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Selling Emotion In Advertising: The Psychology of Effective Ads

The advent of non-traditional distribution channels brought on by advances in technology has raised a number of issues for advertisers. The consumer marketplace has become a dumping ground of sorts for a bevy of messages from companies telling us to buy more - and buy "better."

To reach us, ad agencies have tried numerous tactics including: cool graphics and effects, gorgeous models leading globetrotting lifestyles (who are not an accurate representation of "Joe and Jill" average), and promises that the product will deliver and meet our needs on numerous levels. Billions of dollars are spent delivering the message, but is the message really getting through?

When I think back to my days as a corporate sales representative, my business challenges were not unlike those faced by advertisers today. How do I come across as being "different" than my competitors - and succeed at having my product stand out amongst others that deliver similar experiences?

Looking back, the clincher to my biggest and most successful sales was based on an emotional element that I was able to add to the selling mix. Customers could have bought a similar product elsewhere, but they bought from me. If I was selling toys, then I would be able to use the "cute and fuzzy" factor as a lead-in to the sale. Key sales decisions were always a combination of both rational and emotional elements.

Emotion is important in selling because it leads to ownership and involvement. Remember the breakthrough success of the pet rock? Why else would anyone pay money for a rock in a box, other than the "cool" - and pride of ownership factors? The fact that the rock came with a handbook increased the emotional attachment of the rock to the owner. The success of the mood ring was based on similar principles. The product was even able to "predict" emotion through a display of colour on the owner's hand. We all knew it was a crock, yet we all bought it. In some strange way, we became attached to the idea that the ring could actually predict or reflect our mood. The experience became personal.

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Just as in selling, the most effective ads reach us through their emotional appeal. By targeting our emotions, we are able to identify with the characters in the ad. Their story becomes our own.

When I think about great ads, I think of ads that struck a key emotional chord. There was something universal and "human" to the story. Examples of ads that catered to our emotions include:

The key to customer awareness and engagement can be found in this simple truism...people don't buy from companies - people buy from people.

What other ad campaigns can you think of that used emotion as a way to sell the product? Do you think this is an effective way of reaching consumers? Why isn't it used more often in advertising today?



Karen Hegmann


You're too kind!
Thanks for your comments. I wonder why more marketers and advertisers don't cater to the emotions in their campaigns. As you say, if you can touch someone's heart, you're one step closer to a positive buying outcome.
I'm not big on soft drinks, but I remember hearing that Coke ad years ago as a kid -and just wanting to go to the corner store to sip a cold one! The music sold me, and it didn't even matter that the product was a soft drink.
That's amazing power for a marketer or advertiser.

Lewis Green


Sometimes your brilliance stuns me. Marketing and selling is about engaging emotions. As soon as we lose that idea and go for the intellect or the funny bone, we lose the sale. Touch my heart and you have a chance to sell me Florida swampland.

Karen Hegmann

Hi Quentin

Thanks for your comments. I enjoyed your thoughts on several levels.
I find the whole area of experiential marketing fascinating - especially when the marketing aspects are combined with principles taken from science and psychology.
As you say, if people experience things they are more likely to buy - although they have to make this decision themselves (unlike the used car salesman who pushes things on people).
The Harvey's example is a good one, and shows the benefits of tying emotion into your original brand. In other words, don't sell what you don't stand for.
I'm guessing that there will be more research into the area of emotion and advertising/marketing as we enter new phases of technological advances.
Thanks again for your insight - and keep downing those espressos!

Quentin Evans

Hey Karen,

Absolutely great piece.

This insight is something that I believe every creative house struggles to effectively apply in their communications.
Indeed it reflects one of the primary reasons that I am involved in "experiential" marketing - I strongly believe that the most impactful and memorable advertising takes place when a consumer can experience a product/brand, thereby generating an emotional response.
Regardless of the medium though, I believe the disconnect most often occurs when advertisers try too hard to "control" the emotive reaction. Too many companies/brands/etc. are too frightened to let their consumers generate their own thoughts about them that the entire experience becomes substantially less engaging - and by consequence, less emotional.
Having spent many years in sales myself, I too am a big believer in the adage that "people buy from people". To that end though, the contrived "used-car-salesman" stereotype always gave consumers a negative emotive response... often because the salesman did not let the consumer "sell themselves".
Advertisers consistently underestimate the consumer's ability to make their own decisions.
I recall a recent ad campaign for Harvey's that flew right in the "fad" face of healthy lifestyle choices by focusing on a "manly BBQ with lots of meat".
I respected the courage of the client (and the insight of their ad agency) to give consumers a little respect when it comes to making their daily choices about food. Harvey's legacy is built upon a hamburger. Why try to "fool" the consumer by talking up other "healthier" options? Sure it may appease the health-conscious Mom who's only eating there because her kids are going... but if that's your market share, might as well close up shop now.
Instead, create an emotional connection between the joys of BBQ'ing and the experience of eating at Harvey's.
Be up front with the consumer that if you're looking to eat healthy, you should probably eat at home or at a salad bar. But when you're not going to eat well... come to Harvey's.
The used car salesman usually made one sale and had no repeat business. Don't try to convince the consumer to eat well or not eat well - let the consumer decide that themselves. Then once they've decided to indulge, be their choice of indulgence.
Wow... shouldn't have had that afternoon Espresso...

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