Getting Emotional in Advertising

Aug 25 2011

“Who are you going to believe: me or your own eyes?”  - Groucho Marx

In About Face, Dan Hill makes a clear and compelling argument for the use of emotion in advertising and it’s power to drive changes in behaviour. The book is full of useful examples and anecdotes and some statistics too. In one study by Omnicom, emotional engagement with customers resulted in 20% higher return on investment than mere awareness in advertising.  In another review by Pringle and Field (based on 880 case studies from the UK’s Institute of Practitioners Advertising Effectiveness Awards), ‘soft sell’ ads that inspire strong emotional responses in their audience make more money (almost twice as much as ‘hard sell’ ads with more fact-based and rational arguments). And more emotional ads also reduced price sensitivity, created greater differentiation and were more important in more mature markets.

Importantly, Dan Hill doesn’t just convince that emotion is critical to successful advertising but provides clear advice on how to leverage emotions and here are his top seven tips for success.

Being ‘on emotion’

Most advertisers are taught to focus on being ‘on message’, and arguably its more important to be ‘on emotion’. Showing the right emotion, at the right time and in the right context to provoke the right response in the target audience. Using the right emotion helps to leverage the emotion’s underlying story (read more here) so that everyone can relate to it in the right way. Communicating the right emotion will trigger the right motivation, and give authenticity to any message.

Move your audience

Motion is an important way to connect with audiences, and they are much more likely to pay attention to novelty, change and intensity in your communication, which can all be triggered by movement (implied or real) in the visual imagery used. Our eyes are automatically drawn to movement, and more importantly our emotional brains seek change in order to mitigate, resolve or evade problems which advertisers seek to address.  Eye tracking data shows clearly that the eye follows motion, and the brain and heart are likely to follow if the imagery is right.

Show the right face

Faces are important in advertising (we are drawn to faces more than any other visual stimulus), but they need to be the right face to create the right emotional impact. Using the right talent is important, and their facial expression needs to be showing the right emotion - not fake emotion but real emotion. Cold impassive faces are a real turn-off for audiences, and they can detect a fake smile from a mile away (creating a negative rather than positive reaction). The research shows that using celebrity spokespeople works as long as they are authentic, but when they aren’t it is better to have more authentic anonymous faces than less authentic famous ones!

Engage the senses

Engage as many senses as possible (read more here), going beyond what the audience can see and hear whenever possible (try and engage or at least imply taste, touch and smell as well). This is where experiential marketing and your customer experiences will make the difference to successful marketing campaigns. The more senses are engaged, the more emotional connection will be established and the more powerful the experience and memory.

Sensory engagement should start with the visual image (which can be the start point for your story), and the following guidelines will help to use images in the most effective way:

  1. Place your main image in the centre of the visual field
  2. Use faces as often as possible
  3. Imply motion (see above) in order to attract attention
  4. Focus on images which are meaningful to your audience
  5. Let the key image or element dominate the visual
  6. Where you use movement, sustain the ‘action’ to hold interest
  7. Sudden movement (surprise) will grab attention

There are a number of creative ‘templates’ which have been shown to be more successful in engaging the senses and communicating brand values and can be usefully leveraged in all advertising:

  • Pictorial analogy helps to communicate your message (for example, the image of someone leaping off a high building in a Nike ad with the tagline ‘something soft between you and the pavement’ or the image of a tiny Beetle car in the famous 60s advertising)
  • Consequences show the implications of following or ignoring the advertising message (for example, the image of eggs frying in a saucepan to represent the brain on drugs)
  • Extreme situations and exaggeration can be used to highlight key attributes of product or service performance (for example, someone barking at burglars in advertising for security locks)
  • Comparisons with competition help to demonstrate the value or key benefit of a product or service (for example, a car racing a speeding bullet)
  • Altering dimensions of a product or service uses an altered reality to communicate a key message (for example, a wife talking to her dead husband about life insurance)
  • Interactive experiences or simulations help the audience see the benefits of a product or service and this is the power of experiential marketing (I walked past a mock (pavement) road race the other day which had been set up by a brand of sports shoe)

This is possibly the most important of the rules of emotional engagement, helping make a communication engaging and very concrete (getting physical works).


As Van Gogh said, “exaggerate the essential and leave the obvious vague”, and like all great communicators and designers always focus on the big idea. Audiences should be able to instantly connect with your message with no need to search for it amongst the other detail. With the retirement of Steve Jobs, its essential to remind ourselves again of the importance of elegant simplicity and the value of keeping it simple and focusing purely on what is important.

Emotion first, argument last

Its OK to use intellectual arguments, but always use emotional persuasion first before providing your evidence (read more on this in-store here). Most especially, never lead with price, but leave this as the last piece of the puzzle (if you need it at all). The evidence is that a focus on price takes away key emotional hooks (surprise, hope, engagement, pride) from advertising negating the most important messages (and often leaving a negative brand image too). Focus on passion and purpose before you seek to persuade and of course use as few words as possible to get your message across.

If you do need to use words, use ones which will evoke an emotional response. An interesting study by Yale University identified the following words as the most persuasive in English (there will be similar sets in other languages):

  • You
  • Money
  • Save
  • New
  • Results
  • Easy
  • Health
  • Safety
  • Love
  • Discovery
  • Proven
  • Guarantee

Interestingly, all 12 words are very basic, and relate to the eight core emotions discussed in ‘The Story of Emotions’.

Keep it comfortable

Audiences like to stay within their comfort zone, and react more positively to what is already familiar. Many behavioural economics experiments reflect the mental gymnastics we torture ourselves with in order to maintain a consistent and positive sense of well being (and of self). Reality can be shaped to fit our pre-conceptions, so it helps to stay close to customer’s real feelings and previous experience.


About Face: The Secrets of Emotionally Effective Advertising by Dan Hill (2010)

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