Emotional Advertising: How Brands Use Feelings to Get People to Buy

In a world where consumers are bombarded with thousands of advertising messages every day, how can brands cut through the noise and make a lasting impact? The answer lies in our hearts, not our heads. Studies have repeatedly shown that emotions drive our decision making more than rational thought. In fact, ads with an above average emotional response from consumers result in a 23% increase in sales compared to average ads, according to a Nielsen study.

As Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman famously said, "95 percent of our purchase decision making takes place in the subconscious mind." This is where emotions live, so brands that can tap into feelings have a powerful advantage in influencing behavior.

The Science of Emotion-Driven Decisions

To understand why emotions are so effective in advertising, we need to look at how they work in our brains. When we experience an emotion, the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions) releases neurotransmitters like dopamine, which creates a powerful and lasting imprint.

Emotions also trigger us to take action. A study published in Neuron found that emotions cause us to make decisions more quickly and with more conviction than when we use logic alone. This is because emotions activate the part of our brain associated with "gut feelings" and instinct.

Furthermore, emotions help us remember experiences with greater clarity. Research has shown that people are more likely to vividly recall events and information that were emotionally charged. This has huge implications for brand recall and loyalty.

The Core Emotions Used in Advertising

While humans experience a wide range of emotions, advertisers have honed in on four core feelings that have proven to be the most effective in influencing consumer behavior:

1. Happiness

Positive emotions like joy, excitement, love, and inspiration are powerful motivators. A study by Unruly found that the most shared ads of 2022 were highly emotional, with happiness being the most common emotion evoked. The top ads were 12 times more likely to make people laugh or smile compared to average ads.

Examples of highly shareable happy ads include:

  • Extra Gum‘s "The Story of Sarah & Juan", which tells a sweet tale of two people falling in love and sharing gum-filled moments, resulting in over 3 million views.
  • Volkswagen‘s "The Force", featuring a mini Darth Vader using his powers to start the car, which has over 60 million views and was voted the most shared ad of all time.

These ads work because they create a strong positive association with the brand, leaving people feeling good and more likely to remember and purchase the product. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky explains, "Positive emotions expand our awareness and open us up to new ideas, so we can grow and add to our toolkit for survival."

Emotion Brand Campaign Views
Happiness Extra Gum "The Story of Sarah & Juan" 3M+
Happiness Volkswagen "The Force" 60M+

2. Sadness

While it may seem counterintuitive, ads that evoke feelings of sadness, heartbreak, and loss can also be highly effective. These emotions create a sense of empathy and connection with the brand, as people reflect on their own experiences.

A prime example is P&G‘s "Thank You, Mom" campaign for the Olympics, which shows the sacrifices and support of mothers behind Olympic athletes. The ads are known to elicit tears and have been wildly successful, with the 2021 version garnering over 53 million views.

Another powerful example is the "Love Has No Labels" campaign from the Ad Council, which aims to combat bias by showing love in different forms – interracial, same-sex, differently abled, etc. The emotional stories of people facing and overcoming prejudice struck a chord, with the main video getting over 164 million views.

Research has found that seeing someone experience sadness activates the parts of our brain related to empathy and social connection. A study in Psychological Science found that sad movies caused endorphins to be released in the brain, which can actually boost pain tolerance and feelings of belonging.

Emotion Brand Campaign Views
Sadness P&G "Thank You, Mom" (2021) 53M+
Sadness Ad Council "Love Has No Labels" 164M+

3. Fear & Surprise

Fear is an extremely primal and powerful emotion that advertisers can tap into to grab attention and create a sense of urgency. Our brains are wired to prioritize potential threats above all else as a survival mechanism.

Fear-based ads often highlight the consequences of not using a product. Classic examples are life insurance commercials that depict unexpected accidents or tooth paste ads that show the horrors of getting a cavity.

The World Wildlife Fund has created some very striking print ads that create an almost visceral reaction of fear:

WWF Fear Ad

Surprise, which activates a similar fight-or-flight response, is another way to startle people into paying attention. A study in the Journal of Marketing found that the emotions of surprise and fear enhanced ad recall, message involvement, and persuasion.

Duracell‘s "Teddy Bear" ad starts out innocently enough, but takes a shocking turn when the beloved stuffed animal is left out in a storm, creating surprise and fear that is then resolved by the product‘s performance.

4. Anger & Disgust

Anger is a powerful emotion for prompting action and change. Ads can use anger to highlight social issues or industry problems that need solving, positioning the brand as the solution.

The "Like A Girl" campaign by Always is a prime example of this – it confronts the stereotypes and limitations placed on girls, making viewers angry at this treatment. The ad then inspires viewers by redefining the phrase to mean something strong and powerful, aligning Always with female empowerment. The original video got over 69 million views.

Disgust can also be used to spotlight unethical or unhealthy practices, making people motivated to reject a past behavior. Anti-smoking campaigns often show graphic images of the effects of tobacco to create an almost visceral reaction of disgust.

Organic food brands like Organic Valley tap into people‘s distrust and disgust with highly processed foods with tongue-in-cheek ads poking fun at unpronounceable ingredients. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that disgust increases risk perception and causes people to reduce or avoid behaviors seen as repulsive.

Emotion Brand Campaign Views
Anger Always "Like A Girl" 69M+
Disgust Truth "Left Swipe Dat" 37M+

The Impact of Emotional Advertising

Clearly, making people feel something is key to advertising success in today‘s attention economy. A study by Unruly found that ads with strong emotional responses earned 2x as many views and 3x as many shares compared to less emotional ads.

An analysis by Ace Metrix of the most effective TV ads found that 9 out of the top 10 ads scored highest on measures of emotional connection like "powerful," "inspiring," and "heartfelt". Emotional ads were also seen as more memorable, likeable, attention-grabbing, and informative than average.

Beyond views and recall, emotional ads drive actual behavior and buying decisions. Research by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) concluded that ad campaigns with purely emotional content performed nearly twice as well as those with only rational content (31% vs. 16% in terms of increased market share).

Comparison of Ad Types
Source: IPA data via neurosciencemarketing.com

So how can brands achieve advertising that truly resonates on a gut level? The key is authenticity and empathy. "Don‘t think about creating an ad, think about creating a feeling," said PJ Pereira of creative agency Pereira O‘Dell. "Put yourself in the viewer‘s shoes and ask: what would I need to feel to be moved by this?"

It‘s also essential that the emotion ties directly back to the brand and product in a credible way. Apple‘s "Misunderstood" holiday ad is a great example – it tells an emotional story of a teenage boy who seems disengaged from his family, but is actually using his iPhone to create a touching video memory. The product enables the emotion without feeling forced.

Brands must also be very thoughtful about evoking negative emotions like fear, anger, and disgust to avoid backlash. There must be an extremely relevant and genuine reason for making people feel this way that ultimately benefits the customer and society.

When done right, connecting with people on a visceral level creates an almost unbreakable bond. A Nielsen study found that ads with the best emotional response generated a 23% lift in sales volume, while ads with the worst scores saw only a 16% lift.

"The rational brain can be an unreliable witness," said Carl Marci, Chief Neuroscientist at Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience. "It may not always know what the body and subconscious brain are feeling. Emotions aren‘t just nice to have, they‘re a must-have for successful advertising."

Emotional Advertising in 2023 & Beyond

Looking ahead, the bar for emotional resonance in advertising will only get higher as people grow savvier and more selective about the content they consume. To break through the clutter, brands will need to tell authentic stories that tap into the most fundamental human truths and desires.

"In a world of short attention spans, an emotional connection can make all the difference," said Keith Weed, former CMO of Unilever. "Brands that can move quickly from attention to emotion will be the ones that stay top of mind and inspire action."

Personalization will also be key, as people expect advertising to be as relevant and meaningful to their unique experiences as possible. Advances in data, AI, and dynamic creative will allow brands to create emotionally resonant messaging that adapts to individual preferences and context.

Causa, which dynamically personalizes advertising based on personality profiles, saw a 263% increase in engagement by tapping into individual emotional triggers. "The emotion has to be relevant, has to be authentic and specific to a real person to be credible," said Causa CEO David Kulkarni.

Purpose-driven, value-based advertising will also continue to rise, as people support brands that share their beliefs and make a positive impact. 64% of people surveyed said they are more likely to buy from companies that take a stand on social issues they care about.

This means brands may increasingly take strong stances that evoke emotions like righteous anger, shared passion, and community pride. Nike‘s "Dream Crazy" ad with Colin Kaepernick is a powerful example, expressing unwavering support for his protest despite controversy. The ad led to a $6 billion increase in Nike‘s market value.

No matter the tactic, evoking genuine emotion will be what elevates certain brands in consumers‘ hearts and minds for years to come. As Maya Angelou put it, "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

The most effective ads won‘t just be seen or processed, but truly felt. Because that feeling, more than any fact or figure, is what will linger long after the ad ends. That is the power of emotional advertising.