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‘No such thing as too much emotion,’ but should brands earn the right to make weepy ads?

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By Sam Bradley, Senior Reporter

March 4, 2024 | 9 min read

The third edition of a bumper set of Agency Advice columns about emotional advertising explores whether successful emotional storytelling in ads comes from choosing the right time – or earning your chance to speak to audiences.

A still from Uncommon's Quaker ad

A still from Uncommon's Quaker ad / Quaker Oats

This week, we’ve been asking creatives how they know where exactly to strike the balance between too much and too little emotion in an ad. What’s more important – earning the right from audiences to tell a story with feeling, or picking the right moment to break through? We hear from New Commercial Arts, Leo Burnett, Sibling Rivalry and others on how to solve a problem like... finding the Goldilocks zone for emotion in ads?

Earn it

Benjamin Nicolas, director at Sibling Rivalry Films: “In my journey of creating ads, I’ve discovered that the magic doesn’t just lie in the story we’re telling, but in the subtle hints we weave through it and the care we take in choosing our cast. This realization dawned on me while working on a project for a children’s hospital. Initially, the brief was for a quick, 1-minute story, but I felt a deeper narrative yearning to break free. This was about giving our characters room to breathe, to let their backstories unfold naturally, and to make our audience feel like they’re part of the story, not just spectators.

“Reflecting on the masterful works of directors like Mark Molloy for Apple and Niclas Larsson for WhatsApp, I saw how their longer ads weren’t just about the extra minutes; they were about creating a world rich in detail and emotion. These ads taught me the value of patience in storytelling, the beauty of imperfection in our cast, and the power of authenticity. It’s not just about avoiding a linear, predictable plot. It’s about crafting a journey that surprises and moves people, making them forget they’re watching an ad and instead, feeling like they’ve witnessed a slice of life, raw and unfiltered.

“This approach has shaped my work, pushing me to advocate for the space and time our stories deserve to unfold. It’s a reminder that at the heart of every memorable ad is the human touch – subtle, sincere, and profoundly impactful.”

Jules Middleton, creative, New Commercial Arts: “We’re doing our job right if we make people feel anything - so I’d argue there’s no such thing as too much emotion. When it feels like there isn’t a reason that a brand can act like that is when the work feels contrived.”

…and Peigh Asante, creative, New Commercial Arts: “Exactly, the best emotional work typically comes from an authentic place or lived experience.

“It’s a fine balance to get right, you’ve only got a short amount of time to make people feel something, but on the flip side you don’t want to create something so sad people can’t bear to watch it again.”

John Doyle, chief strategy officer, Colle McVoy: “Emotions are earned by the characters in ads and within brands themselves – and that takes fleshing out their backstory, conflict, desires and fears. Story structure matters a ton, as we have certain patterns we humans like – and if those expectations are met – we are satisfied. Seriously, trot down the Jungian psychology rabbit hole. Experience alone isn’t always resonate. How people express emotion in response to what they’ve seen, whether they deeply feel and truly believe a narrative, is almost preordained by what a character has earned. That’s the delta between Kia’s ‘Perfect 10’ Super Bowl spot and most pharma ads.”

Sebastián Benitez, group creative director, Tank Worldwide: “To say that the level of emotionality makes ads more or less effective is a matter of relativity. Over the years, we’ve witnessed renowned ads vary greatly in emotionality and tones, yet remain effective in creating meaningful emotional impact. Whether it’s a full-blown emotional rollercoaster (like P&G’s “Thank You Mom” or Adidas’ “Break Free”) or a subtle touch (like Extra’s “Origami” or Monster’s “Stork”), what matters more is its ability to establish genuine connections and positively impacts lives.”

Pick your moment

Samantha Cescau, executive vice-president, head of strategy, Leo Burnett: “I love that we’re talking about emotion in advertising. We should be making people feel something instead of simply pushing a rational sales message. How you make people feel is often more important than what you tell them. Want to make them like you? Make them laugh. Want to move them to action? Make them angry.

“The easy answer therefore would be that evoking a bigger emotional reaction is better. However, I believe the answer needs to be more nuanced than that. Are you evoking an emotion that will create engagement (eg, awe, anger) instead of disengagement (eg, sadness)? Are you portraying that emotion authentically? And lastly, does your brand have the right to engage in this emotional discussion?”

Jeff Bowerman, executive creative director, Dept UK: ”Let me start with a confession: I’ve never cried at an advert and never laughed out loud.

”Perhaps it’s my stone-cold heart and my snobbish sense of humor (well yes) but trying to imbue 30 seconds with context, familiarity and emotional investment in the characters and story is impossible. So what happens is we cram as much in, and inevitably be as unsubtle as possible - which does a disservice to brands and the creative minds behind the stories. I'm a big proponent for trying to say less, well. Otherwise, it becomes a ‘Oh you have to to watch the full 3-minute film on YouTube’ … no thanks the non-advertising me would rather watch Married at First Sight Australia for my emotional fix.”

Sean Claessen, chief strategy officer, Bond: “Another way to answer this question is to look at the loyalty science behind customer relationships – even at the extremities of a customer journey. If you look at the data that drives loyalty, there is a quantifiable ‘sweet spot’ technique to identifying the allowable range a brand can play within. Different brands need to elicit different emotions at different intensities, at different times.

“These days, data says a brand like Quaker naturally elicits elements of ’joy’ and ’love’ – even before the advertising is developed. It is important to distinguish the potential of afflictive versus remedy emotions – which the bowl-toasting ritual, morning day-part routine, and multi-generation legacy cues of storytelling are each trying to address. Great advertising strikes a balance between not enough and too much emotion, which can either under-leverage or over-do – betraying the intent of tapping into those emotions in the first place.”

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Paul Collins, executive director of strategy and innovation, Elmwood New York: “Intense emotion is generally your friend. It captures attention and builds recall. And it’s the basis for mental availability, a star contributor to growth. But it’s all about how you direct it. To get it right, design emotion to Connect, Clarify, and Convert. Connecting means building instant bonds with personally relatable scenes that stand out by subverting marketing conventions. Clarifying means driving attribution with ownable emotional symbols that amplify your ethos and assets, and yours alone. And Converting means crafting stories that are intriguing, entertaining, or gratifying enough to stick around and prime purchase when the moment comes.”

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