Effectiveness Brand Strategy Marketing

Emotions are not just an advertising tool. They are the entire toolbox


By Ian Forrester, CEO

April 4, 2024 | 8 min read

DAIVID’s Ian Forrester explores the most common misconceptions around the use of emotions in advertising. He’s picked out five.

An earned smile from son to father

/ Quaker Oats. Uncommon

We’re only a few months into 2024, it’s already been an emotional time for the ad industry. First, many got hot and sweaty at the sight of The Bear actor Jeremy Allen White prancing along the rooftops of New York in his tighty-whities for Calvin Klein. Then, many got hot and bothered by the hypocrisy of the ASA to ban a similarly scantily-clad creative for the underwear brand, this time featuring FKA Twigs.

The emotional rollercoaster was not finished there, though, with many left scratching their heads after the ASA then chose to overturn its original decision following public outcry only partially. But the sight of people in underwear is not the only thing to get people fired up this year.

People have also been getting excited by the supposed return of humor to advertising, only to be slightly let down by the results so far. They were also left reaching for the tissues over Uncommon’s ad for Quaker Oats.

Laughter, confusion, excitement, anger, and sadness – it’s certainly been an emotional start. With feelings running high. And we’ve only just into spring. I also found myself getting emotional after reading an article in The Drum on, yes, emotions. The article talks about whether there’s a right or level of emotion advertisers should put into their ads – the so-called ‘Goldilocks Zone.’

After almost two decades spent researching emotions in advertising and their effectiveness, it started to make me think about some of the questions we still get from brands and agencies around emotions. It’s a subject that always generates a lot of discussion, so I thought it might be useful to answer some of the most common questions.

1. How important are emotions to the marketing toolbox?

I have heard a lot of talk around how emotions as tools. It was even mentioned in the original article – “Emotion is a classic tool in the palette of advertising creatives the world over. Like any tool, it can be used deftly or dully.”

But to think of emotions as a tool a marketer can employ, like better audience targeting or social activation, is to misunderstand the role emotions play in the whole process. Emotions are not a tool in the toolbox, they are the toolbox.

That’s because, as humans, we are guided by our emotions more than anything else. It’s the same with advertising. Every single piece of content a marketer generates some kind of emotional response from consumers. The strength of that emotion will largely dictate the success of your campaign. Emotions are the main drivers of memory. As humans, we have evolved to remember things that either make us feel really good or make us feel really bad. These are the things that are most likely to contribute to our survival. As Dan Wieden once said: “Just move me, dude.”

2. Are emotions only important in brand campaigns?

Emotions are critical to brand building. Brands that evoke intense positive emotions attach those emotions to their brand in the consumers’ minds so that when the consumer comes to make a purchase decision, the positive emotional glow nudges that person towards buying that specific brand. That’s why it’s so crucial to have distinctive brand assets to shortcut those emotions.

However, it’s a myth that emotions are only useful at the top of the funnel. Emotions are also important to performance campaigns – just not in the same way. Rather than memory creation, they help to drive immediate action. The consumer feels the emotion and acts immediately. Negative emotions, for example, can play a key role here, as explained in the next question.

3. Can negative emotions be as effective as positive emotions?

Negative emotions can create brand memories too. In fact, in some cases, even more effective than positive emotions. That’s because, as humans, we always fixate on the negative.

However, utilizing negative emotions can be difficult and can backfire badly. Highly successful campaigns, such as the long-running Go Compare and Compare the Market campaigns, show that annoying the public can be an effective way to drive outcomes. But I would be very wary of dipping into the negative side of the emotional palette. [Editor’s note: we also got into the Pot Noodle slurp last week on this topic].

As a rule, I would say charities and government organizations – particularly when trying to drive a desired action – can use negative emotions very effectively, but (depending on the brand) most commercial brands should probably stick to the positive.

Negative emotions can also be used to amplify positive emotions. A great example of this is Always’s ‘Like a Girl,’ which evoked intense feelings of anger, disgust and contempt at the start but left viewers feeling strong feelings of pride, warmth and inspiration by the end. It is these emotions that were attached to the brand.

Always remember the peak/end rule, which states that viewers will judge an experience based on its emotional peak and how they are left feeling at the end. It’s the same with ads. Make sure your ad generates strong positive emotions, particularly at the end, when the branding most often occurs.

4. What are the most effective emotions at driving specific outcomes?

We are often asked which are the most effective emotions to drive a certain output. This is the wrong question to ask. All positive emotions can be used to drive positive brand outcomes. A much better question is which emotion is right for my brand given my brand values and USPs and my competitors’ positioning.

5. Should certain sectors only use certain emotions?

Emotions apply to certain sectors not because they have to but because brands in those sectors conform to certain tropes time and again.

By breaking out of these norms and evoking unusual emotions, brands can cut through. A good example of this is the brilliant ‘Dumb Ways to Die,’ which bucked the usual trend around safety videos (which are usually terrifying) by evoking warmth and amusement. This is especially true around advertising at big events, such as the Super Bowl, the Olympics and Christmas, where a lot of brands’ ads look and feel the same. Liquid Death is another interesting proposition, leveraging water, the life-giver, against a dark irreverent tone.

In truth, emotion in advertising is such a huge topic I know these answers barely scratch the surface. So, if I were to give brands one piece of advice when it comes to maximizing their emotional impact, it would be to really analyze their emotional profiles. Only through rigorous measurement – using a framework that goes way beyond Eckman’s six universal expressions – can brands truly understand the emotional spaces they and their competitors are playing in.

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