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‘Feeling machines who think’: how ad creatives can reach the heart through the head


By Sam Bradley, Journalist

March 1, 2024 | 9 min read

Lots of ads aim to tap audience emotions. But what’s the most important factor in getting that right – honesty, audience targeting or positivity?

A still from Uncommon's Quaker ad

A still from Uncommon's Quaker ad / Quaker Oats

How much emotion is too much? The Drum asked a range of agency experts that question earlier this week, in part following on from an Uncommon ad that told a family’s life story, connected via bowls of steaming porridge. With The Drum’s World Creative Rankings out this week – containing many ads that aim for the heart – I wanted to continue the conversation: how do you solve a problem like... finding the Goldilocks zone for emotion in ads?

Be honest

Dan Cole, executive creative director, Havas London: “It doesn’t matter if it’s an ad for Alzheimer’s Society or an episode of The Repair Shop, if it’s something I can relate to and rings a bell somewhere in the soppy side of my brain, then it has a good chance of overpowering my cynical side. But that usually means there is something raw about it. It must be honest, and the truth is that most brands when it comes down to it, find that hard to go with. They want to soften it. But that means you’re soon back to the familiar and safe, and anyone can see through that. Finding a truth that people can recognize themselves in is a good start. But keeping that truth intact is everything.”

Maris Silis, creative director, Cheil UK: “While we all share common emotions (happiness, sadness, pride), the way in which we experience them can be very different. Understanding your audience and what makes them tick on an emotional level is key. It’s about finding an emotion your audience understands and can relate to. To evoke a true emotional reaction, we need to be as authentic and relevant as we can – go too far and we run the risk of inciting an opposite emotional response.”

Diego Andrade, senior vice-president, executive creative director, Orci: “For me, the emotional resonance of any piece of content isn’t about how big of an emotional play or how much, it’s about beginning at a real place. Above everything, it has to feel authentic. As a consumer, I’m not crying over an oatmeal commercial because of how huge the feelings on screen are or not. It hits me because either I see something in there about my lived experience or it’s something I wish I had, or it evokes genuine human empathy because of how well it’s executed. It has to feel real for your audience. That’s what matters.”

Chris Buhrman, executive creative director, Hanson Dodge: “It’s all about how deeply an ad relates to a person’s life. Which depends how genuine the story is and how deeply it touches the experiencer of the ad. If someone is trying to pump up the emotion as a sales tactic, people can feel it. It will fall flat. It’s all about feeling. This whole business is feeling.”

Hope over fear

Dan Dawson, chief creative officer, Grand Visual: “Fear-based advertising is effective at capturing attention and motivating behavior, but audiences also need to be led on a journey that ends with a resolution which can evoke feelings of joy, humor or satisfaction. Neuroscience suggests that positive emotional experiences can lead to increased brand loyalty, repeat business and recommendations. As OOH creatives we’re at the advantage in amplifying this via immersive, gamified, or shareable activations. This interaction helps to further strengthen that emotional connection between brand and consumer.”

Rob Trono, group creative director at Blue State: “Great emotional ads happen when you take the viewer with you on the journey and allow room for their reactions. When ads push too hard and leave no space for viewers’ own feelings - that’s when they feel like they’ve gone too far. We can sense that we’re being manipulated. Charity ads are the same, but with much more at stake - you need to connect and bring people with you and allow them to bring their own feelings to bear, while maintaining the dignity and respect of those the organization supports.”

Understand your target

Matt North, strategy partner, Rapp: “Humans are feeling machines who think, not the other way around, so great advertising is defined by its ability to connect emotionally with its target audience. In fact, our research proves the power of creating a sense of community in marcoms. Telling personal human stories creates a sense of togetherness and belonging, which in turn builds that valuable customer connection with the brand. But to get the balance right, brands need to understand their target audience - their values, interests and emotions – and execute it authentically. Nothing will break that sense of community faster than insincerity.”

Grant Hunter, chief creative officer, Iris: “To get people to participate and invest in your story you need a narrative arc which takes them on a journey. The Peak End Rule states that the most intense moment and the final moment are most memorable, so decide what emotional response you want to evoke. System 1 research states that ads with positive emotional response generate a 20% uplift in recall. To find that sweet spot, restraint and subtlety are your allies. Go too heavy-handed, and the viewer will notice how you’re tugging at their heartstrings.

“Music also plays a major part in generating an emotional response, lighting up our visual cortex. So, don’t leave it to the end, instead incorporate it into your ideation process.”

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James Ranson, creative director, Acne: “I get emotional at rom-coms. Plenty don’t. The problem with trying to make people weep or whoop for a living is, annoyingly, everyone is different. Too subtle, it’s like whispering in a crowded room but too much and we’re called out in the comments as lazy puppet masters. The key is reading the room/brief and diving deep into that brand’s audience. Read every single comment on every single post they’ve ever made, go into Reddit, stare through their front windows. A well-calibrated emotional appeal should strike a chord without overshadowing the core message, fostering a meaningful connection without becoming excessive or manipulative.”

Harris Wilkinson, chief creative officer of TMA: “The distance between effective emotional work and maudlin dreck has always been a razor’s edge. I’d say that blade is even slimmer now that the pandemic drowned us all in waves of ‘sadvertising’, and left us more cynical than ever. A stellar director alone can’t deliver truly emotive work, no matter how good it is on the page. The entire team – agency, brand, and production company – has to be united in delivering a story that is relatable, subtle, and above all, respectful of the audience.”

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