Emotion is great! It doesn’t even need saying (and if you think it does, you may be trying to convince people that you’re not a robot). Add it to your advertising, and it feels a lot less like you’re trying to sell someone something, and a lot more like you’re trying to help them.
It’s far better to treat your audience as individuals with unique problems that you can solve than a mindless mass of consumers. That said, a word of caution. Whilst emotion is a very powerful tool for connecting with your audience, it can certainly be overused. Laying it on too thick is as bad as not using any at all – worse, actually, because it feels false and amateurish, whereas no emotion merely feels boring.
In a previous blog post, we covered how emotion is effectively a persuasion shortcut. You can use it to influence your audience’s perceptions without having to convince them over a long period of time with rational arguments (the usual method of long-lasting persuasion). The secret to this is storytelling. Using emotion is an essential part of storytelling, and storytelling is the easiest way to hack your audience’s minds. However, a little bit of emotion goes a long way, and there is a very real risk of overdoing it.
One of the worst outcomes of laying it on too thick is that audiences will no longer trust your brand. If they see your marketing as false, it is a death blow to your authenticity. Whilst audiences will suspend their disbelief if sufficiently entertained, there is a limit to this. Two women in a yoghurt advert shown having a great time, fit, healthy and happy is believable – it’s a bit much to expect of yoghurt in reality, but there is enough truth to suspend the disbelief. Yoghurt is, after all, associated with health and tastiness. The same advert in which the women are instead enjoying greasy burgers is probably not going to work. The disbelief cannot be suspended far enough that the fast food can be associated with health and fitness. Therefore, a fast food brand trying to reinvent itself as healthy food is not going to do so by attempting to tell a story to audiences which they know irrevocably is untrue.
In the opposite emotional direction, marketing also becomes unbelievable when negative emotions are used to the extreme. This is known as ‘fear appeal’ and unfortunately is very frequently used for charity marketing and health advertisements. For example, the dark anti-smoking or anti-drinking adverts which featured gruesome images of drinkers and smokers being literally ‘hooked’ to their vice with a fishhook through their cheeks are surprisingly ineffective. This is because whilst people do not want the very negative consequences associated with drinking and smoking, they also do not want to believe that these consequences could happen to them. One look at this advert is not a sobering look in the mirror for the audience – it is permission to ignore the advert as unrealistic and inapplicable to them. Audiences may also simply avoid the message as a defensive mechanism, especially if they believe there is little they could do to avoid the threat displayed. The problem with these campaigns is not only an overuse of emotion, but an overuse of emotion in which no solution is presented – simply the message of “be afraid, change!” This is not only eminently unhelpful, but also highly ignorable.
However, there are occasions where exaggeration can work, as long as it is clearly a deliberate joke and executed well. For example, in Dr. Pepper’s “What’s the Worst That Can Happen?” campaign, late-teenage characters experience all sorts of embarrassing situations, from accidentally broadcasting their visit to the school nurse to the whole school, to having to be rescued – half naked – from under a fallen display of Dr. Pepper is a store in front of a huge crowd. These situations are ridiculous to the extreme, creating the most humiliating result possible. But the extremeness is used for humour to appeal to Dr. Pepper’s core consumers, teenagers. Similarly, my personal favourite Skittles advert The Midas Touch tells a pretty sad story which is delivered with a mixture of black comedy and slapstick to transmute the exaggerated emotion into humour. The adverts are well-made and popular among their target audience. In this case, the overuse of emotion is highly effective.
To conclude – as effective as storytelling is at persuading audiences, and as necessary as emotion is for storytelling to be effective, there are limits. Audiences will suspend their disbelief if entertained – a bit. In other words, no matter how thickly you lay on the joy, fear, or outrage, you can’t convince your audience that black is white in marketing (unless you’re joking, and very good at it). However, you may be able to convince them that it’s grey.