Advertising – It’s Enough to Make you Cry


Say hello to Barney.

Barney’s a sad dog.  His family couldn’t afford to keep him but instead of taking him to a shelter they kicked him out on the streets.  He was cold and scared.  He didn’t know how to look after himself and all the love he once knew had gone.

Just £5 a month can help us rescue dogs like Barney.

…Or maybe dogs don’t cut it with you. 

I’ve got a really cute cat in a rubbish sack by a river if you prefer.  Or a donkey with a wonky hoof?  C’mon – his name’s Desmond and his hoof really is very wonky, but our donkey surgeons are ready to put it right with just a small donation.

Advertisements – Head or Heart?

We’re all used to pitches for helping animals in distress.  Advertisers might dish out statistics or tell us what our money will achieve, but fundamentally they tug at the heartstrings.  We become emotionally engaged and are therefore more likely to part with our cash.

But what about products or services where emotion is not the obvious path to take?  The core copywriting mantra is “sell benefits, not features”.  Rather than unengaging facts about a product you provide explanations about why someone will benefit from using it.  However, that’s still about conveying specific information to the audience about how their needs will be met – appealing to the intellect rather than the emotions.  The Shake ‘n’ Vac woman has a cheerful song, but she’s still rooted in benefits – “When your carpet smells fresh, your room does too.”

But raw emotion does indeed play a role in quite surprising ways.

John Lewis has just reported a 6.2% rise in its sales over the Christmas period compared with the previous year.  This was in the thick of incredibly tough trading conditions when other retailers have been experiencing slumps in sales.

Now of course there are likely to be a number of factors in this, but one key reason is surely the John Lewis Christmas ad.



Awwww!  Let’s Buy a Toaster

The success of this ad campaign demonstrates very clearly the power of emotions in advertising.  More than simply appealing to your heart, it leads to your heart swelling to such gargantuan proportions that your head is suffocated, preventing your brain from registering the fact it’s nonsense.

It’s rather like a sequel to The Stepford Wives, only here it’s the children who have been replaced by perfect versions which do exactly what their parents would dream of.  The young boy is seen impatiently counting down the days to Christmas and when the grand day arrives he promptly hares past his presents at the end of the bed to give his own to Mum and Dad.

Because, of course, in the old adage, giving is better than receiving. 

Except this isn’t normal behaviour for children.  Far more usual are the whining brats venting their expletive-laden spleen on Facebook because their parents didn’t get them an iPhone.

On the other hand, of course, Christmas is about make-believe.  There’s no fat jolly Santa, family get-togethers are often more about tension than merrymaking and once a decade we might get a few flakes of snow.  The John Lewis ad takes the fantasy and injects it into an every-family situation so deftly that we identify with it, even though it depicts something utterly fanciful.  It’s Christmas spirit made accessible and suddenly grown men are sobbing into their lagers.

There’s no hint of a John Lewis store.  Nothing about service, quality or never knowingly being undersold.  No products on special offer, no smiling assistants helping old ladies and not even a celebrity shopping in the store.  After our journey to the emotional  twist at the end of the ad our eyes dwell on the young boy’s face as he holds his gift and we’re finally given the message: “For gifts you can’t wait to give.”

By the second or third viewing, when we’re finally able to read the message without watery distortions clouding our vision, the emotional punch translates into a connection with John Lewis and hey presto! We’re off for a shop to share in this Christmas idyll through the power of our spending.

The Warm and Fuzzy Facts

The IPA analysed 1,600 advertising campaigns and compared the improved profits brought by advertisements which focused on emotional appeal with those relying on information and rational persuasion.  The emotive ads performed about twice as well, which seems to provide similar proof to the boosted sales figures released by John Lewis.

In many ways this shouldn’t be surprising.  In terms of brain function emotion is far more deeply rooted in the primitive regions of the brain than the more recently evolved intellectual capabilities.  This gives it an extraordinary power to bypass those rational functions and provide an overriding impulse affecting our behaviour.

Small wonder there has been considerable growth in emotional advertising in recent years.  But there are notes of caution to be sounded.

The majority of advertising is focused on the young and increasingly the demand amongst this market is for the quick and easily accessible.  Ads which take time to build an emotional response risk being ignored.  The DVR firm TiVo conducted research on the fast-forwarding habits of their users.  Rational and persuasive ads performed much better on this front as people stopped to watch something which had clear and obvious relevance to their lives.  Ads which tried to be creative and build up a mood were ignored.  In other words, we’re back to benefits again.

It’s also true that emotions are much trickier to stage-manage.  You could very easily get it wrong and what works emotionally in advertisers’ heads may not connect with the viewing audience.  Furthermore, purely emotional ads are less likely to be successful for smaller companies.  People often need to feel comfortable with a brand’s identity before they can fully open up their emotional centres to its message.

Once More With Feeling…

So where does that leave your advertising?  Perhaps with an awareness that even if it might not be wise to go for the all-out emotional assault of the John Lewis Stepford child, having an eye on the emotional register of your advertising could prove profitable.

Many companies are still convinced the only thing to do is sell the product in simple, straightforward terms that everyone understands.  This overlooks the fact, however, that emotions are the simplest and most universal terms we have.  “Value” to one person can mean an excellent deal but to another it can mean “cheap”.  Feeling happy, though, is simply feeling happy and if you can associate that with your product or service you have done something very constructive in marketing terms.

Rational persuasion is an enormously powerful advertising strategy, but in employing the emotions as well you can start to break down barriers within the consumer and create a relationship.  This in turn builds trust which helps lead to purchases.

The lesson from emotional advertisements is to remind those in advertising that their promotional material can work in many ways.  Selling benefits is crucial, but on some occasions it’s worth considering if they could be better sold with a little heart.

* No animals were harmed in the writing of this blog and Desmond is doing well after hoof realignment surgery.

About David

I'm a professional copywriter from Nexus Copywriting and there's a little more about me here. Or, if you'd like to see how I can benefit your business, find out about my copywriting services.

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