Why emotional ads can be bad for brand-building
A view from Vic Polkinghorne, creative director, Sell! Sell!

Why emotional ads can be bad for brand-building

In the stampede towards emotional advertising, are we forgetting the thing that consumers bought into in the first place, asks Vic Polkinghorne.

Let’s try a little experiment. Picture yourself down the pub, or café or strip joint (okay, I don’t know your lifestyle, just pick a place where you meet your friends and generally chat about normal stuff like what normal people do).

Now, imagine for a moment that as part of normal chit-chat, you find yourself recommending a product that you use to a friend. It can be anything; a car, cereal, your bank, toothpaste, soft drink, jeans, shoes, shampoo, anything.

Have you picked one?

Your friend is looking for a new car/cereal/bank/toothpaste/soft drink/jeans/shoes/shampoo or whatever it is, and you think yours is pretty good, so you tell them.

Now, what would you say to them?

Would it be something about how the product or service makes you feel when you use it? Would it be something to elicit an emotional response? Or would it be something else?

Chances are, if you’re a reasonably normal human being (outside of business hours), you probably told them why the product or service was good, why it meets your needs, maybe even a little detail about how it does that, a little key fact here, or a bit of performance there, why it worked for you personally, maybe.

It’s less likely that you said to your friend "You know what, George, the car just makes me feel so bloody joyful" or "It might just be a sugary, carbonated beverage, Sandra, but it makes me feel uplifted about the world".

Yet for some reason, advertising agencies are increasingly convincing brands that the best way to grow is to talk to your friend like that. And they don’t even know him.

Hot topic

Emotional advertising is the current fashionable talk-of-the-advertising-village. That is, the move away from communicating why a product might be good/useful/of benefit, and instead trying to make the consumer feel a specific emotion about the brand, in an attempt to ‘own’ an emotional territory. We’ve seen this approach used to sell chocolate, cars, and most recently biscuits, amongst others. It is the hot topic of fashionable planners and advertising thought leaders. Why is this?

It appears that the theories have been drawn out of the seductive appeal of neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and human behavioural studies. The works of Albert Mehrabian, Daniel Kahneman and Stephen Pinker are often cited by intellectual agency planners (sorry, strategists).

It seems like the science has often passed through the pop culture filter and emerged as over-simplified sound-bites that just happen to suit intellectual agency planners' agendas

But unfortunately it seems like the science has often passed through the pop culture filter and emerged as over-simplified sound-bites that just happen to suit their agenda.

This maybe shouldn’t be a surprise, as these theories are used to support a highbrow view of brand advertising that the planner and agency people preferred to believe anyway.

In this era of middle-class, university educated dominance of the ad industry, you often hear agency people talk about selling as if it’s beneath them, unsavoury or lowbrow.

How much more palatable at dinner parties (and pitch presentations) to treat advertising like some kind of clever behavioural science.

Because of this, it sometimes seems like the agency people are more convinced by the theories than the scientists themselves (who tend to retain a scientific objectivity).

But I worry that their thinking over-emphasises the role that emotional brand messaging plays in the overall buying process, and this over-emphasis in turn leads to advertising that isn’t as effective or compelling as it could or should be. I worry that this approach wastes precious budgets when it comes to using advertising to help build a brand.

People who push emotional brand advertising tend to be of the belief that through advertising you can you can influence consumers’ attitudes to the brand enough to change their buying behaviour.


The trouble with that line of thinking is that they are drawing an over-simplistic picture, and actually misinterpreting cause and correlation between attitude and behaviour.

Interestingly, if you delve into the research of Professor Byron Sharpe, you’ll find that he has largely disproved the notion of emotional brand loyalty driving buying behaviour. He suggests that evidence shows the reality is more likely the other way around – that buying behaviour influences attitudes. (ie. peoples’ behaviour is more like "I buy this product, therefore I like this brand" not "I buy this product because I like the brand").

This would suggest that a much more effective use of advertising would be to move people closer to buying the product. That hardly sounds like rocket science I know, but it’s the equivalent of shouting "Jehovah" in advertising agencies today. And all too often, clients find themselves being the ones who have to shout it.

Advertising should treat consumers as intelligent, reasoning people, and not as passive zombies

Maybe you’ve been in one of those meetings between client and agency where the client is keen to emphasise the benefits of their product – on the understanding that if people knew more about why or how people could use their product they’d sell more.

While the tight-trouser wearing planners and creatives moan that they were about to create something really amazing and beautiful until ‘they’ (the bloody client!) insisted we shoehorn the product into the ad. "Bloody idiots! We’d have won awards if it wasn’t for them – they just don’t get it do they!"

Advertising should treat consumers as intelligent, reasoning people, and not as passive zombies. Advertising’s role should be to introduce people to a product based on where it may fit into their lives and how it might benefit them, in a charming, compelling or entertaining way. And when they become customers of the brand, their attitudes will change in favour of it as a matter of course.

So when we set out to make advertising to help drive a brand’s growth, let’s not forget the simple thing that the customer is most interested in – and most likely drove the growth of the brand up to now anyway – the actual product or service that they buy from the brand.