How to Utilize Emotion in Marketing

Think of the best ads you’ve seen in recent years — the ones that made you share, want to buy, or talk to your friends about them. Chances are, they all had one thing in common: emotion.

It’s no accident that emotional advertisements are the ones that stick with you — studies have shown that buyers use emotion to make buying decisions, and that an emotional response to advertising sways your decision-making more than the actual content of the ad.

How Emotion Is Used

For decades, there has been a broad consensus that six core emotions exist: happy, sad, afraid, surprised, angry, and disgusted. In 2014, the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology decided that some of those were a distinction without a difference and lumped them together into four: happiness, sadness, fear/surprise, and anger/disgust.


Happiness is an easy emotion for us to understand, and brands know that. For decades, the go-to-visual for many brands has been a happy customer using the product. “Buy this,” the ad implies, “and you’ll be happy too!”

Recently, brands have decided to exercise a little more nuance and try to make us, the viewers, happy instead. Consider “Friends Furever,” the Android ad that became the most shared ad of 2015.

The ad makes the viewers happy, and ties perfectly into Android’s tagline: Be Together, Not The Same. That sentiment of settling our differences and just being happy in each other’s company really resonates with us and creates positive associations with Android’s brand.


Bumming your audience out might not seem like the best idea — you don’t want to be thought of as the brand that makes people cry — which is why tear-jerking marketing tends to come with a twist.

With ads like P&G’s “Thank You Mom,” the twist is that the ad is not really about the product. It’s simply a message about all the hard work that moms do to support their children. P&G wisely kept their name from being prominently featured and made the spot about the message.

With Sarah McLachlan’s now-legendary SPCA commercials, the audience is driven to the verge of tears by the sights and stories of sad, neglected animals. The twist? You can help! By donating to the SPCA, you’ll turn the lives of these animals around. Offering a solution to a sad situation turns a previously depressing ad into a powerful call to action.


Fear is our natural response to a threat. We want the threat to go away or be neutralized as quickly as possible. That urgency pushes us into action — in the case of advertising, fear is trying to push us into taking an action that will make the fear go away.

You see a lot of fear- and shock-based advertising in PSAs — ads against smoking, drunk driving, and texting while driving often use a fearful or somber tone to show you what the negative consequences of your actions might be if you don’t mend your ways.

Fear-based ads can backfire, though. In 2015, Nationwide ran an ad about preventing injuries in the home, specifically to children. It featured a young boy talking about all the things he wanted to do with his life, but couldn’t, because he died as a child. Viewers found the ad depressing and over the line, and the CMO of Nationwide resigned as a result.


Making an association with anger is also risky — you don’t want your customers associating anger with your brand. That’s why when ads try to make you angry or disgusted, they try to make you angry or disgusted at something.

We become angry when we see injustice. Showing viewers images of cruelty, bullying, or persecution makes them angry, and that anger can be directed into action. Always’ “Like A Girl” ad is a perfect example.

Not only does the ad associate Always with positivity for young women, but it stirs up feelings of righteous anger in people who’ve heard “like a girl” used as an insult their whole life. That anger can be directed in a positive way and turned into an “I’ll show them” attitude, and that’s a message brands want to be associated with.

Using Emotion In Your Own Marketing

Emotional marketing is a delicate balance. On the one hand, viewers like having their emotions invoked when they see a marketing or advertising campaign. It makes your marketing efforts more effective and memorable — if it didn’t, marketing would be a dispassionate list of product features.

But as much as people like having their feelings spoken to, they hate feeling pandered to. Like the Nationwide commercial mentioned above, ads that feel exploitative or emotional just to trick viewers into making a purchase don’t feel genuine.

So before you take an emotional approach to your marketing, think about what you’re saying. Make sure the messaging fits your brand, and think of as many possible ways to interpret your message as you can so that you don’t send the wrong one. Emotion can be a powerful tool — use it carefully.


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