Home > Ad Pre-Testing, Emotion, Neuroscience > It Made Me Laugh, It Made Me Cry – But Did It Make Me Buy?

It Made Me Laugh, It Made Me Cry – But Did It Make Me Buy?

July 13th, 2015

Due to his Vulcan upbringing, Star Trek’s Mr. Spock was known for his ability to detach himself from emotion and arrive at decisions from a purely logical standpoint. As for the rest of us – not so much. Humans are emotional creatures. We may diligently do our homework in gathering the facts – fuel economy, horsepower, crash test results, resale track record, finance options… But less objective features – styling, image, color, plush interior, feel for the road, acceleration – those get our attention, make our heart beat a little faster, and tug our mind away from a purely rational decision making process.

And so it is with advertising. Much is made of the dichotomy of a rational approach versus an emotional approach. However, in reality it is not an either/or proposition. The key to successful advertising is in making both a rational and emotional connection with our audience, as has been quantified in MSW●ARS studies of advertising pre-test results – those ads with strong emotional and rational responses are supercharged in terms of likelihood to achieve superior sales performance.


The importance of a strong emotional response to advertising is bolstered by a recent Procter & Gamble in-house review of advertising performance. As reported by WARC, this study found that ads generating an emotional response were nine times more likely to be successful. P&G marketing director/creative strategist Pete Carter noted “Indifference is the killer here. And that’s what you want to avoid. I think … discovering all the different kinds of emotions that are out there: that’s where the real meat is right now.”

The options for how advertising content can be designed to elicit an emotional response will be informed by the brand’s strategy and existing personality. There are no set rules on how this can be done. However, an MSW●ARS review of television advertisements which were able to leverage an emotional connection into high levels of sales effectiveness has led to some broad rules of thumb for how emotional content can be successfully incorporated into advertising.

Portray an emotional benefit: The products we choose perform a needed function – clean the clothes, keep our hair in place, quench our thirst. But they can also provide important emotional benefits – peace of mind, confidence, fun, exhilaration. Depicting how the product can make you feel has proven to be the most consistently effective emotional approach. Dick’s Sporting Goods not only showed how a new basketball hoop could make a little girl feel, but also how the product became a centerpiece of the family’s life.



Create a need state for the product: We all have needs, from the very basics such as food and shelter to higher order needs such as feelings of security, romance or social inclusion. Advertisements can use emotionally charged imagery, plot lines and music to depict the feelings of need for a product that can in turn create a need state for the product among viewers. This imaginative ad from Perrier uses extreme visuals and effective music to build an urgent sense of need for the thirst quenching power of Perrier – and also ultimately depicts the benefit in an emotional payoff when the protagonist finally is able to indulge in a bottle of Perrier.



Be Aspirational: At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are esteem and self-actualization. We all aspire for something better – to fulfill our potential and to be valued by others. The literature has suggested that advertisements which play to the aspiration for personal enhancement can be powerful – and the MSW•ARS database has confirmed the utility of this approach. This celebrity ad featuring LeBron James is aspirational as it depicts his roots in his community and how he found his “thirst” or motivation to succeed from their “passion” and “love”. The ad shows how Sprite helps him to give back to the community to quench their thirst for a better life – and promotes Sprite as the ultimate thirst quencher.



Portray Excitement and Adventure: There is a trend in spending, especially among younger people, away from tangible items such as clothing and toward technology and, notably, experiences. Brands that can tap into this growing appetite for excitement and experience through their advertising and marketing plan are likely to benefit when the depicted feelings are transferred onto the brand and are appropriate for the brand’s image. This ad from Red Bull uses the world record sky-diving event, sponsored by Red Bull, to create an intense sense of excitement and adventure. It works for the brand due to its image and purpose – to bring energy and excitement to life.



Deploy Humor Strategically: The basis for much of what we find to be humorous is the misfortune of others. Did you see that guy slip on the banana peel – it was hilarious! Likewise, humor in advertising has been seen to be particularly effective when it is used to poke fun at a competitor, as Taco Bell successfully did with its clever dig at McDonald’s in its “Guess Who’s Coming to Breakfast” spot promoting its new breakfast menu.



Humor has also been used to great effect in emphasizing how effective the advertised product is, perhaps through a device such as exaggeration, or highlighting an important aspect of the product. This ad for Oikos Greek Yogurt uses exaggerated behavior to humorously and effectively illustrate how irresistible tasting the product is.



Beware Disassociation: It is vital that the use of emotion is in support of the product and its selling strategy. Ads with weak emotional associations to the brand are rarely successful. Oftentimes such ads attempt to use an emotional approach to gain attention or create a feeling they hope to have associated with the product, but the connection of the drama to the brand is vague. While the Budweiser ‘Puppy Love’ ad won accolades and Super Bowl ad popularity contests, the connection between the story and the brand is tenuous suggesting the ad may have been more popular than sales effective for the brand.



Given the importance of an emotional connection, evaluative techniques based on neuro-scientific research can be particularly valuable. For example, facial coding or EEG techniques can give a read on emotional engagement that is temporally discriminating to allow assessment of emotional engagement in the critical early seconds of an ad and to identify any segments where there is potential for viewer disengagement.

One example from MSW●ARS’s application of these techniques involves an ad’s soundtrack. While historically music was used to tie a brand to specific benefits by highlighting brand features in the lyrics, as in a jingle, in modern form music ties the brand to specific emotions by highlighting personal experiences. In the example, neuroscience tools isolated why a particular ad underperformed for a key target group. The background soundtrack led to disengagement (detected from EEG) and avoidance activation (detected from galvanic response) at several points within the ad among the target group.


Bill Bernback once said “You can say the right thing about a product and nobody will listen. You’ve got to say it in such a way that people will feel it in their gut. Because if they don’t feel it, nothing will happen.” His experience led him to the same conclusion that P&G’s recent study came to – that emotional indifference is the biggest enemy our advertising campaigns face.

Please contact your MSW●ARS representative to learn more about how our TouchPoint*Plus platform and neuro-science techniques can be used to assess the effectiveness of your brand’s advertising and assess how it is connecting emotionally with viewers.


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