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The Power of Positive Advertising

Consumers respond better to commercials with emotional appeal than to neutral ads or those that are too informative.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Bottom LineCommercials that appeal to people’s optimism make consumers far more likely to fall in love with the brand, regardless of the type of product being advertised.

During this year’s Super Bowl, decidedly positive themes—like puppies, heartwarming families, and nostalgia for cherished celebrities—dominated the commercials that struck a chord with consumers. Companies spent US$4 million per 30-second spot, and early reports suggest they got the most bang for their considerable buck if their ads connected emotionally with consumers. “Maybe it’s the uptick in the economy,” one critic wrote, “but a lot of the ads seem to play to a less cynical mindset.”

According to a new study, the shift away from snarky or downbeat campaigns is a smart move. Ads that evoke pleasant feelings consistently resonate with consumers more than negative, neutral, or information-based commercials do. After people watch a positive TV spot, the authors write, their attitude toward the advertised brand improves—regardless of the product category or its relevance in a consumer’s day-to-day life.

Most previous analyses of how commercials affect consumer opinion have suffered from some obvious shortcomings. They’ve relied on a small sample size, a demographic restricted to college students, or dummy ads that were created for the purpose of the experiment. The strength of this study, however, lies in its sweeping, real-world setting.

The authors surveyed more than 1,500 Belgian consumers whose demographics were representative of the country’s overall population. The participants collectively weighed in on more than 1,000 commercials for actual products that were shown on national TV networks during a recent three-year time span. The ads covered more than 150 product categories, allowing the authors to test whether people’s emotional response varied depending on the type of product or service being advertised.

In line with previous research, a separate group of judges with a marketing background rated the ads for their emotional content, their creativity, and the extent to which they evoked upbeat feelings such as sentimentality, warmth, excitement, and happiness. Another panel of judges defined the product categories according to their perceived importance to consumers—think of the difference in how you value your smartphone versus how you value a slice of pizza. They also determined whether the worth of the items being advertised lay in their functional qualities (as with toothpaste) or in their luxury appeal (as with a high-end wristwatch).

The participants watched the ads and reported their attitudes toward both the commercial and the brand. The analysis showed that consumers responded far more favorably to ads that emphasized positive themes, even if they thought the commercials’ claims or content strained credulity. This shows that the emotional charm of ads can play a direct role in changing opinions of brands for the better, the authors write.

Strikingly, the benefit of taking a positive approach in advertising persisted across industries and endured regardless of the product’s value to a consumer. Whether the commercial advertised a durable item (such as a refrigerator), a short-term product (such as soap or soda), a service (such as a cell-phone subscription or haircut), or merchandise (such as furniture or clothing), the findings were consistent. They showed that “compared to ads that elicit less pleasant feelings, ads that elicit more pleasant feelings may trigger more positive beliefs and thoughts about the brand, which, when integrated into summary evaluations, would result in more favorable brand attitudes,” the authors write.

However, the authors also found that the effects of positive ads reverberated most strongly for hedonistic, rather than utilitarian, products. Consistent with some previous research, consumers trust their snap judgments of commercials more when the ad tugs at their desire to experience the product for fun rather than use it out of necessity. In other words, emotional appeals work better for advertising a water ski than a Waterpik.

The effects of positive ads reverberate most strongly for hedonistic, rather than utilitarian, products.

Although it might seem obvious to play up the positive aspects of a product, many advertisers still choose to go the negative or informational route. For example, studies have shown that although most consumers’ appreciation of culinary products derives from their experience of making, tasting, or smelling food, marketers have long tended to emphasize information (about the number of calories, for instance, or the cooking time) rather than the visceral appeal.

During the most recent Super Bowl, commercials that exploited a cynical twist or resorted to well-worn clichés fell flat with viewers. On the other hand, successful commercials were lauded for their “sense of optimism” and “emotion, which is what good advertising is about.”

Source: The Influence of Ad-Evoked Feelings on Brand Evaluations: Empirical Generalizations from Consumer Responses to More Than 1000 TV Commercials, Michel Tuan Pham (Columbia University), Maggie Geuens (Ghent University), and Patrick De Pelsmacker (University of Antwerp), International Journal of Research in Marketing, Dec. 2013, vol. 30, no. 4

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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