Are emotionally evocative ads the key to successful advertising?

Are emotionally evocative ads the key to successful advertising?



Emotive ads sweep up Cannes awards

The Cannes awards this year highlighted that emotion-led campaigns continue to account for the main creative strategy used amongst those shortlisted – with 21% of shortlisted papers using emotion and 8% using humour. Sustainability and responsibility were also key creative strategies (17%), and despite being quite rational in terms of the world problems they are tackling, they are also very good at pulling on the heart strings.

This year’s Creative Effectiveness Lions winners are powerful illustrations that advertising with heart is more powerful than rational argument.

Graham Page, Kantar Millward Brown

Two of my personal favourites were both very emotionally charged: CALM (with Adam&Eve) and Getty, FiftyFifty (with Havas).

Tapping into Kahneman’s System 1 and 2

Kahneman (nobel prize winner for his work on behavioural economics) talks about System 1 and System 2 in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. These two distinct modes of decision-making are frequently spoken about in advertising.

System 1 is known to be quick, intuitive and automatic, while System 2 is effortful, slow and rational. System 1’s autonomous thinking means it is very prone to judgement errors or cognitive biases. Taking this into account, advertisers often attempt to hijack System 1; by appealing to System 1 they can encourage you to make a quick association about the brand which may intuitively drive future purchase decisions. Emotions are a big part of System 1, so it has made sense for advertisers to create emotive campaigns, which don’t require consumers to engage System 2 to think too hard or rationally.

Is it really that simple, use emotion and you’ll win over your customers?

A colleague and I went to Walnut Unlimited’s most recent Brainy Bar event, where a panel of experts from neuroscience, psychology and advertising answered the question:
Is emotion enough to drive effectiveness in advertising?

Here are our key takeaways from the event.

Emotional memories can be very persistent

Dr. Amy Milton from Cambridge University gave us some background into memories and emotion. The word emotion is often used interchangeably with feelings. But in science, emotion is underpinned by three interacting factors: subjective feelings, physiological reactions and behavioural responses. When something happens, we look to our environment for cues to inform us of this subjective state (happy, sad, scared, angry, etc.). This links back to the work done by Pavlov in the 1890s. He found that completely unrelated stimulus (in this case a bell) can elicit a physiological response (salivation) if it is exposed to the individual with a related stimulus (food) simultaneously. The bell and the food build up a strong association.

The lifecycle of a memory follows three stages: encoding (perceive an object or event), storage and retrieval. Emotionally charged events or objects influence each of these stages in turn – emotion determines what we pay attention to and therefore what we encode, these events are stored with more significance and therefore easier to retrieve. So, it does seem the efficiency of a memory depends on how emotionally arousing the stimulus is. Furthermore, a shift in thinking moves the traditional view of memory, where memories are all about consolidation and are permanent once made, to a more current view in which memories are about reconsolidation and are constantly updated. From this stance, memories are viewed not as something static of the past, instead they are active in predicting the future.

How does this relate to advertising?

This way we build up memory networks. A brand is a promise a company makes to their consumers. It is supported by a logo, name and look; a set of visual cues to trigger the associative memories one has built up with a brand. Each encounter you have with a brand (from seeing an advertisement to using the product) gets stored as part of the brand’s associative network in your brain which becomes stronger over time. And through this repeated exposure, a brand becomes a mental short cut, or memory jogger, so that in future you don’t have to think about it so much. For example, much more comes to mind when looking at the logos on the left vs those on the right.

But, emotional ads are not always successful…

If campaign success is just about emotion, then why did one of the most watched and well-received ads of all time (Budweiser’s Puppy Love ad, aired during the 2014 Superbowl) not equate to more beer sales for the brand?

Those ads I wouldn’t air again because they don’t sell beer… We learned that content focused on the quality of our beer was most effective in generating sales.

Jorn Socquet, U.S. VP-marketing, A-B InBev

Do we need to do more than just trigger an emotion?

Phil Barden (client-side marketing expert and author of the book, Decoded) answers this question by demonstrating that it is more complex than just jam-packing campaigns with emotion.

There are two dimensions to emotion: arousal – how intense the body’s physiological response is; and valence – whether something is evaluated positively or negatively. High arousal and valence can both be great news for marketers for several reasons. As mentioned previously, they increase attention span and sharpen senses, meaning we are more likely to process and encode something. They also increase a person’s tendency to share something, increasing word-of-mouth, virality and reach. And finally they increase association networks, meaning stronger storage in memory networks which are easier to remember and retrieve.

So what’s the catch? Why did the Budweiser ad not drive more sales?

While the Budweiser puppy ad has both high arousal and high valence what they have forgotten to do is to actually make their product and brand present for the duration of the ad. The Budweiser name and logo gets a 2-second look in at the very end of the video, but the product doesn’t make an appearance at all. Thinking back to Pavlov’s dog experiments, this is as crucial as Pavlov forgetting to pair the food and bell together, but still expecting the dog to salivate when hearing the bell. Although the audience who saw this ad loved the puppy, the horse and the emotive storytelling, they didn’t create an association between this and buy and drink beer.

Brands and products need to be present, relevant and credible to get attribution.

It is more than emotion; it’s motivation

There is a misleading statistic in psychology:
95% of our decisions are based on emotion

It seems this quote has done the rounds of Chinese whispers since it originated very differently from Professor Zeltman as:
95% of thinking takes place in our unconscious minds

This fits with the work of Professor Baumeister who evaluated over 3,000 papers investigating if emotions determine behaviour. What he found was a very limited indication of a causal relationship between emotion and behaviour. That instead, emotions are a feedback system whose influence on behaviour is typically indirect by providing feedback and stimulating retrospective appraisal of actions to alter guidelines for future behaviour. Linking this back to Kahneman’s System 1 and 2, distilling System 1 as emotion alone (and missing out automatic, instinctive and unconscious processes) is, by far, an oversimplification.

Barden states that behaviour is driven by the expected value of a choice. We prescribe a value to something based on the discrepancy between our current state and our desired state (e.g. if I’m hungry a chocolate bar would have a higher value to me than if I’m not hungry). This discrepancy makes us feel motivated to do something; to commit a goal-directed behaviour (buy a chocolate bar). Then our emotions feedback to us how we feel about the outcome (how much the decision we made helped us to reach our goal). Creative communications need to highlight how a brand or product can help close this gap and achieve the consumer’s goal; therefore motivating someone to act in the desired way.

Every moment of waking life, our behaviour, thinking and emotions are orientated and regulated towards goals – whether we are aware of it or not. Goals are the system units of human functioning.

Claude Steele, PhD, Director, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences, Stanford University

So, emotive ads can be successful, but only if they include several other elements too:

  • A motivating message relevant to the target audience
  • Delivered in an emotionally engaging way
  • Illustrating how the brand and product play a relevant role in reaching a desired goal

From a planner’s point of view, this is exciting and means finding a key insight, that crucial human truth, has never been more important.

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