Emotions are fundamental to the human experience, so it is not surprising that advertisers employ emotional appeals to evoke specific feelings in consumers. Today’s commercials, print ads, and Internet interstitials generate a range of emotional reactions from humor and elation to shame and disgust, from arousal and fear to sorrow and pity.
Emotions serve several roles in advertising. An important function of emotional stimuli is to attract viewers by capturing their attention. Advertisers only have a few moments to hook viewers before they switch channels, turn the page, or scroll down a website, and emotional information is particularly adroit at getting noticed. Once advertisers have that attention, feelings are used to associate a product or service with a particular emotion. Often advertisers simply use narratives to entertain consumers with the intention that consumers will return the favor with a purchase.
Aristotle identified “pathos” as emotion-based argument designed to play upon the audience’s fears and desires. Advertising is a paid form of persuasive communication – compact 30-second arguments – conveyed through the media by an identified sponsor. Marketers use advertising to create awareness, to inform, and to position their goods and services as they attempt to convince consumers that their brands are preferable to the competition. Advertisers use verbal (commonly referred to as “copy”) and visual information to generate certain feelings within audiences. Specifically, advertisers use stereotypes, symbols, and narrative devices to evoke these reactions.
Emotion is often defined as strong feelings or an aroused mental state directed toward a specific object. Emotions are manifested cognitively, behaviorally, and physiologically. There are several competing conceptualizations of emotion. In the 1980s, for instance, work in consumer behavior, borrowing from discrete emotion models, identified several basic emotions such as joy, elation, fear, and surprise. More recent work has found that fundamental emotions map within a two-dimensional model consisting of arousal and pleasure. It is generally thought that emotion is responsible for the human propensity to move toward stimuli and situations that are pleasurable and to move away from or avoid information that signals danger. Current research suggests that emotion colors most experiences and influences many decisions.
During the 1980s, consumer behavior researchers also reported that attitude toward the ad – the feelings consumers experience when viewing an ad – could both directly and indirectly influence thoughts and feelings toward the brand as well as purchase intention, especially for low-involvement and previously unknown products. The value of emotion in advertising is increasing as research continues to show, especially in the area of brain imaging, that emotion influences much of the consumer decision process. Not surprisingly, some of the most memorable commercials are those that evoked powerful feelings.
Early advertising was not as emotion-evoking as it is today. From the beginnings of modern advertising through the early 1900s, advertising was chiefly informational in nature. Ads were simple and consisted primarily of text, much like today’s classified ads, as advertisers announced new services or the availability of products and informed potential consumers how to procure those products. As advertising developed into a profession during the second half of the nineteenth century, the AIDA approach (attention, interest, desire, and action), a hierarchy-of-effects model, guided much advertising thinking. Desire represented the emotional component of the persuasion process that was considered necessary to move consumers to take action. Much training in advertising and persuasion-based professions such as advertising sales continues to utilize AIDA-type models.
In the early 1900s the look of advertising was altered by printing technology as well as by several creative directors who believed it was important to use images to evoke feelings, for example of status and patriotism. Glossy magazine ads for Cadillac emphasized the status and prestige associated with ownership of the automobile.
The diffusion of television in the 1950s represented a powerful means of combining images and audio in commercial messages to evoke emotions. An early commercial for the pain reliever Anacin in the US, notably annoying though highly successful, anecdotally gave viewers a headache as they watched an animated mallet pound repeatedly on-screen. Created by television advertising pioneer, Rosser Reeves, the Anacin commercial is often pointed to as an example that advertising does not have to be liked to be effective. Other successful ad campaigns that annoyed viewers include “Don’t squeeze the Charmin,” featuring Mr Whipple admonishing shoppers not to squeeze toilet tissue in the supermarket, and a campaign for Wisk, the laundry detergent that removed the “Ring around the collar.”
The role of emotion in advertising increased as many products achieved parity and consumer behavior research become more sophisticated. For example, today many commercials for investment brokers such as Merrill Lynch strive to emphasize security and comfort as a means of differentiation.
Emotion plays a significant role in political advertising as well. Tony Schwartz created several notable political ads that evoked strong emotions about election candidates. In one memorable spot for Lyndon Johnson’s US Presidential re-election, the image of a girl pulling petals from a daisy was juxtaposed with a countdown to a nuclear explosion. The commercial was designed to evoke fear and doubt about the candidacy of Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater. Political advertising can either seek to foster positive feelings toward the sponsoring candidate or to disparage an opponent by evoking fear and distrust. Much research has found negative advertising to be very effective in political campaigns because the negative emotions come to be associated with the targeted candidate.
Although advertisers attempt to appeal to a range of emotions that include pleasantness, elation, accomplishment, and guilt, three emotional appeals represent the majority of emotional appeals in consumer advertising.
Estimates indicate that up to 50 percent of mainstream consumer advertising is humorbased. These messages contain instances of slapstick humor, self-disparaging spokespeople, and funny slice-of-life stories. Humor is thought to work by attracting and maintaining attention, enhancing liking for the brand, and by creating favorable feelings that can become associated with the brand. Not surprisingly, humor is thought to be more effective for low-involvement products. “Where’s the beef?” was a very popular campaign from the mid-1980s that Wendy’s restaurants used to compare its hamburgers to those of its competitors. In the signature commercial, a grandmotherly woman continually asks an employee, “Where’s the beef?”
On the other end of the spectrum, marketers endeavor to persuade consumers by creating feelings of tension and fear. Using the concept of fear appeals as in the communication field, ad creators attempt to scare consumers by creating fear and perceptions of threat. As a result, consumers become more vigilant in their search for alternatives to reduce their vulnerability. Usually toward the end of the commercial, the marketer’s brand or service is positioned as a preferred alternative to reduce the threat and to protect oneself and the family. Products such as auto and home insurance, retirement savings, and theft prevention devices are often advocated using threatening appeals. Ads for personal-care products also employ fear appeals. For many decades, Listerine executives emphasized the social ostracism, loss of romance, and dead-end careers caused by halitosis. The mouthwash was touted as a proven way to avoid such undesirable outcomes.
It is estimated that from 10 to 20 percent of mainstream advertising contains sexual images and references. These images mostly consist of images of scantily clad women in provocative poses or couples in heated embraces. Research shows that sexual information evokes an emotional response that, depending on the receiver and contextual variables, is positively arousing. Sexy images attract and maintain attention and often serve to communicate a compelling benefit of buying and using a brand. Research supports a distraction hypothesis such that sexual information is more likely to be remembered at the expense of brand information (e.g., brand name, headlines). However, consistent use of ads that contain sex can serve to imbue brand identities with sexual meaning. For example, Calvin Klein and Victoria’s Secret are brands that evoke sexual thoughts and feelings because of their long-running use of sexualized ad images. As expected, sexual appeals most often appear in ads for low-involvement and expressive products (e.g., fashion, fragrance, entertainment).
Measuring Emotional Responses
Emotional reactions to advertising are assessed several ways in industry and academic research. The most common method involves asking participants to view a commercial and to respond to semantic differential items, adjective checklists, or visual representations of states of feeling. In some industry research settings, commonly referred to as copy-testing, viewers are verbally asked to rate their feelings on an interval scale. A closely related method, often used in political advertising research, requires respondents to register their feelings in real time by turning a dial. A criticism of these methods is that they introduce potential bias and inaccuracy because they force viewers to cognitively assess their emotional state.
To avoid response bias, researchers have increasingly employed physiological indicators to assess emotion. Feelings can be measured by monitoring perspiration (e.g., galvanic skin response), facial muscle contractions, pupil dilation, and heart rate. Although these methods are costly and require expertise to administer, they are considered to offer a more reliable reflection of the emotional responses consumers experience when viewing advertising compared to paper-and-pencil-based measures.
More recently, researchers have begun to look to brain science and brain imaging to assess emotion in response to advertising. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology is used to determine areas of the brain that are stimulated by certain advertising features. Such methods are promising but prohibitive to most researchers because of cost and lack of availability for this type of research. However, brain imaging and other advanced methods answer calls from within the field, from both practitioners and scholars, to better understand the role of emotion and consumer response. For example, in 2003 the Advertising Research Foundation joined with the American Association of Advertising Agencies to sponsor research designed to enhance emotion assessment and to increase understanding of the role of emotion in the consumer behavior process.
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