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Use negativity at your own peril: Mars neuroscientist on emotional effectiveness


By Kenneth Hein, US Editor

September 9, 2020 | 5 min read

The somber, early pandemic ads with lilting pianos became something of a running joke. But they did raise the question of whether brands can successfully sell while focusing on negative topics. Mars' consumer insights lead Sorin Patilinet says extensive neuroscience studies show that leaning into negativity often leads to bad results.


M&M’s “Eating in bed” scored well because it resolved a negative situation quickly.

Many people have a negative enough reaction to seeing a video advertisement, period. So layering on a narrative that involves negative emotions is only making matters worse, right? Probably, according to Sorin Patilinet, global consumer marketing insights director, Mars, Inc.

The Mars team has been running one of the largest neuromarketing studies in the world these past five years. It has studied more than 700 ads in an effort to determine which evoke emotions that, in turn, build memory structures that are recalled at the point of purchase. Throughout this study, Patilinet has found that eliciting negative emotions is a tricky proposition. Here, he tells us why:

The negativity must be brief

“If there is a negative emotion, it has to be resolved very quickly or be a set up for something to laugh at,“ says Patilinet. “If not, you’re going to lose a lot of people along the way.”

He cites Cesar ’Love them back’ as an example of an ad that performed poorly because the negativity didn’t resolve fast enough.

The brand cannot be associated with down moment

“If negativity is used in a story arc, you want to show the brand at the moment of highest, positive emotion. You don’t want to showcase a brand during the downturn, but instead bring it in as a hero at the end.”

M&M’s ’Eating in bed’ scored well in this scenario.

Short ad formats are tricky for story arcs

“The challenge is that consumers prefer shorter formats where is it is difficult, but not impossible, to build emotional content.

“You have six seconds on YouTube, so there’s basically no time to create a story. We tried continuing a story by retargeting the same person with the next episode. The idea was great, but the execution at scale didn’t live up to the promise.”

You risk damaging your brand

“The worst thing that could happen is you make a negative imprint. Then, the consumer ends up correlating the brand with something negative, which you don’t want.”

Attention for the sake of attention doesn’t work

“We are looking for ‘polite attention’. We aren’t turning your screen yellow and bumping up our logo against you just to grab that attention, because we know that doesn’t help for the long-term.”

Creating ads for the Covid-19 moment is short sighted

“It’s difficult to try and nail creative for the moment. We believe in running executions for a long time rather than jumping on the Covid-19 ad bandwagon. The general truths and the humor we have used for our brands still resonate today. It takes years for a good ad to decay.”

Overall, Patilinet says the reality is that ads are becoming more practical because of the restrictions of the ad duration. “In shorter ads, the level of emotion declines, which is a challenge because we know that emotions that create memories can lead to sales. Creating a three-second Facebook execution is just your logo and a headline. That doesn’t elicit too much emotion, unfortunately. Those are the ads that are actually seen by consumers, not the ones that are featured in the advertising trades.”

For more from Patilinet, check out his Engineering Marketing blog.

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