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

October 22, 2018


Originally appeared on HubSpot


Ads that make people share and buy can usually be summed up in one word: emotional.

That should be no surprise. Studies show that people rely on emotions, rather than information, to make brand decisions -- and that emotional responses to ads are more influential on a person’s intent to buy than the content of an ad.


As Douglas Van Praet, author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing, wrote in Fast Company, “The most startling truth is we don’t even think our way to logical solutions. We feel our way to reason. Emotions are the substrate, the base layer of neural circuitry underpinning even rational deliberation. Emotions don’t hinder decisions. They constitute the foundation on which they’re made!”


Unruly, which ranks the most viral ads each year, found that the most-shared ads of 2015 relied heavily on emotional content, specifically friendship, inspiration, warmth, and happiness. Examples include Android’s Friends Furever and Kleenex’s Unlikely Best Friends.


This emotional awareness from brands hasn't always been the case, though. In the 1990s and early 2000s, advertisers were more concerned with humor and sarcasm. 


How Emotion Is Used in Advertising

Historically, people have recognized six core emotions: happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry, and sad.

However, in 2014, the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology published research stating that the distinction between four of these emotions were based on social interactions and constructs.


Instead, human emotion is based on four basic emotions: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted.


Based on these four categories, let’s look at how brands are using emotions to drive connection and awareness:


1) Happy

Brands want to be associated with smiling, laughing, happy customers, and positivity has been shown to increase sharing and engagement. A study in 2010 of the most-emailed New York Times articles found that emotional articles were shared more often, and positive posts were shared more than negative ones. 

The most-shared ad of last year -- and of all time -- was Android’s Friends Furever, showing clips of unlikely and undeniably cute animal friends.


2) Sad

I watch a lot of ads. (Hey, it’s a requirement for the job.) I've noticed that, increasingly, those ads have turn me into a blubbering, emotional wreck. There’s nothing like a good cry at work on a regular basis to make your desk neighbors question your stability.


In the past few years, as brands have recognized the popularity of emotional content, more and more companies have focused on creating inspirational and moving ads.


3) Afraid/Surprised

Fear is a natural instinct -- one that helps us to react appropriately to threats to increase our chance of survival.


Fear creates urgency and prompts us to take action; to change or more importantly for this story, buy something that will prevent terrible things from happening. As Don Draper said in a Mad Men episode, “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.”


A lot of scare-vertising tactics can be seen in commercials to prevent drunk driving and cigarette smoking. The World Wildlife Fund is one brand known for its controversial and fear-inducing imagery.


4) Angry/Disgusted

Most people think that it is best to avoid anger -- it’s a negative emotion that will cause negative associations. But in some cases, anger can wake people up and spur action. We become angry when we see another person hurt or an injustice. Disgust and frustration can cause us to reconsider our perspective and ask important questions.


A study of the most popular images on found that while negative emotions were less common in viral content than in positive, viral success happened when the negative images had an element of anticipation and surprise.



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