The value of emotional ads: why dancing ponies and singing kittens are here to stay

Three's moon-walking pony and the McVitie's kittens may seem bizarre, but their emotional impact is worth a thousand words and it is a trend that is here to stay, argues John Kearon, chief executive of marketing and brand consultancy BrainJuicer.

John Kearon, chief executive of marketing and brand consultancy BrainJuicer
John Kearon, chief executive of marketing and brand consultancy BrainJuicer

Last year it was a pony moon-walking to Fleetwood Mac. This week it’s a cat in a basket singing Starship. Silliness is in the advertising air, courtesy of Three, and it seems to have got some people’s backs up. "Take one animal," ran a snarky tweet, "Add one 80s hit. Congratulations – you’re an advertising creative."

Can it really be that simple? The truth is: it’s even simpler. Ads like Three’s – and the McVities spots that have caught the internet’s attention with kittens and puppies crawling out of biscuit packs – don’t succeed because of the cute animals. They succeed because they make people happy. Emotional advertising is hot, and unashamed feel-good spots like Three’s lead the way.

There is good evidence and solid science backing up the drive for emotion. Analysts Les Binet and Peter Field crunched the IPA database to work out what ads needed to do to create long-term business effects for brands. The answer: be emotional.

How we feel is more important than how we think

Message-based persuasive campaigns don’t cut it long-term. Nor does wrapping the iron fist of a message in the velvet glove of emotion: no, your ads need to be emotional all the way through. Why?

Great emotional advertising makes your brand famous and keeps it in people’s minds.

Psychologists and behavioural scientists talk a lot about implicit, subconscious decision-making, and how we feel turns out to be vastly more important to that than how we think. Great emotional advertising makes your brand famous and keeps it in people’s minds.

So seduction, not persuasion, is the key to successful advertising. Does that mean kittens forever? Not quite. Good advertising is emotional, but there’s no checklist for how to achieve that. Different things will work in different cultures and at different times.

In America, the most emotional ad we’ve seen for years was last year’s Budweiser Super Bowl piece, about the unbreakable bond between a man and his horse. Not a dry eye in the Midwestern house, but those same people might have been baffled by Three’s prancing pony.

Cute animals are not the only route

Animals can help you get to emotional advertising, but they’re hardly the only route. At BrainJuicer we’ve tested thousands of ads for their emotional impact, and every five-star emotional ad gets there in a different way.

Guinness’ wheelchair basketball ad – with its strong storyline and beautiful twist – makes people happy in a completely different way to Evian’s ‘baby and me’, with passers-by watching their younger selves dance in a mirror. The routes to making people happy are almost unlimited – they require only creativity, which the ad industry is rolling in.

It’s worth looking more closely at what Three and McVities are doing, though – and what they aren’t. Yes, both use small animals in faintly surreal ways – they are the product of their cultural moment, a response to an online culture in which mash-ups are commonplace and posting cute creatures is rarely a losing bet. This will pass, but some of what these ads do is less of a fad.

They both use familiar music – Starship for Three, and old sitcom themes for McVities. And neither of them bother with a voiceover and branded message.

These decisions may also seem merely fashionable, but they’re actually more important than the kittens – using well-known music, and dropping voiceover, are consistently the two creative choices most likely to lead to really emotional ads.

Why is this? Well, music you remember primes you to enjoy the ad more, and as for voiceover, the power of ads lies in what they show, not what they tell. Too much voiceover distracts the viewer and dulls the emotions.

Not every great ad uses famous music. Not every great ad shuns voiceover. For instance, Lego’s "Let’s Build" Christmas ad was an emotional success with an ironic motivational voiceover from a child actor. But it would have been even better without the voice, and in general cutting back the voiceover and investing in well-known music will make for a stronger commercial.

To our killjoy tweeter: don't worry

How people execute emotional ads will always change. Our killjoy tweeter needn’t worry: in a year, animals and 80s pop will probably seem stale – though we’ve had ten years of plinky minor-key pianos on ads, so some things take longer to change than others.

But emotional ads themselves are here to stay. The more we understand about the implicit nature of most human decisions, the less tenable the persuasion model of advertising seems. The emotional model, on the other hand, has a beautiful simplicity. If you feel nothing, you do nothing. If you feel lots, you buy more. And getting you to feel lots is now, more than ever, advertising’s core job.

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