their brand:

“Although brands may be liked or trusted, most fail to align themselves with the emotions that drive their customers’ most profitable behaviors. Some brands by nature have an easier time making such connections, but a company doesn’t have to be born with the emotional DNA of Disney or Apple to succeed. Even a cleaning product or a canned food can forge powerful connections.” [5]

If we know this, we need to change the way we do creative, or how we begin a storytelling project. Every brief I’ve ever come across starts with logic. The data says that’s wrong.

This feels big. 

If I think back to just about any project I’ve ever worked on, the strategy department will argue a position from a place of logic, afraid that the client might get subjective. 

The creative department is always worried that the client might not “like” the creative and employs a variety of tactics to avoid this scenario at all costs. 

If emotion is our key ingredient, then why don’t we lead with it more. It might be that we need to understand how it works first, and what the options are, before we can dive in and fully commit. That’s what we’ll explore next.

Emotion is a rich playground

In our research, both traditional creatives and performance driven digital marketers agree that emotion works. 

It is the sole purpose of advertising. It’s at the very heart of what we are trying to do. 

Humans are less than rationale when it comes to advertising and consuming content. We act with our heart before we think with our head. Our job as storytellers is to make the whole thing interesting, to appeal to that desire.

John Hegarty in “Hegarty on Advertising: Turning Intelligence into Magic” puts it like this:

“The trick is to make the information interesting and relevant – in the world of marketing communication understanding those two words, interesting and relevant, has filled a library. But it shouldn’t have. Ultimately, it’s just common sense and a desire to excite people. Always remember that all information goes in through the heart.” [6] — John Hegarty

Storytelling that taps into emotions can engage audiences and make brands more memorable. This leads to enhanced brand recall, thereby fuelling brand loyalty. When a customer is emotionally invested, they are more inclined to exhibit loyalty and repeat business. 

It also doesn’t have to be over-simplified to just happy emotions. We’re more complex than that and able to carry our attention span across a narrative. Furthermore, when executed skillfully, emotional advertising can amplify sharing, especially on social media platforms. This extends the reach of the ad far beyond the initial target audience. This ripple effect is largely driven by the emotions stirred by the ads, often leading to wider brand exposure and, consequently, increased brand value. 

Credit: Maëva Berthelot / Christopher Stead / huck magazine

Emotions are powerful. They make or break elections. Start or end wars. Create movements in culture. When we think of editorial strategies we aren’t usually thinking about the potency of the emotion. We should. Christopher Stead created Pigeon Park, an immersive, collaborative, large-scale art project in a huge disused building in Elephant & Castle as a reaction to what was happening in culture. Quite a strong one at that.

“Trapped at home on benefits, locked out of our studios, jobs and universities, while the Tories held their own school disco and the art world’s response was to create online viewing rooms, aka ‘the internet’. Bored of red lights and restrictions, we created our own IRL platform with our own rules.” [7]

Already there’s a story. A reason for being. A reaction to culture and in turn, the story creates it’s own culture that doesn’t follow obvious trends:

“TikTok dances were incessantly fired in our faces, yet dancers couldn’t go to the studio or club. After a heady stint attending raves from our sofas, online art shows, or shelling out whatever pounds we had between us to save beloved grassroots venues and keep fellow creatives alive, it’s no surprise a palpable impatience was bubbling to a boiling point. Pigeon Park offered up an antidote to the new now with their immersive, collaborative exhibition.” [8]

Derived from the French word émouvoir, which means "to stir up" emotions have the ability to incite action. That’s why creatives should spend more time really getting to grips with this as we can influence behaviour and encourage people to spend more time with brands if we get this right. I really like the notion of “stirring up”. It feels more real than any advertising case study about Coca Cola Happiness or Persil’s Dirt is good.

When you start to think about creating a reaction in someone, and all the tools at your disposal including the way we think things should be, and how you can turn things on their head it gets really interesting. Bring senses into the mix, and the goal of making someone feel something, the way you think of a communications problem changes from traditional, “broadcasty” messaging into something much more like an art installation.

“In A Cold Hole (2018), artist Taryn Simon creates what at first seems like a private experience at its most elemental. Participants enter a bright white, ice-covered room, alone. Their purpose there is singular: to drop into a five-by-five-foot void filled with frigid water carved out of the gallery floor. In the piece’s accompanying text, Simon writes that cold plunges like this, considered healing and restorative across cultures, have been practiced for centuries, from Shinto and Eastern Orthodox purification rituals to Geronimo’s training of Apache boys. ‘The body is thrust into an extreme state,’ she says. ‘The shock overrides the body’s automatic response. The initial gasp of submersion reflects the sharply drawn breath experienced during sudden death, sleep arrhythmia, and birth. The physical stress disrupts and alters thought processes, inducing a flight response that individuals must meet with vigorous determination in order to endure.’” [9]
Credit: Taryn Simon

Our attitude towards endurance and taking ourselves out of our comfort zone is really interesting. So is the whole spectacle of it:

“The plungers are not the work’s sole participants, though, and arguably are not even the performers. In an adjacent room, onlookers gather. When large in number, they press close together as they move toward the space’s only light source: a window, intentionally designed to appear like a camera’s aperture, which looks into the starkly lit chamber where each diver disappears into the hole. When asked about this group, Simon repeats one adjective: ‘rabid’. ‘The idea of consumption becomes such a large part of the piece.’” [10]

Artists have been making us feel things since time began. We go out of our way on a weekday evening or the weekend to experience these things. Even walking through a busy city square and watching street performers act out their rehearsed skits moves us somehow. 

Isn’t this unfair manipulation?

“Our industry is in the persuasion business – the business of reaching out to as many people as possible and getting them to consider our client’s products as opposed to those of our competitors.” [11]

If we have all this power, should we be using it to influence people? Anyone with half a brain (and a functioning heart) starts to feel a bit funny about messing with people’s emotions. The “ick” if you will. Afterall we hate advertising (or at least we hate advertising that sucks). 

We might even shy away from emotion entirely, arguing that it’s too persuasive. Too powerful a weapon. Manipulation. Pushing people into buying things they can’t afford and don’t need. The old “aspiration” dream forced down our throats by massive brands. Trend chasing. The pressure of having the latest iPhone model or Nike trainers.

I tend to agree. The kind of advertising that pushes, that cajoles, really doesn’t need to be made. Ideally I see it a bit like this: If we can pair brands with people who want their product or service, then isn’t that a bit more like matchmaking? Both parties are getting what they want. Ultimately, we hold a powerful tool in this matchmaking process. But it’s up to us to use it properly.

How can we use emotion?

If we know that emotion plays such an important role, then we should start there. Kantar studied many digital ads to find that any kind of emotion is better than none:

“Top-performing digital ads are more likely to generate any emotional response” [12];

and that the emotion can swing back and forth or build to a resolution:

“We saw that top-performing digital ads are more likely to generate any emotional response, as shown by overall expressiveness. But specifically, they are more likely to generate brow furrows and expressions of surprise. This might seem counterintuitive, but when we think about the importance of building intrigue early in digital ads and the number of successful digital ads that have twists and turns, it’s not such a surprise.” [13]

Typically, in a creative agency you often come across the “Think-Feel-Do” construct. We ask ourselves, what do we want people to think, what do we want them to feel, and what do we want them to do. If we follow the data, we might turn this into “Feel-Do-Think”. It taps straight into System 1 thinking.

Not everything needs to be turned into a framework, but sometimes it helps lay out all the options in front of us. Ellen Upton takes a map of emotions (adapted from Robert Plutchik’s original) [14] that looks a little something like this.

Credit: Ellen Lupton

She writes that “‘awe’ is a mix of ‘terror’ and ‘amazement’, ‘love’ is a cocktail of ‘joy’ and ‘trust’”. Now that’s an interesting editorial/advertising strategy. One that I’ve never seen. Ever. I really like how if you follow this to it’s conclusion, it puts emotional storytelling with highs and lows at the heart of your brand in a way that I’ve never seen before.

It might be worth doing some brand strategy work to pick an emotional territory to own. Once you have that, either at the brand level, or underneath a content pillar you’ll need to commit. 

When creating content, you’ll need to get into that emotional territory straight away. A typical narrative arc for longer storytelling formats like a film or a multi-episode content series starts slow and builds. On social and in advertising we don’t have that luxury:

“According to research, it can take less than three seconds for us to have a gut reaction to something, which leaves us with lasting impressions and a predisposition to taking a similar course of action in future.” [15]

When we’ve worked on Meta projects for social advertising that runs on their own platform, we narrowed this down to the first second. We have to have an emotional hook straightaway.

“Designing and selling experiences [has] eclipsed the manufacture of physical things. An experience stirs emotions and generates memories. It embraces dramatic action, sensory engagement, and temporal interaction with users. During an experience, users create meanings and associations that become more important than the event itself.” [16] 

So emotion and how we use it in storytelling really matters. It places some tough decisions in front of us. Do you know the emotion your brand stands for? Elicits in your ideal customer?

Conclusion

Emotional advertising, when utilised responsibly and strategically, offers immense potential for brands seeking to forge lasting bonds with their customers. It extends beyond mere sentimentality. Rather, it is a method grounded in science and backed by data, proving to be an effective way to grab attention, encourage sharing, enhance brand value and foster loyalty. 

Brands should strive to be sincere, transparent and customer-centric in their messaging. This goes beyond simply 'selling' a product or service; it seeks to enrich the lives of consumers, providing them with meaningful experiences and solutions that resonate with their individual needs and aspirations.

As advertisers and creatives, we have the power to shape narratives and spark emotions. Let's use this power responsibly and authentically, crafting stories that inspire, touch hearts and make a genuine difference.

If you were to put emotion at the heart of your editorial advertising strategy it could lend some dramatic tension to your brand. By knowing and defining what emotions your brand stands for you can connect with your audience on a truly deep level. It takes some guts, but the rewards will be twofold or even fourfold.

References

[1] “The Art of Beauty”, Anna Trevelyan, Harpers Bazaar, 24 October 2017

[2] “Thinking vs Feeling: The Psychology of Advertising”, University of Southern California, retrieved 24 July 2023 

[3], [12], [13] “Harness the power of emotion in digital advertising”, Kantar, 13 March 2023

[4] “The power of emotion”, IPA, 31 May 2023

[5] “The New Science of Customer Emotions”, Scott Magids, Alan Zorfas and Daniel Leemon, Harvard Business Review, November 2015

[6], [11] “Hegarty on Advertising: Turning Intelligence into Magic”, John Hegarty, 2011

[7], [8] “Release the Pressure”, Tracy Kawalik, huck magazine, Issue 78, A/W 22-23

[9], [10] “The Object of Applause: Producing a Public”, Taryn Simon & Charles Shafaieh, Harvard Design Magazine, Issue 49 F/W 2021

[14], [16] “Design is Storytelling”, Ellen Lupton, 2017

[15] “Emotional advertising: how and why brands use it to drive sales”, Tom Welbourne, The Drum 14 February 2022

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