Elements of Emotionally Effective Advertising


Remember the famous New Yorker cartoon where two women are talking and one says to the other, “But enough about me. What do you think about me?”

Solipsistic myopia is endemic to human behavior, so it’s no surprise that such a condition afflicts companies, too. As a client at a big pharmaceutical firm once said to me, “We’re really good at figuring out what’s in it for us, but not so good at figuring out what’s in it for our customers.”

That company isn’t alone. Everybody knows the mantra about how the factory/product isn’t the hero, the customer is, but practicing that mantra is harder done than said. So to make it easier, I’d like to suggest how “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) relevance can best be established, using evidence from a decade of my company’s research findings.

Don’t “Lie to Me”

First, a note on methodology is in order. Since the words motivation and emotion have the same Latin root, movere — to move, to make something happen (as in generating preference, persuasion and, ideally, purchase intent) — it should come as no surprise that my company specializes in using facial coding — the same research tool made famous initially through Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller “Blink,” and now through the Fox primetime hit series “Lie to Me.” Facial coding does not rely on self-reported verbal input, but extracts the amount and degree of emotional engagement expressed through facial muscle activity. Because actions speak louder than words, the reactions your face intuitively reveals are the most accurate barometer of whether solipsistic myopia or genuine WIIFM is being achieved in a company’s advertising.

Decades of studies show that the majority of television and radio spots and print ads in our database emphasize two of five motivational groupings: Enjoyment (39 percent), and empowerment (30 percent). In other words, combined, over two-thirds of all the advertising we’ve been asked to test involves depicting the benefit of purchasing the offer as either a matter of ephemeral pleasure or of gaining status, resources, and capability. Throw in another motivation grouping, physical well-being, and you’re up to 75 percent of how all advertising is slanted when it comes to trying to reach the target market through motivational relevance.

The Two Missing Motivations Rule

What are the two other motivational groupings? What, if anything, actually works to generate the kind of emotional engagement and preference that drives purchase intent? Suddenly, the other two motivational groupings, self-esteem (“me”) and attachment (“we”), rule the day.

Together, these two groupings account for only 26 percent — barely one-fourth of the ads in our database. But when you first look at the amount of emotional engagement — defined in facial coding terms as what percentage of tested consumers reveal at least one codable emotional response during the exposure period to an ad — self-esteem and attachment rank first and second. More specifically, the level for self-esteem is 50 percent, for attachment, 45 percent. The other three motivational groupings — to which the vast majority of ads are devoted — record on average an engagement level of 38 percent.

The most vibrant ways of ensuring the offer has emotional value for the potential end user is to make “me” (the consumer) feel better about myself, or to bolster my sense of belonging, my sense of fitting in with others.

And what about the degree of emotional engagement? In this case, facial coding works by noting what percentage of tested consumers reveal codable emotional responses that are predominantly positive. That’s no slam dunk. A person born blind reveals the same emotions as those with sight because, as Charles Darwin first realized, our emotional displays aren’t socialized or learned, they’ve been hardwired into the brain over the course of evolution. And of the seven core emotions people reveal — happiness, surprise, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, and contempt — only one is purely positive: happiness. Another is neutral: surprise; and the other five are negative, because people hear bad news more loudly than good news as a matter of increasing one’s survival odds.

Emotional Displays, the Barometer

Emotional displays, as scored based on facial coding, aren’t a matter of lip service. They serve, instead, as a barometer of what connects to people and makes them feel better about wanting to purchase a given offer to offset problems or enhance their lives. And there, while the ways in which self-esteem gets depicted in the advertising we’ve tested rises no higher than 49 percent — roughly in the range of the score for enjoyment and empowerment — the degree to which depictions of attachment as the ultimate, essential benefit of purchasing the promoted offer are positive in nature reaches an astonishing 83 percent.

In other words, when it comes to which motivation to invoke, “me” (self-esteem) and “we” (attachment) are the most robust. Then when it comes to positive payoff emotionally, attachment becomes a company’s single best avenue for fostering preferential relevance. All the while, however, fully three-quarters of the advertising that we’ve tested is off-base, focused primarily on enjoyment and empowerment as the key motivations.

Three Degrees of Meaningfulness

It should hardly come as a surprise that the nurturing “we” of attachment, which incorporates the “me” and makes it more secure and fosters connectedness, should win. Experts who have investigated what makes us happy have concluded that happiness resides in finding meaning in our lives — and that when it comes to meaningfulness, there are three ever more important degrees of how value gets determined in life.

At the outer ring are the fleeting pleasures of the flesh (or the bottle). Those are the weakest, least valuable ring of what might be thought of as a motivational bull’s-eye. Only 6 percent of the ads in our database that draw on the physical realm reside there. Meanwhile, the next inner ring is a matter of seeking variety and novelty in our lives. The motivational grouping of enjoyment fits best there.

As to the innermost ring, however, the enduring, inner circle of happiness consists of meaningfulness caused by two factors. The first is the warmth and depth of our ties to other people. The second is feeling hopeful instead of helpless about our circumstances because we control them and/or feel that some reasonable degree of justice and fairness will prevail. Yes, as a form of motivation, empowerment qualifies as having some degree of potential pertinence in the inner circle of happiness; but self-esteem and especially attachment carry the day.

How quickly will companies come to realize that, in motivational terms, they have been tilting at windmills for at least the decade over which we’ve been building advertising norms? The answer may be a very long time, given that the “me” and “we” of self-esteem and attachment, respectively, may seem to many a business leader too soft and introspective when compared to the aggressive, grasping nature of invoking the empowerment motivation.

But as our results show, companies who don’t make the adjustment are leaving money on the table, having invoked motivations that don’t resonate as deeply in positive terms as the ultimate value-proposition of looking out for me and mine. Here’s to hoping that for their sakes, and the sakes of their shareholders, companies soon endeavor to make an adjustment.

Once again, emotion and motivation have the same root. Both are devoted to making things happen, which, in business terms, involves growing market share. Being on-message is a start. But being on-motivation and also on-emotion is more gratifying to consumers and, therefore, ultimately more gratifying to companies whose goal is to serve them best.

This passage is excerpted from Dan Hill’s book “About Face: The Secrets of Emotionally Effective Advertising.” Dan Hill is the president of Sensory Logic.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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