It’s Valentine’s Day, which, for advertisers, means a chance to get us pulling at our purse strings by pulling at our heartstrings.
But why is it that our brains respond so positively to romance? And which brands have hit the sweet spot in recent years with their heart-warming offerings?
According to neuroscience, just like in any romcom, the secret to the success of "romantic" advertising all hinges on those climactic moments of romantic interaction – but not always in the way we expect.
Broadly speaking, "romantic" moments in ads can be powerful because they have the ability to drive long-term memory encoding in our brains. This is essential to effective advertising, because LTME has direct links to decision-making and future behaviour in consumers.
When we see a kiss, hug or even a meaningful smile in an ad, our brains are stimulated in a variety of ways. Because humans are programmed to naturally interact, our brains usually react strongly to seeing people interact on screen. This can be observed in Lynx Black’s "Bring the quiet" ad from 2015. In this case, when the boy and girl share a suggestive, lingering glance, our analysis found that this moment elicited a strong brain response.
Not only this, but romantic moments of this sort are usually pivotal to the narrative development of the ad itself. This is important because our brains only store essential information into memory – so when it realises a particular event has an impact on the activity observed before and after, our memories become active.
Moreover, perhaps the most obvious reason that romantic moments are effective is because they tend to stir emotional responses from us. Love is one of the strongest emotions people can feel and things we feel strongly about are more likely to be stored away into memory. So when something makes us cry, for example, we will recall the intensity of emotion and associated event.
Nevertheless, romantic peaks or moments have another important function with an ad narrative that is often overlooked by advertisers. Neuroscience has found that while intimate moments are good at driving memory encoding, the anticipation before the important event also has a significant – and potentially more powerful – impact on the brain, particularly when it comes to emotional response.
In Levi’s "Beautiful morning" ad, the final shot shows the man returning with a coffee for himself and the woman in the flat. While the viewers and the woman were initially led to believe he has left for good, we now realise that he always intended to return.
In our analysis of this spot, we found that when the woman looks into the man’s eyes, audience response was very positive. However, when she pulls him into the room, people tended to withdraw emotionally.
The same pattern was found in John Lewis’ well-known "Always a woman". In this case, people preferred watching the actors moving closer and looking each other in the eye over the physical act of the kiss.
So, in some cases, while the "lead-in" action is good at drawing viewers in, the climactic moment – when we see it happening before our eyes – is not always desirable. The spot will still encode into memory, but it might cause a negative association in the brain. This could be because the moment evokes a sense of discomfort, with the viewer feeling like they’re trespassing on something private.
And when it comes to deciding where and when it’s appropriate to highlight specific branding or brand messages during an ad, this detail is significant.
This is because brands that decide to highlight their logo or name immediately after the romantic moment might miss a key opportunity to get their message across to the viewer in a positive way, rendering the ad redundant. This is exactly what occurred in Levi’s ad, which showed its logo after people had already withdrawn emotionally. So, when the romantic moment is particularly intimate or strong, advertisers might be better advised to highlight their branding during the "lead-in" period.
An example of where this has been done well is Diet Coke’s infamous "Gardener". In this ad, the women notice the male gardener right at the beginning. They then toss the Diet Coke can down the hill, where it reaches him. The key moment is when the gardener takes off his shirt and takes a sip of the drink.
Because the Diet Coke branding was apparent during the "lead-in" period – we see it clearly on the can as it rolls down the hill – the audience tended to have a positive emotional response to it.
This is especially important when we look more closely at the responses people had to this event. Interestingly, there was a divide in feeling between genders, with women reacting positively and men withdrawing. This is despite both genders initially reacting positively to the opening scene with the women on the lawn. So, in this case, Diet Coke made the right decision by featuring their branding early in the narrative.
Some people might say that love comes from the heart. But when it comes to using romance as an advertising tactic, it’s perhaps more important to look at what the brain is doing. There’s no denying that a good love story can help get branding across in a big way but, as these ads demonstrate, it’s not about winning over the ones we want – sometimes it’s just about the chase.
Heather Andrew is chief executive of Neuro-Insight UK