Have you ever found yourself recalling a certain advertisement or TV commercial that you saw and aren’t sure why? Advertisers use sneaky, yet smart strategies created around human emotions for capturing the eye and the memory of viewers. People make most of their purchasing decisions based on feelings rather than logistics, and advertisers use this to their advantage when creating advertising campaigns. Studies show that the only existing human emotions are happiness, sadness, anger/disgust and fear/surprise, and all of them are used in advertising. Each emotion plays a special role in capturing the viewer’s attention and motivating them to a specific action.

Happiness is what everyone strives for in life, and advertisers frequently use this idea to promote their products. Quoting Don Draper, the famous [and fictional] ad executive in Mad Men, “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness.” Consumers are much more likely to purchase something if they believe it will have a positive effect on their overall well-being, especially if it will solve an existing problem that they are facing. Very few companies focus on the actual specifications of their products when creating advertisements, instead choosing imagery and plotlines that play on feelings and emotions. McDonald’s released a commercial for their chicken tenders in 2017 that included a humorous story about a grandmother who could pass off the tenders as her own, allowing her to take more free time to do things that she enjoys while still providing a meal for her family. The advertisers are banking on enticing viewers to purchase these chicken tenders based on the premise that they, too, may be able to feed their family and still be able to take more leisure time for themselves. What McDonald’s does not include in this commercial is pricing and nutritional value of the chicken tenders, which could derail the viewer’s plans to head out on a trip to McDonald’s.

“Sadvertising” is the science of using oxytocin-dispensing images or stories in ads. This is where “pulling on your heartstrings” comes into play: the animals, sick children, babies and other tear-inducing subjects are featured to gain the viewer’s attention. This tactic, when successful, helps advertisers to convey empathy to establish a connection with the consumer, as they both care about the subject matter of the ad. For advertisers, the message should be organic and genuine as trendy subjects can get stale and seem forced, or just plain depressing. Some ads can be offensive, even if the message means well, like this extremely controversial ad from the South African charity Feed A Child that tries [and fails] to relay the message that pets are fed better than starving children.

Anger has more recently become a very popular emotion with the help of controversial issues. Many organizations have used anger in their advertisements to drive people to take action, whether it be to donate money or to persuade them into joining the cause and siding with the organization’s point of view. Gun control has been a very sensitive, yet relevant topic over the past few years and will continue to be a hotly debated issue likely generating new ads as we speak. Anti-gun children advocacy group Moms Demand Action launched an ad campaign depicting two children – one holds an assault weapon while the other holds another item that has been banned for the well-being of children. While seeing children holding guns will certainly make people angry, it also presents the question that if all of these other things are banned for the well-being of children, perhaps guns should also be banned. In addition to anger, using disgust as a means of grabbing viewer’s attention falls under the same emotional umbrella. Many companies have used unpleasant and gross visual content to make people feel that they need whatever product is being sold. Lamisil, an anti-fungal cream, released this advertisement in 2003 that plays on the cringe-worthy infections that can get into your feet through your toenails. Similarly, many anti-drug organizations use disturbing images of people affected by their addictions, as well as anti-cigarette companies using pictures of blackened lungs as a result of smoking.

Fear in advertising, much like disgust, can show thought-provoking (and sometimes disturbing) imagery to convey an emotion to motivate the viewer to take action. Fear can trigger the “fight or flight” response in humans, which can be successful in driving people to make a decision. This method is very popular in PSA’s against texting and driving. AT&T launched a campaign called “It Can Wait” that appeals to all drivers based on the fear of getting in an accident while driving distracted. Fear tactics are also frequently seen in insurance commercials – as the “worst-case-scenario” of disasters in which one would require insurance. Putting these scenarios into viewer’s heads evokes worry, which in turn can make the viewer believe that they need to be covered by insurance just in case and that this specific company will help them cope with the disaster if it were to occur.

Using emotional tactics can be very effective, but won’t (always) leave you in tears. Advertisers will use the potential outcome of using their products to evoke emotion – whether that it is joy, fear, relief or accomplishment. Next time you find yourself in awe of a great advertisement, ask yourself – what emotion are you feeling and what is it making you want to do?