Advertising used to be simple. The marketer would take the client’s product, jazz it up a bit, add in a bit of humour or style, broadcast a message with a catchy tune and off to the shops many consumers would go. But over time we all became a bit de-sensitised to jaunty TV or radio commercials with a cheery jingle. Perhaps a natural consequence of the move away from humour is – “Sadvertising” – the idea of meaningful advertising; something that tugs at our heartstrings with the goal of eliciting authentic emotional responses.
The idea for this blog came about because I, along with many of the rest of us, sat down and watched the annual John Lewis Christmas advert on the day it was released. Did it pull at my heart strings? Not really (I’m quick to refute any mention of ageism here!). But a significant number of my friends were quick to mention the emotional pull the advert had on them, some even admitting to a tear. I wanted to investigate why all of a sudden brands seem to have cottoned on to the fact that telling a heart-warming, emotional story is so much better than an advert designed to make us laugh. Advertisers prodding their audiences to emote is nothing new. Beer brands have become synonymous with making us laugh. Others, like Benetton, are masters in shocking us. What’s different today is the explicit use of social causes to stir our hearts and activate our tear ducts. The promise of a good cry has become an engine of social sharing. So why has the tear-jerking trend captured the nation?
The Upworthy Effect
One possible reason for this latest trend comes down to Upworthy, the link-curation site that has mastered the art of fishing out and circulating the most profound, real, life-changing, share-worthy content online. Just look at the current state of the media to know this is the case. A huge amount of value is placed upon “meaningful” content – inspirational stories that cannot be missed, that will change your world or blow your mind or break your heart. People like and share stories of real people doing really meaningful things that bring them to tears. For example, the deaf woman who hears for the first time; the man who gives to the homeless; or even the teacher who has a profound love for her students. This is the trend towards reality in which the thirst for real stories has remade TV and now informs shareable content online.
The rise of the digital age
In a much broader context, much of the trend can be attributed to technology. In our digitally switched-on, 24/7 plugged in lives, we still somehow feel disconnected from people. As human beings, we still look for true human connection, and perhaps emotional storytelling helps to bridge this gap. Brands and agencies have come to realise that this is a way to fill that void. So for example, Upworthy has had so much success because of its ability to fill a cultural need. Yes emotional stories have been around for a long time, and yes people probably shed a tear or two, but the difference is they didn’t have their TV’s in their pockets. We are now able to consume such stories wherever we are and the rise in emotional work is likely due to the fact that advertising that evokes a strong emotional response is very shareable.
There’s also a second reason why the digital age has increased the amount of meaningful advertising and this is the way in which the media landscape has changed. There has been a shift to lower frequency and longer time lengths in which video content is produced where clips are now at a minimum 90 seconds long. There is now increased freedom to pursue longer, human-centric narratives over simple product sell. For example, NatWest’s “I got bills” advert could simply advertise the benefits of its reward current account but rather chooses to depict a father struggling to keep his children from wasting energy until he switches to the new account. Ultimately then, touching deeper emotional levels requires a longer format, which the internet caters for perfectly.
Evolution of the consumer culture
Consumer culture has evolved in such a way that people are being more reflective and mindful about their lives. Once you’ve got the things you need and then the things you don’t need but desire, you start looking for slightly deeper layers of meaning. Perhaps people have simply tired of that sarcastic, smart-ass vibe of the early 21st century. The ad industry has spent the last decade celebrating bitterness and cynicism and being mean to people. For a while this was great because it was different from everyone else, but then it became a trend and people got sick of it. So when “Sadvertising” started to appear, we all totally reacted because the cynical trend wasn’t funny anymore.
Global corporations, after all, exert a huge influence on how we think. Isn’t it better that an insurance firm like AXA uses that influence to raise awareness about cancer rather than bore on about its premiums? Taking a stance on an important issue and making a positive contribution are exactly what a brand should be doing in today’s world. People are happy with the idea of brands aligning themselves with a social issue – just as long as they are making a genuine positive contribution.
The power of the unconscious
The marketing world has embraced the ideas of neuroscience and its lessons about the power of the unconscious. Brands are striving to create “content” rather than simply making “ads”. That is, they are devoting their time to crafting stories that people actively seek out and share rather than providing an unpleasant interruption. According to experts in neuroscience, this “softer” approach to selling is actually working. Don’t get me wrong, the heart-versus-head argument is nothing new. But recently, marketers have absorbed more high-profile thinking that posits that human decision making is driven by our unconscious instead of logic.
The shift reflects a realisation that many daily purchases are not made by engaging in deliberate, rational thinking, but rather are driven by quick emotional responses. If consumers are selecting products based on emotions, the logic then follows that marketers will try to build associations that are emotional in nature. Emotional ads can be a useful tool for marketers trying to shape brand associations. By directly incorporating emotions into a brand’s story, the marketer builds in specific emotional characteristics that can increase positive attitudes among consumers about the product. For example, if a brand consistently features uplifting and heart-warming stories, it makes the consumer feel good and can influence the consumer’s overall view of the brand.
Emotions provide authenticity. That is, life is full of emotional richness, not just fact and figures. If we look back through human history, a lot of knowledge and information has been transmitted through stories; and in many ways the human brain has been shaped by storytelling. Information told in the form of a story is better remembered and is able to stand out, especially when compared to dry, listed information. A key component of such storytelling is the emotional content. Emotional adverts can therefore help a brand craft its story, and create relatable content that resonates with consumers because it engages and entertains them. The power of story has the potential to catapult a brand’s message beyond the advertising world and into our real world.
While bringing emotions into advertising can increase the memorability and power of an ad, it is important that the emotions are relevant to the brand itself. Since so much of our life is influenced by emotion, people are very good at detecting “fakers”—both interpersonally and in advertising. Brands are able to tell authentic stories only if they find stories that align with the brand’s core beliefs and brand purpose, otherwise it risks feeling exploitative. For example, Coca-Cola is not going to run a fear campaign anytime soon, just as the British Heart Foundation isn’t likely to use humour to get their message across. Because of their memorability, an emotion that’s not connected to the brand could end up doing more harm than good. Yet when done right, these stories that move people have longevity, are more effective, and can lift a brand above all of the soulless sales pitches.
The dark side of any trend however, is that once it’s identified, it’s too late to prevent the good aspects of it from being sucked into a black hole with the rest. The moment organisations start saying “This made people cry, and do you see how many views it got. We need to make people cry about our brand” it’s already too late. There are already too many “sadverts” out there.
Despite the potential pitfalls with the latest “Sadvertising” trend, what cannot be denied is the authenticity and uniqueness of some brands communications. Below are my top three “sadverts” – communications that I think really did hit the right note for their audiences.
John Lewis had to get a mention because after all, it did create the logic behind this blog post. Ultimately, I group all the John Lewis Christmas adverts together because while each could have been overly sentimental, they have all rung true to the brand. “The Long Wait” was among the early spots this Festive period that had ad people talking and normal people breaking out the tissues. These adverts create something that make people excited about Christmas albeit in an unselfish way. Whether it be giving someone the perfect present; giving a loved one a Christmas they’ll never forget; or thinking about someone who might be lonely at Christmas, John Lewis are clever at capturing the joy a selfless act can bring.
The best thing about this advert for Budweiser was that it didn’t require that level of real-life authenticity. The charming tail of a canine-equine romance hit the core target during the Super Bowl, even though the agency didn’t set out to create something weepy. The intent was to say that Budweiser as a brand is about bringing people together, highlighting those unlikely friendships that happen when you’re sitting around a bar. The brand value came alive through storytelling without even meaning to. Brands can learn a lot from this – adverts will have far more impact by doing something unique rather than trying to simply follow what other brands are doing.
I group these two together because although different brands, they are both targeting two important issues that females may face. I have to say the “Like a girl” ad did make me feel empowered –exactly what Sadvertising is designed to do. Always accurately depicted the struggles girls may face during puberty and shows you the effect stereotypes can have on someone’s self-confidence. Synonymously, Dove’s ability to remind us how self-critical we are really hits home. The good thing about these two brands is that they don’t over-emote the advert and real people can therefore relate to it. They also score highly on the authenticity scale because both brands target the female market and are therefore running campaigns that are both relevant and memorable to women.
So remember, next time you’re caught crying at a “sadvert” ask yourself, do you remember who the ad was for and does it make you think differently about them? At the end of the day, a great piece of brand content that gets shared around and makes people feel something is ineffective if it’s not reflecting positively on the brand. No one is bigger than emotion. There’s just a fine line in terms of how brands navigate through it. Consumers aren’t stupid. We all know that advertisers want to sell us stuff. But advertisers know that too. As long as everyone is clear, then brands’ embracing social issues is no bad thing. If you’re not a fan then just don’t “like” it.
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