Why Emotions Matter To Advertisers

It’s official: advertising has discovered its sensitive side. Emotional advertising has existed for years, but awareness of the scope, uses and amplifying effects of emotion has never been so prevalent among agencies, publishers and brands.

It only takes a few clicks through Unruly’s Viral Video Chart to see this shift in action, with several high-emotion, high-arousal ads jumping out as the clear winners of 2015 so far. A triumphant PSA from Ad Council inspired strangers to look more than skin-deep (literally) when it comes to love.

An Italian newspaper addressed domestic violence with an emotionally-charged stunt. And insurance company MetLife produced perhaps the most tear-jerking video ad of all time in ‘My Dad’s Story’.  All three were sharing hits.

While it seems obvious that emotional content should inspire similar responses in viewers, research into this field is making the psychology of content sharing clearer every day.

Unruly has been at the forefront of these questions since 2006, when the Unruly Viral Video Chart gave unprecedented open access to sharing figures on the web, and has partnered with leading academics in pushing emotional marketing research forward. Questions which previously could only be answered with woolly statements about positive feeling have now been made a lot clearer by our ‘Science of Sharing’ white papers.

For example, what role do emotions so play when it comes to high share rates, as opposed to simply a view count? In ‘Key Elements of Viral Advertising’, Dr. Alberto Dafonte-Gomez argues that while view counts represent passive engagement with a piece of content, sharing is a far more active encounter. Therefore there is a “symbolic link between the content shared, the personality of the user sharing it, and the perception of the community it is shared with” and personal emotion becomes all the more important.

Bolstering Dafonte-Gomez’s point is Nelson-Field’s research in her 2013 book “Viral Marketing”, which concluded that ‘high-arousal’ emotional adverts are far more likely to be remembered than ‘low-arousal’ adverts. These studies demonstrate both why emotional marketing inspires personal connection with users, but also how this positive response to content can be translated into ROI.

Of course, while the emotions and sharing behaviour of users are important, they are academic to brands unless they are delivering sales. Thankfully, research by Binet and Field demonstrated in 2007 that “emotional advertising appears particularly good at reducing price sensitivity and hence leads to particularly large profit gains”. This is music to marketers’ ears, and was supported by Pringle and Field’s research (2008), which determined that emotional advertising trumps rational advertising on almost every business metric, including sales, penetration, loyalty and awareness.

Unruly recently carried out research to this effect and similarly determined that an intense emotional response to an advert leads to higher purchase intent. With these kind of uplifts on the table, it’s clear why big brands are now trying to replicate the emotional success of smaller campaigns like ‘Love Has No Labels’.

Certain major brands, like Dove, John Lewis and Budweiser, have known the value of high-emotion content for years, but others are only just catching on. Apple, whose ads famously tend to prefer style over emotional connection, won a surprising hit with their  uncharacteristically-sentimental ‘The Song’. Similarly, McDonald’s simple but affecting ‘Signs’ from earlier this year demonstrated a shift towards more purely emotion.

But perhaps the greatest example of this trend toward the emotional is the latest campaign from that very hub of social activity, Facebook. With notably lacklustre previous campaigns, Facebook’s latest rebrand finds them emphasising the nostalgic, sentimental qualities of friendship in a manner that puts the social network at the centre of modern friendship.

However, the emotional timbre of the ad itself, simply titled ‘Our Friends’, is superbly gripping. It’s far better (and more successful in terms of sharing) than any ad campaign Facebook has produced before, and emotional branding is at the centre of that. The current state of emotional advertising is watching as the lessons of surprise hits like ‘Slap Her’ filter down to the biggest brands in the world.

Whether or not 2015 presents an all-encompassing wave of high-arousal, high-emotion advertising largely depends on whether brands can learn this lesson, both from the research and the example of successful campaigns before them. For brands looking to engage users in a meaningful, ROI-effective way online, emotion is the way forward.