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Why Happiness is a Poor Proxy for Effectiveness

March 2024

This is a self-funded case study using our ad testing solution.

Recent years have seen a rise in prominence of the destructive rhetoric that emotion — and in particular “happiness” — is all that matters to advertising success. The narrative, its proponents put forward, is that happiness is a surrogate for emotion and emotion drives long-term brand profitability.

As a creative-led industry, you might be thinking — what’s not to like about that! And we hate to be the killjoy commentators that decry happiness, but… here’s the thing: while happiness is an undoubtedly powerful weapon in an advertiser’s arsenal, by focusing on it alone the ingredients necessary for creative success are oversimplified. A disproportionate focus on happiness risks homogenizing creativity and ultimately sets brands up for failure. How so, you might ask?

A happy ad does not necessarily make for an effective ad

Let’s wind the clock all the way back to Christmas 2023 and take a closer look at one of the most joyous times in the calendar. The U.K. holiday season is packed to the brim with advertising featuring festive banquets and quintessential family get-togethers; a collective set of storylines that are undoubtedly enjoyable and, on the surface, seemingly fit for purpose.

However, the pursuit of warm and sentimental emotions (above all else) has contributed to Christmas advertisers largely blending into one another. Our annual testing of U.K. Christmas advertising painted a stark picture, with levels of distinctiveness benchmarking far lower than regular year-round advertising.

A pertinent example of this comes from national grocery chain, Morrisons, who ignored the wealth of evidence at our disposal and instead single-mindedly focused on evoking feelings of happiness. Much to the disdain of Ehrenberg-Bass disciples the world over, the brand forewent all the equity it had built up over recent years through the development of an affable character named “Farmer Christmas”. He was instead replaced by a more generic storyline featuring animated oven mittens singing to Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.

While the ad was designed to get viewers into the festive spirit by taking a light-hearted spin on the supermarket chain’s range of Christmas products, it instead left people feeling indifferent. Worse still, it was absent of any uniquely identifiable elements to separate it from the swathe of other festive advertisers. It consequently exhibited a low potential to build branded memories.

Creating empathy through sadness

Just as we’re risking genericism with happiness, we’re also limiting ourselves by not leveraging the myriad of creative levers at an advertiser’s disposal. And ultimately, we’re oversimplifying the formula for creative success.

Serious, heartfelt narratives have just as much (sometimes even more — much, much more) potential to drive emotional impact and cut-through. Charity and non-profit advertising is one category where the quest for happiness can often feel at odds with the subject matter — and potentially even risks trivializing it.

In its place sadness shows just as much potential to evoke a heightened sense of emotional engagement and empathy. There is perhaps no better example of the incredibly emotionally charged way this can come to life than the Alzheimer Society’s 2023 appeal, featuring the heart-wrenching story of a husband who begins to see the early signs of dementia in his aging wife.

It’s an ad that demonstrates the immense power of leveraging sadness as the dominant emotional take-out, and how tapping into negative feelings doesn’t necessarily mean detracting from how enjoyable an ad can be. If we indeed lived in a world where “happiness” alone was the accepted wisdom this idea sadly wouldn’t have ever seen the light of day. And you’d have to have a heart made of stone to view that as a good outcome!

Fear and anger can stoke motivation

While charities might lean into “sadvertising” through necessity more than anything else, brands from many other categories have proved that there’s a lucrative path beyond “happiness”. Let’s consider the powerful emotions of fear and anger — feelings that are not only capable of drawing attention, but also absorbing viewers into a narrative.

With negative feelings creating a psychological imbalance that viewers seek to rectify, research has found that people are more likely to be receptive to the brand’s proposed solution, thus driving engagement and motivation. More so, by understanding consumers’ specific anxieties, advertisers can craft narratives that resonate deeply and spur action.

U.K. bank Barclays’ digital safety campaign from 2017 featured a menacing message around phone scamming, tapping into a highly relatable scenario that faces millions every day. Despite its unnerving tone, the ad was thoroughly enjoyed for its highly distinctive, matter-of-fact approach to the alarming issue. Through highlighting the path to risk minimization when introducing the brand, the tense narrative positioned Barclays as a trustworthy bank that puts its customers first.

Turning negatives into positives

Much of the hesitation surrounding the use of negative emotions in advertising comes from the perceived risks associated with these feelings carrying over to the brand or, worse still, leading to viewers disengaging with the ad entirely. And while it’s true that deploying negativity is a delicate dance, efforts can be made to minimize the potential downsides.

By introducing the brand at the peak moment of emotional engagement (and in a way that actively resolves these negative feelings), an ad’s impact can be amplified. Not only are the resulting positive feelings enhanced by juxtaposing the build-up of negativity, but the brand’s role in resolving the tension can more effectively nudge people toward it as a result.

Dove's 2024 Super Bowl spot demonstrates this perfectly, with the ad featuring an uplifting twist that left viewers feeling warm and inspired, largely owing to the initial tension created through the somber message highlighting the declining participation of young girls in sport.

A word of caution on taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach to emotion

We’ve already discussed the glaring pitfalls of taking a blinkered approach to creativity and blindly targeting “happiness”. In particular the risk it runs of creating a bland and predictable advertising landscape where everyone looks and feels the same, talks and behaves in the exact same way, with nobody able to cut through the clutter as a result.

But what brands must also keep in mind when it comes to emotion and the types of feelings they’re aiming to elicit in their audiences, is how seamlessly this aligns with the brand's existing personality and tone of voice.

Warm, sentimental, “happy” feelings aren’t right for everyone, and when they’re intentionally (or unintentionally) disconnected from the brand's existing personality it can result in a lack of synergy with the mental structures people currently hold. The issue? Well, the likelihood the brand will actually be embedded in people’s minds (and thus drive long-term effects) is consequently diminished.

It’s why a one-size-fits-all approach to emotion is clunky and naïve, and putting aside that it risks coming across as completely disingenuous (audiences are particularly savvy at picking up on inauthentic attempts to manipulate their feelings!), it means that advertising isn’t able to do what it’s supposed to do — build mental availability.

Let’s adopt a balanced set of emotions to the ingredients necessary for advertising success

In a sea of happiness, it’s fair to say that a disproportionate focus on any one emotion only does a disservice to the entire advertising industry and, worse still, risks homogenizing creativity. And you don’t have to look very far to find evidence of this playing out.

For example, consider your own personal tastes when it comes to entertainment. It’s likely that you choose television shows and movies that make you laugh, smile, and evoke happiness — but that probably only represents a proportion of your overall viewing repertoire. The very best stories play to all your emotions, with 2023’s top grossing movies underlining the importance of taking a wide breadth in approach — for every Barbie there’s an Oppenheimer!

So, here’s our plea to all marketers: Let’s collectively ensure our industry continues to break free from the monotony of conformity and embraces the extraordinary. Let’s champion the transformational power of creativity and avoid advertising becoming a symphony of sameness.

Get in touch to speak to one of our consultants about our ad testing & tracking solution. Expert-led, evidence-based insights — which don’t break the bank.

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