Why ‘sadvertising’ can work…but only if you do it right

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If you saw the 2013 Super Bowl, then you probably remember the Budweiser Puppy Love commercial, the one where puppy and horse make such a deep emotional bond often saved for Gary Marhsall films. You may even have shed a tear by the end, when these two unlikely soul mates defied all obstacles to reunite in a heart-wrenching moment of courage and will — which is (no surprise) exactly what the creators of this ad were aiming for. And 54 million of you tuned in on YouTube to watch the melancholic ad tug at your oh so sensitive heart.

The days of fact-based advertising are going the way of the flip-phone. “Why you should buy” is swiftly being replaced by stories and content which often have nothing to do with the product being sold. While this is not a new trend, we have seen a noticeable shift in the type of content being produced. Twenty-five years ago, humour was the go-to emotion for ad executives (think Pepsi’s commercial from 1992 featuring Cindy Crawford). Now, story-based ads are being concocted en masse that tap into you so deeply you might get verklempt after a 30-second spot.

The goal of making an audience become choked up even has its own name: sadvertising. While emotional advertising is a powerful concept, advertisers need to know what it is and, more importantly, what it’s not, if they want to use it effectively.

Turning on your emotional body

Sadvertising has two key goals. The first is to connect with an audience on an emotional level. People want real stories of real people doing meaningful things. Especially if these stories bring them to tears.

The second goal is to encourage people to share these stories through online and social media. Sam Barcroft, founder of the digital media firm Barcroft Media, tells The Guardian, “Imagine how much more important a brand message is if it’s been shared from you to me rather than me just seeing it on Facebook… Emotional content can really help people be inspired to share.”

Consider Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign. Within a month this advertisement had over 37m views on Youtube. And Procter & Gamble’s Thank You Mom ad for the Sochi 2014 Olympics? It’s currently sitting at almost 20 million views. Clearly, this shift to value-driven advertising not only works, but bridges TV and online advertising, as well, via social media.

Radio, too, has not overlooked the value of storytelling in marketing. The Ray Ban ad “Marilyn” by Pirate Radio & Television is a sterling example: By narration alone, the ad manages to contrast the glamorous figure of Marilyn Monroe with the frail, damaged image of Norma Jean Baker, and brilliantly attaches those emotions of sympathy and protectiveness to a brand of sunglasses.

Terry O’Reilly, co-founder of Pirate Radio and host of CBC Radio One’s Under the Influence, explains the concept of story-based marketing. He says, “Smart marketers make people feel their messages, not just intellectually understand them. Because if you want people to take action, they have to feel your message in their gut. Emotion is the gateway to influencing behaviour.”

But can marketers take emotional marketing too far? Some experts think so. According to Rae Ann Fera of Fast Company, “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.”

Call it the Upworthy effect, where sweet sentiments are meant to inspire viral sharing. “There’s too much wishy-washy, do goody stuff out there, where companies try to appear like charities,” says Giles Gibbons, chief executive of the communications firm Good Business. “People don’t buy that.”

One commonly cited example is this Coca Cola ad, where surveillance camera footage shows random people behaving kindly or charitably (as in “honest pickpockets” and “potato chip dealers”), as an example.

The public sentiment towards this blatantly emotional ad was picked up by CBC’s news blog “Is Coca Cola’s surveillance ad sweet or a stretch?” It reports, “The ad had the desired effect on many YoutTbe viewers, many of who said it made them tear up. But others took issue with the ad — and its corporate backer.

Sadvertising, or more specifically emotional, story-based marketing, is definitely a powerful tool, more so now than ever with the popularity of social media sharing— if it’s done right. If you’re going do venture into these water, though, your goal should be to focus on the value of the message. You should not deliberately set out to make your audience cry.

As Joe Baratelli, EVP and chief creative officer of RPA, says, “[T]here’s always a danger of being disingenuous in any of this stuff because you are trying to sell something and people are pretty savvy… 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.”

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