There are a lot of ads that have you reaching for the Kleenex these days. But they are not Kleenex ads.
Tearjerker ads – there have been a spate of them recently – are an effort by marketers to provoke an emotional response in consumers by using more compelling storytelling to make a bigger impact. Advertisers are using the psychological power of emotion to make their messages more memorable, especially important in a crowded digital environment.
It's a trend that has been particularly noticeable in the past few weeks as two especially touching ads – both about friends reuniting – have been making the rounds on social media.
The first, from Microsoft-owned Skype, tells the story of two young girls, one in the United States and one in New Zealand, who are both missing one arm below the elbow. Needing someone to relate to, they became e-mail pen pals and then began talking over the video-chat service. They consider each other best friends, but had never met in person until the advertising team decided to pay for a plane ticket, and film the first meeting.
Emotionally manipulative? You bet. But the commercial is so well-executed it's nearly impossible to resist.
The second recent ad, released just last week from Google India, is a fictional story developed by the agency Ogilvy India. It shows an old man telling his granddaughter the story of his childhood friend, whom he lost touch with when his family had to move suddenly after the Partition in 1947. Using Google, the granddaughter tracks down his old friend in Lahore and brings him for a visit as a birthday present to her grandfather.
No one knows the power of emotion better than Stephen Graham, chief marketing officer at Maple Leaf Foods, who over the course of his career has been known for heartstring-tugging stories in the advertising he oversees.
Mr. Graham has noticed a proliferation of emotional ads recently, and believes it's a positive development. "Companies have come to recognize that it's very hard to constantly try to go out and earn the transactions without any sense of enduring relationship," he said.
That's a message he has championed for years. While he was vice-president of worldwide marketing and communications at AT&T in the late '90s, the company's ads touted cellular technology not for the technology, but for its power to bring people together (though they failed to envision the age of "phubbing," a new term to describe snubbing someone in a conversation by looking at one's phone).
One of those ads played to the emotions of working mothers: a busy woman tells her kids that she can't take them to the beach because she has a meeting. Taken aback when one of her daughters wonders when she gets to be "an important client," the mother grabs her cellphone and conducts her meeting from the seaside as her children frolic in the sand.
"AT&T had been doing great transactional stuff," Mr. Graham explained. "... Great brands understand the power of stories, and human stories." At Maple Leaf, Mr. Graham's team has advertised family togetherness through chicken cutlets, with its Dinner Time Is Prime Time campaign.
But while he knows how often this tactic has been used in the past, Mr. Graham has seen a change. In large part, he explains this through the shift in how we consume media. With more time spent online and less passive attention directed toward TV screens, the bar has been raised for ads to get our attention. "In a world where there's an ability to tell an infinite number of stories ... the ones I remember are the ones that are important," Mr. Graham said.
But digital media, and the way it has fragmented audiences' attention, does not just make this type of advertising necessary. It also makes it possible.
The Google India video is three-and-a-half minutes long. Skype's goes on for three minutes. That kind of long-form video storytelling is simply too expensive to do on television for most campaigns. But the Internet is not broken up into 30-second spots.
That means not only can advertising show you more online, but it can supplement those short-form traditional commercials with more fulsome content. Procter & Gamble has done that with its Thank You Mom campaign during the Olympic Games, running a longer online version of its tear-jerking TV ad about the mothers who sacrifice to help their kids succeed.
When executed well, these longer stories can mean bigger profits. This summer, British Airways released a more than 5-minute film online, promoted with shorter-form ads in other media, entitled A Ticket to Visit Mum. The airline had analyzed 1,400 routes and found too many empty seats on its New York-Mumbai offerings. A traditional solution might have been a seat sale, or touting its vegetarian meal. But the airline thought it needed to connect in a deeper way.
It surprised a real-life Indian mother who had a typical story – a son making a life for himself in the U.S. – with a visit from her son. Following the campaign, sales are up roughly 50 per cent on that route.
"What could easily have been a dollars and cents conversation was grounded in an emotional insight," Brian Fetherstonhaugh, chairman and CEO of OgilvyOne Worldwide, said. (Ogilvy & Mather New York made the ad.)
That insight makes it more likely that people will share an ad on social media, giving it an endorsement when passed from friend to friend that is much more powerful than advertising on its own, Mr. Fetherstonhaugh added.
Advertisers have watched how popular emotional content can be in that social milieu. It is demonstrated by the skyrocketing popularity of websites such as Upworthy. A large portion of that site is dedicated to sharing feel-good stories, with headlines about things that "might surprise you" or "will change your life." It is basically the equivalent of a "Hang in there, baby" inspirational poster for the digital age.
Advertisers are trying to make content as shareable as that. To find subjects for the Skype campaign, its agency Pereira & O'Dell asked users this summer to send stories of how they stay connected, for a chance to win a reunion with their loved ones. "The goal was to build brand affinity and user love through storytelling," said Angie Hill, general manager of marketing for Skype.
Research has shown that there is a direct link between the likeability of an ad and purchase intent, said Peter Murray, a New York-based consultant and PhD in consumer psychology with expertise in the role of emotion in marketing.
"There is an emotional imprinting, if you will, on the brand," he said. "...People are attracted to brands we like just as we're drawn to people we like."
But there is another big reason why emotional marketing works with our brains: aside from all the sharing, all the online clicks, the most important thing for advertisers is to make consumers remember them.
"Our minds primarily work as storytelling machines," Dr. Murray said. "We don't remember things as facts, we remember things as stories. ... That's why emotion is potentially a very powerful vehicle."