Emotion in Advertising: Pervasive, Yet Misunderstood
Advertisers talk a lot about the importance of generating an emotional response from people. However, they rarely stop to specify exactly what characterizes such a response or why they believe it is important.
By Nigel Hollis, Millward Brown
Granted, this definition is not a simple task, and the lack of clarity surrounding terms such as “emotional,” “rational,” “subconscious,” etc., is a further complication. However, a review of current learning on the way emotion guides our thinking reveals that emotion is both more and less important than most advertisers realize. Furthermore, attempts to classify responses as emotional versus rational are often pointless, as the assumed dichotomy is a false and misleading one.
We Respond Emotionally to Everything
The subject of emotion in advertising tends to bring certain types of commercials to mind: those featuring touching or heart-rending vignettes, cooing babies, or romping puppies. Too often an emotional response to advertising is thought to be one that elicits tears or smiles. But in fact, every ad generates an emotional response, because everything we encounter in life generates an instinctive emotional response. Everything. And so in this way, emotion is more important than most advertisers realize. As Erik du Plessis explains in his excellent book The Advertised Mind, emotional responses are hard-wired into our brains and essential to our survival.
Our emotional responses are rooted in our past experience. Even as you read this point of view, your past experience of accumulated ideas and impressions on both the subject and the author is shaping your reaction. The same is true of all the other events in our lives. Events that are familiar and unthreatening generate little attention. Those that are familiar and pleasurable generate more attention and attract us, while events recognized as painful or threatening repel us. When we come across something completely new, our brain’s first response is to relate it to something familiar. If that does not automatically determine how we should respond, the conscious mind will step in to figure things out.
This initial instinctive “emotional” response determines three things: how much attention we will pay to the event that triggered it, what our conscious response will be, and how deeply our memories of the event will be entrenched. The response can be positive or negative, intense or weak. Most events, including those concerning brands and advertising, do not evoke an intense response. But even though our response may not be intensely positive or intensely negative, it is still “emotional.” Download Emotion in Advertising
(pdf, 663 Kb)