There was a time in the not so distant past when funny ruled advertising. Whether absurd and awkward, sharp and wry, or broad and ball-busting, comedy in all its forms was the dominant language in marketing.
Then something changed. Quietly at first, then things began to escalate. Ad-induced tears flowed across the land, and even diehard cynics started admitting to welling up over commercials. And these weren’t just your public service announcements, carefully crafted to emotionally manipulate you into action on issues that were already emotional powder kegs. These were spots for shampoos, for Internet services, for banks, for soft drinks, for retailers, for peanut butter, for beer! They were contemplative, moving, and all scored with the Piano Chord of Emotion. Even Super Bowl viewers were no longer safe from baldfaced lunges at the cockles. Pretty soon the promise of a good cry became an engine of social sharing.
So what the hell is going on? Never in our collective memory has there been a time in which ads—whose purpose is to make people positively inclined toward a brand and, ultimately, to sell products—have left us feeling all the feels. Was it just us? Were we going soft? Did everyone in advertising watch the carousel scene in Mad Men and immediately seek to make blubbering Harry Cranes of us all? Or is there something bigger at play?
If you look at the current state of media, there’s more value placed on "meaningful" content—inspirational stories that you just have to see, or will change your world, and don’t even ask what happens next because it will simply blow your mind or break your heart or take your breath away. The trend is most associated with Upworthy, the link-curation site that’s mastered the art of sniffing out and disseminating the most profound, real, life-changing, and ultimately share-worthy content online.
The Upworthy effect can be added to another, larger cultural trend: the trend toward reality. The thirst for real stories has remade TV and now informs sharable online content. People like, and will share en masse, stories of real people doing really meaningful things that bring them to tears (see: Deaf Woman Hears For The First Time and the hundreds of videos like it).
These larger social and media phenomena have converged with a few shifts in the marketing world—the content mandate, and the embrace of neuroscience and its lessons about the power of the unconscious. The rise in emotional advertising comes at a time when brands are striving to create "content," not simply make "ads." That is, they are devoting their energies to crafting stories (and other things—products, apps, experiences) that people actively seek out and share—stuff that looks more like the entertainment and editorial material audiences like, not the unpleasant interruption to that material. In the video world, this has meant freedom to pursue longer, human-centric narratives over simple product sell (think about the last Swiffer ad you likely saw: it wasn't a generic demonstration of the dust-lifting properties of the product, it was a mini-documentary that revolved around an amputee father and the challenges he faced doing housework). Meanwhile, experts in neuroscience are offering more evidence that this "softer" approach to selling actually works. The heart-versus-head argument in advertising is not new, of course—ad historians would point to '50s-era adman Rosser Reeves, who represented the science/logic/head camp with his focus on a product's "unique selling proposition," and Bill Bernbach, king of the art/story/heart school, who spearheaded the "creative revolution" in the 1960s with culture bombs like VW's "Think Small." But recently, marketers have absorbed more high-profile thinking and writing that posits that human decision-making is driven by our unconscious instead of logic, that "most of the business of life happens through our emotions, below the threshold of awareness" (a quote that comes from a seven-part series that appeared on this very site on neuroscience and marketing). Relatedly, there's been more consciousness-raising around the importance of storytelling to the human brain and the way people understand the world. People in the brand world seem to have internalized a mantra that's been recited over and over as the key to effective brand communications: Make it emotional. Appeal to the heart, not the head. It's as if the message finally got through. But it seems as though this particular climate has resulted in a rather literal interpretation of "emotions." That is, emotions = crying (the fact that there are other emotions seems to have been temporarily lost).
The results are mixed. On the one hand, you can hardly fault a brand for wanting to forge deeper connections with people—it’s certainly welcome over the hard sell in many cases. And when the right (piano?) chord is struck, it can foster a sense of goodwill. On the other hand, and in the wrong hands, indiscriminate dollops of wanton sentimentality can result in cloying, maudlin, or emotionally manipulative work that rolls eyes instead of warms hearts (we’re looking at you Dove "Beauty Patch").
To gain further perspective on what’s behind the apparent rise of the weepers, we’ve consulted a number of advertising creative directors—some of whom can take credit for stirring the pot of your heart at one point or another. We wanted their take on whether and why this is happening, and, of course, we wanted to gain insight on how to be successful appealing to emotions (hint: don’t actually aim to make people cry). And, needless to say, we’ve assembled a heartwarming collection of tearjerkers, so sit down and grab a box of tissues because it’s about to get all end-of-Marley & Me up in here.
The first question to ask when it comes to any trend is whether or not it’s really a trend. Of course, since there have been ads, there have been "emotional" ads. Let us not forget that single tear from "Chief" Iron Eyes Cody in the first and most famous environmental PSA ever. And you’ll never be able to hear a few notes of Sarah McLachlan’s "Angel" ever again without bawling and visualizing dogs peering through iron bars due to a certain indelible Canadian SPCA spot.
But those are PSAs—they’re meant to make you feel bad. When it comes to big brand spots, there are fewer downright sad ads to choose from. When emotions are in play, the tone has been more along the lines of 1979 Super Bowl Spot "Mean Joe Greene"—the effect of that classic is more "Awwwww" than "Jesus, I need to go to the bathroom before anyone sees me ugly cry." Brands have been far more likely to go for "Sweeping," "Sexy," or "Swaggering," than sad. And they were most likely of all to go funny. From the '80s until now, humor has been the go-to genre, and it remains so. Only now, it’s not the only emotion in ad town.
"It’s all over the place. Emotional is the buzzword these days. I hear it all the time from clients," says Gerry Graf, founder and chief creative officer at Barton F. Graf 9000. Graf is an excellent litmus test for this trend as he’s built his career and agency on comedic work—and made some of the funniest ads ever. You’d hardly expect a client to ask him for tender and stirring stories. And yet, that’s what’s happening. "I literally had a client say to me, 'I want to do ads that make people cry.' We can’t just be straightforward; we have to reach people emotionally. Now everyone’s crying."
The modern renaissance of the super-touching ad can be traced to a few early, influential gambits. Google, of all companies, arguably set the fluids flowing with its "Dear Sophie" spot from 2011, doing the unexpected by making a product demo into an affecting portrayal of the joys of parenthood. Fast on its heels was another family-focused blockbuster—P&G’s Olympic ode to moms "Best Job." Or as Graf puts it, in jest, "It’s all Wieden+Kennedy’s fault!" It was one of those sucker punches of feelings that knocked people on their heels. Likewise, "The Long Wait" for U.K. retailer John Lewis was among the early spots that had ad people talking and normal people breaking out the tissues. While each could have been overly sentimental, they all rang true to the brand, and people responded with boo-hoos. But, more importantly, the work won several industry awards, and as Graf says, "Then all of a sudden there’s an avenue for people to do award-winning work and now everyone’s jumping on that bandwagon saying things like, ‘Let’s do something that pulls on the heartstrings,’ not 'Let’s do something that comes out of the product we’re selling.’"
Graf, who says outright that he’s not a fan of the trend, is but one creative director to observe the increased interest in emotional work. "I think there are a lot more clients briefing their agencies saying, ‘This made people cry, and do you see how many views this thing has? We want to make people cry about our brand,'" says Mike Byrne, partner and chief creative officer at Anomaly. "I think briefs are probably coming at agencies to hit that emotional chord because it does provide a reaction and causes people to share."
"Just the fact it’s being asked means it’s probably happening. I have mixed emotions about this because I’m conflicted about if I want to acknowledge its existence, as my atheism on this subject is important to me," says Joe Staples, executive creative director at Wieden+Kennedy Portland, the agency behind "Best Job." "The problem I have with this whole conversation though might be the most important part: I have never heard anyone at work ever say anything like, ‘OK, ladies and gentlemen, were going to need some funny,’ or ‘It’s irony time.' I hope there is no one who has these conversations at work."
While Pereira says he doesn’t have clients outwardly asking him to bring people to tears, he circuitously knows it’s happening. After creating award-winning and touching work for Skype, Pereira says he’s heard from industry peers that clients are including his agency’s spot "Born Friends" as part of briefs.
"I think that’s the wrong question. We should be asking ourselves to make customers feel something, but (not) just because it’s timely," Pereira says. "It’s like a request that’s 50 percent right and 50 percent wrong. The right thing is making people feel something; making people feel like something else they saw . . . that’s the wrong request."
If human emotions are complex, so are advertising zeitgeists; there’s not one single reason that this tendency has found fashion at this particular moment. In a broad context, much of the trend can be attributed to technology, says Gelner.
"I think that we live such digitally switched-on, always-plugged-in lives, and yet we still also somehow feel disconnected from people. As human beings, we’re looking for true human connection, and I think that emotional storytelling can help bridge that gap. Brands and agencies have come to realize that this is a way to fill that void," says Gelner. Upworthy, he says, is a good analogy to the phenomenon in that its success comes from its ability to fill a cultural need. When asked whether this search for meaning has also granted people permission to be more open about their outward reactions to emotional ads, he says, "I think that emotional stories have been around for a long time. I’m sure people have always shed a tear or two, but the difference is they didn’t have their TVs in their pockets. I think it’s connected to that. You’re now able to consume those stories no matter where you are."
Peter Moore Smith, ECD at Saatchi & Saatchi, also pegs the desire to share the content that we connect with as a major reason more brands are interested in playing to the heart. He’s had viral hits with Duracell "Trust Your Power" and Cheerios "Nana" and says this ability to see how well work spreads is appealing to clients.
"I believe the rise in emotional work is because advertising that evokes a strong emotional response is very shareable. The spot that makes you smile or even laugh can be a welcome interruption if it's done well, but the spot that makes you feel something deeper, as long as it isn't cloying or manipulative, is something you want to share," he says. "As agencies and clients watch those likes and shares rise, naturally they're going to want more."
Joe Baratelli, EVP and chief creative officer of RPA and a longtime creative on Honda, calls these shared pieces "social objects." He says that where in the past there was media scarcity, the current state wherein we’re bombarded with images and information has created the problem of attention scarcity. "Getting people’s attention is what we’re trying to do, and I think that meaning, something that people can relate to on a very visceral level, is what drives a lot of the decisions we make when we’re talking about things," Baratelli says. "Because there’s so much competition, companies understand that they need to have meaning in whatever they do. It’s not just enough to have a good product; you need to have a good product and a reason why your product is more relatable that another good product."
If meaning is required to cut through, James Murphy, founding partner and CEO of London agency adam&eveDDB, which is behind the John Lewis work, believes the ways in which the media landscape has changed allows brands to tell more meaningful stories. "There’s been a shift to lower frequency and longer time lengths in which video content is produced. Films are now 90 seconds or two minutes long. They may run as broadcast advertising, but if they make an emotional connection they will then start to travel under their own momentum online," he says. He also notes that people are being more reflective and mindful about their lives, something he suggests is the result of the way consumer culture has evolved. "I suppose it’s about the maturing of the consumer society. Once you’ve got the things you need and then you’ve got most of the things you don’t need but desire, then you start looking for slightly deeper layers of meaning."
Unrelated to technology but closely tied to this cultural shift toward meaningful ideas, content and experiences is the notion, as noted by Pereira, that people have perhaps just tired of the sarcastic and smart-ass vibe of the aughts.
"I think what’s happened is that the ad industry has spent the last decade celebrating bitterness and cynicism and being mean to people. For a while it was great because it was different from everyone else, and then it became a trend and people got sick of it. It wasn’t funny or interesting anymore. So when things started to pop with a totally opposite voice, the customers totally reacted."
But, of course, the dark side of any trend 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. "Any time you see a trend in advertising that means it’s about to die. The moment starts feeling like clients are telling us ‘we need to do something like this,’ to me it says it’s too late and you should stop doing it," Pereira says. "We may be at the tipping point that means we should stop doing it. I have a couple of friends in (ad award) juries telling me now they’re starting to see too many of them. It may be too much. There are too many following the trend as opposed to doing it because it’s the right thing for their client at the right moment. And there’s nothing more dangerous in advertising than following a trend."
On this matter, everyone we consulted for this story is in agreement. If people cry—or laugh or feel happy or feel anything, for that matter—it needs to be a consequence of the story you’re telling. "The moment you try to do it," says Pereira, "you’re being disingenuous, and people will notice you and punish you for that at some point."
W+K's Staples evokes Bruce Lee when articulating how to approach any quest to connect with people: "Do not concentrate on the finger or you miss all that heavenly glory," he says quoting a line from Enter the Dragon, adding, "Never start with a defined end."
"When we start any project, we are looking for problems and intricacies and anomalies, and we have no idea where these will lead us. It’s a tired cliché because it’s true, but you find the truth and follow it wherever it goes," Staples adds. "If we had started the P&G work with an emotion equation it would probably have been something like: "Product + Olympics = inspiration." We would have set off to make the most inspirational piece of work we could, and it would have been horrible and a lie. Shaving cream does not help you run fast."
This admission that P&G’s products don’t ultimately aid Olympians in their quest provided the breakthrough for the agency. "The real conversation at the outset of the campaign was something like "P&G doesn't have anything to do with the Olympics, but it does help the people who help Olympians," Staples says. "From there you get to tell honest, emotional stories about the relationship between a child and their parent, and if you do it well it will resonate with millions of people because it is true. It will be very emotional, but for the right reasons."
Similarly, John Lewis’ breakthrough spot—in which a presumed narrative of a boy impatiently waiting for Santa’s bounty was met with an endearing twist of parent kryptonite—was born out of a long-lasting and unique relationship the retailer has with its consumers.
"John Lewis is owned by its staff and has a very strong reputation for service and trust. When we started working with them, they had never really done any high-level marketing communications before, so we started out by unlocking this unique relationship this retailer has with its customers," says Murphy, noting that among Brits there are a few retailers, including John Lewis, that are held as part of the cultural fabric. "We were able to capture some of that emotional connection that it had with its customer."
If authenticity is an overused word in advertising, it’s absolutely integral when it comes to trying to make an emotional connection, making finding the right balance all the more difficult. Gelner of 180 says 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. "It’s really about brands and agencies and storytellers understanding what that brand is about," he says. "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, catapulting it into the broader cultural narrative."
This is exactly what the agency did with Expedia when it created an affecting story about one father facing his prejudice and finding love for his daughter and her wife-to-be. "When we were pitching that account, we ran across this quote by Mark Twain: ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.’ If you put that quote next to all the other ads that were being done by the competitors, which focused on price and destination, it seemed like everyone was treating travel in a very shallow way," says Gelner. "It felt like travel was so much more emotional and human than that. Travel can open your mind and change your perspective." That, says Gelner, was the brand’s purpose and led the team to the story that ended up painting Expedia in a new way and shining a new light on same-sex marriage at the same time. Oh, and tears.
"It was a story about a real-life dad that didn’t see eye to eye with his daughter until he agreed to take that trip. So in that sense, that was an authentic, incredible story for the brand because that really happened. He really took that trip."
But success doesn’t require that level of real-life authenticity, as Budweiser found when its charming tale of a canine-equine romance hit the heart target during the Super Bowl, the broadest, most mainstream of events. "Puppy Love" from Anomaly topped the USA Today Ad Meter Chart and had puppy lovers (and horse lovers and beer lovers) wiping tears from their face with nachos in hand. Anomaly’s Byrne says the agency certainly didn’t set out to create something weepy.
"All we did with the Super Bowl is tell a story about an unlikely friendship. The intent wasn’t to make people cry, the intent was to say that this brand is about bringing people together and those unlikely friendships that happen when you’re sitting around having a Bud at a bar with someone you don’t know that you would normally never talk to," he says. "That was the brand value coming alive through storytelling."
It’s sticking to a brand’s values that will help guide the right story, says RPA’s Baratelli. "I think there’s always a danger of being disingenuous in any of this stuff because you are trying to sell something and people are pretty savvy. Not to pigeonhole an entire category, but the oil industry has tried to do that for years, and people just don’t believe it. From my perspective, it has to be something that’s true to the company, something that’s true to their philosophy or values. Otherwise, it backfires."
When appealing to the heart (and this is universally true of any advertising), Baratelli says that you still need to be fresh and smart "because there’s so many of those stories." The agency’s recent Project Drive-in work for Honda is a good example of keeping things fresh. In telling and owning a larger story that’s connected to any automaker—the story of the dying drive-in industry—they managed to be informative, uplifting and evoke true nostalgic emotion. Similarly, spots for Vodafone in Europe and Coca-Cola Life from Argentina told fresh and upbeat stories, albeit in totally different ways, that even in their humor and joy moved many to tears.
If Graf is the skeptic when it comes to advocating for ads that target the heart, he does have a sage bit of advice for navigating the rising tide of tears. "If you’re caught crying, ask yourself, do you remember who the ad was for and does it make you think differently about them?" Because, at the end of the day, a great piece of brand content that gets shared around and makes people feel is ineffective if it’s not reflecting positively on the brand.
Still, as Byrne says, "No one is bigger than emotion. There’s just a fine line in terms of how brands navigate through that."
And the last word goes to Staples of Wieden, arguably one of the pioneers of marketing by way of the heart: "If we are honest and humble and curious and work our asses off, our work will end up being very something. Maybe very funny, maybe very disruptive, very sad, very emotional, or very silly. It will be powerful because it is true in the emotional realm it is meant to be in, and I think this should be the goal."