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Part II: The Not-So-Invisible Gorilla – Understanding Emotional Advertising

To create an effective emotional advertising, it is important to know what emotional advertising is and why it works

In 2001, a mobile service provider in the UK launched an ad campaign that featured a lot of bubbles and visuals that ranged from abstract to generic. Nobody really understood what the ads were trying to say. In 2005, this mobile service provider overtook its formidable competitors and became the market leader. 

You may have heard of the brand O2. How did they go from newly rebranded to top player in four short years? O2 did not provide better value or more attractive promotions than its competitors. The only difference seemed to be the style of advertising.

In part 1, I mentioned how advertising, especially emotional advertising, can still work in the attention economy. But to help us create and judge effective emotional advertising, it is important to know what emotional advertising is and why it works.

Back to the O2 case study… How did such unremarkable advertising build O2’s position as the top mobile service operators in the UK? In his book, ‘Seducing the Subconscious,’ Marketing professor Robert Heath argued that these ads worked because viewers did not pay too much attention to them. This runs against the mainstream idea that advertising needs to grab its viewers’ full attention.

O2’s ads were designed to be watched passively, allowing them to sneak past the viewers’ mental defenses so the brand and its associations can be embedded in the viewers’ minds. If viewers were to watch the ads with a critical eye (like how you probably did since you know it’s part of a case study), they would have dismissed it as BS. But luckily for us marketers, the vast majority of our audiences consume media passively. It’s important for us to go with this flow and not try to produce brand-building advertising, which invites or requires too much active attention.

So, what is emotional advertising? Contrary to popular belief, emotional advertising does not just refer to ads with sappy music and heartbreaking plots. It’s more useful to think of emotional advertising as System 1 advertising. 

As popularised by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, System 1 refers to the automatic and instinctive ways in which our brains work (e.g. hearing what your spouse is saying) and System 2 refers to the more deliberative and “logical” mechanisms of the brain (e.g., actually listening to what your spouse is saying). 

O2’s advertising was very much targeted at the System 1. All long-term advertising should be targeted at the System 1. Embed your brand and its associations in your audience’s minds without inviting their System 2 to argue against your advertising. Classic brand-building stuff, as I’ve written in an earlier article

“All long-term advertising”? That’s right. A 30-year long study of 996 ad campaigns from more than 700 brands has revealed the superior ability of emotional advertising to grow profits.

Rational or System 2 advertising can come into play when your viewer is closer to the point of purchase. Take a look at the messaging in the O2 stores below. It’s a lot more focused and “rational”, highlighting benefits and deals.

But of course, in order to lead consumers closer to the point of purchase in the first place, you’ll need long-term System 1 advertising. Does emotional or System 1 advertising work on everyone?

Using O2 as an example again, their ads were probably not as effective on the small hardcore segments of the market who will spend hours upon hours researching mobile plans. But the truth is, most people don’t do that, and “most people” is how O2 became the top mobile service provider in the UK. 

The same applies for any industry. There’s a small segment of the market who will be highly knowledgeable and invested in the product category. However, the majority of the market will not be, and they’ll hence rely more on their System 1 thinking. That means relying on superficial and more imperfect cues such as memories and feelings provided by advertising.

It’s not always so straightforward, of course. For example, new brands should focus their attention on the small hardcore segments before moving onto mass System 1 marketing. Brands should also try to provide rational reasons for customers to justify their feelings. Also, consider the wealth of information and reviews consumers now have at their fingertips. Does that change how advertising should work? 

Going into those details will bust my word limit, but what’s clear is this: emotional or System 1 advertising is an incredibly powerful tool. Even more so when active attention is so hard to come by.

I hope this article has been useful in helping you understand a little more about emotional advertising. If you require more in-depth and specific information about this topic, feel free to contact me.

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Arthur Koh
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Arthur Koh is a mass behaviour consultant based in Singapore. He combines insights from behavioural economics, network science, social psychology, and marcom to bring the mass audience in touch with organisational goals. Follow him on LinkedIn or his website.

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