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The Underestimated Power of Psychology in Advertising

by Haley Nininger   |   Oct 15, 2020

As digital marketers, we nerd out on endless types of data. Excel, pivot tables, charts—we love numbers and making meaning of them. While this puts us in a powerful position to help businesses meet their bottom line through various number-driven strategies, we sometimes can overlook some of the most powerful tactics in other types of marketing.

Psychology is known to play a large role in several types of advertising, particularly traditional media. Whether we want to admit it or not, we’re all guilty of making one or two irrational decisions based on some sort of emotional bias or other pillars of psychology incorporated into the media we consume. Today we’re going to explore some of the reasons why this works, how this works, and how we can also increasingly integrate these principles into our daily digital marketing work.

Why Emotions Matter in Digital Marketing

In Season 1, Episode 1 of every marketer’s favorite show, Mad Men, Don Draper is trying to ideate how to market cigarettes appropriately now that the FTC has announced they can be dangerous. He suggests positioning Lucky Strike cigarettes as “toasted,” alluding to the way they manufacture and process the tobacco. In doing so, Draper hopes people will no longer think of tobacco as scary or harmful. When the rest of the room seems confused, Don continues to explain, “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK.”

Digital marketing has a responsibility to appeal top our clients in creative ways and with creative copy. If we want our client’s customers to be loyal “brand ambassadors,” we have to make them care first. So, how do we make them care? Through emotional appeal.

Research suggests that there are six universal emotions we all feel:

  1. Happiness
  2. Anger
  3. Disgust
  4. Sadness
  5. Fear
  6. Surprise

We should be thinking seriously about just how well these emotions work in the market, and how we can help our clients stand out amongst competitors. Marketers are typically focused on optimizations, numbers, and data—but what about bringing it back to the roots of basic psychological appeal? Let’s dig into each of these a little further.

1. Happiness

First up, happiness. Happiness is probably the most popular emotion we see in advertising. Happy brands or ads make you feel good—everyone strives to feel happy. Happiness can be taken in almost any direction and is associated with other positive feelings or concepts such as romance, adventure, playfulness, family, friends, etc.

One of the best examples of happiness in advertising is Coca-Cola. We all know that sugary sodas are bad for you, but ads for Coke don’t talk about fat, calories, diabetes or anything else that could result from their product. Rather, the focus is on happiness. Their slogan is literally “Open happiness.”The focus is on youth, vitality, and good times, cheerfulness, friends...happiness. And people buy into that. Why? Because Coke is now associated with the emotion.

2. Anger

Anger in advertising is meant to get you fired up—meant to give you something to say. This very reason is why brands typically stray away from anger in their ads. While brands recognize the value of tapping into their audience’s emotions, anger is mostly absent from their advertising stories. However, anger is a normal human emotion and, while often scared of it, people want and need to express it although it is frequently repressed.

This technique typically works best for political ads and awareness around social issues. While other industries and advertisers think that it is best to avoid anger at the risk of negative associations, in the political arena especially, anger can inspire people and spur action. We become angry when we see another person hurt or an injustice. Frustration can cause people to reconsider their perspective and ask important questions.

3. Disgust

Ironically enough, this type of advertising is made to make people feel bad about themselves or the things they are doing. By “putting you down” or making you feel like you have a problem, the advertiser is positioned to swoop in and save the day with their solution.

Advertisers who sell things like diet pills, hair removal, teeth whiteners, and other “miracle” remedies strive to make you feel like you're not the best version of yourself without their product.

Disgust can be one of the most inspiring emotions to plug into an advertising campaign as everyone wants to look and feel beautiful or handsome, especially relative to some of the over-exaggerated “disgusting” photos they compare. This isn’t always about comparison though—sometimes, brands take the nastiest parts of their audience’s problems, like the build-up of tar in a cigarette smoker’s lungs, and capitalize, capitalize, capitalize.

4. Sadness

Everyone has seen those sad SPCA ads. Those hurt. People have a hard time looking at them. And while it’s true that some people probably can’t look at them, for the percentage of people that can, this is another one of the most powerful techniques that could exist. It’s so hard to resist ads with sadness, and because of that, they are particularly good for social issues and awareness. By playing on people’s sympathy, empathy, and compassion advertisers are able to capitalize on those emotions because of the validation people feel after donating, adopting, etc.

Sadness is used to connect with people on a deeper level. By making people understand the struggles and hardships faced by other people and animals, brands can really dig deep into people’s emotions and use that to their advantage. There is also the aspect of sadness in advertising that capitalizes on guilt… If I don’t help this puppy or this little boy, what will happen? Sadness can sometimes be a cheap shot, but a successful one.

5. Fear

Fear in advertising is meant to deter people from things that could harm themselves or others, such as texting and driving. You might’ve seen the telecommunication company campaigns based off of the intimidating results of texting and driving accidents. By scaring people off, advertisers are able to make PSAs or get their message out in a more impactful way.

Again, as Don Draper said in the first Mad Men episode, “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? It's freedom from fear.” People look for solutions to the things that intimidate them or scare them, prompting urgency and action. By scaring someone, advertisers can more effectively help relieve people of their anxieties with their product. By capitalizing on fear, we see brands advocating for no drinking and driving, no smoking, and dissuading the public from other possibly harmful products, while positioning their own brand in a positive light.

6. Surprise

Surprise is harder to distinguish as it’s typically used in combination with other emotions and can be applied in a positive or negative light. For example, Dairy Queen has found success in their Blizzard ads, where you’re pleasantly surprised to know that your ice cream will be so thick and creamy that it won’t fall out of the cup. Used negatively, the element of surprise allows brands to capitalize on unpleasant scenarios. Maybe you don’t enjoy looking at the ad, but it draws you in, and that is the purpose of surprise in advertising, after all.

How & Why Psychology Works in Advertising

Act first, think later. It’s what we all do. Emotions are so ingrained in our natural responses, we all impulsively do or buy things, and think about it later. Sometimes we’re happy with our decisions, and sometimes not so much. Either way, we’ve all been emotionally driven to a purchase decision, whether we are aware of it or not. The more emotional an event, the less sensible people are. And this is why psychology in advertising is so powerful.

In order for advertisers to realize its full potential, ads need to be memorable.

Two scientific concepts play a significant role in determining how memorable an ad can be:

  1. Valence: Deals with the positivity or negativity of the emotion,
  2. Arousal: Considers the intensity of an emotion (how calming or exciting it is).

This is also how people/brands/posts go viral. If you create an ad with high enough arousal to spur someone to take action or share, it’s much more likely to spread. Especially in the cases of high valence and high arousal—the overwhelmingly positive content that people love to share. However, the negative approach can work just as well as the positive approaches, if done right.

How Can This Work in Digital Marketing?

Display Ads

Display and social ads are one of the few ways that PPC analysts have a chance to be especially creative with our campaigns. Sometimes we just can’t get that “edgy” with our 30 character headlines.

For clients that have Google Display, it can definitely be worth treading in this controversial space. However, this means you’ll have to think more strategically about your targeting. For example, would women respond to a comparison the same way as men? Could it be insulting? Two ads were tried against each other in a WordStream study that test click-through rate performance. When evaluating performance between a fact-based image ad and a controversial or disgusting ad, the “disgusting” ad’s click-through rate was 47% higher.

By aiming to “gross out” an audience, the ad was able to grab user attention and achieved much higher results due to the appeal to disgust as well as a little bit of surprise.

Search Ads

I know you’re already thinking this doesn’t work so well in the paid search space—but it can. We only have a few characters to play with, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make them count.

We need to think more about how our clients want to position themselves to their target markets. What persona do they want to take on? Is it the feel-good friend? Is it a parent or relative? If, for example, we’re considering the target market of a plus-size woman, we need to speak in a way that we think will resonate best. Two ads were compared against each other in the WordStream study to compare performance of an ad that simply gets the point across versus an ad that really speaks to the target market by embodying a persona.

When tested against each other, the second ad, taking on the persona of a feel-good friend, earned a 40% higher click-through rate than the first ad simply highlighting the offer. In this case, and in several others I’ve come across during my research, it’s clear that these brands are not selling the products, they are selling the connotation.

Landing Pages

Landing pages are a way for both SEO and PPC analysts to think a little harder and deeper about the messaging we’re placing or recommending on site. How can we appeal to the emotions of our client’s audiences? First, use language to put consumers at ease. Incorporating phrases like, “Book with peace of mind,” tells prospects that apartments are vetted and 24/7 customer care is available. Others, like, “7 million nights booked so far,” indicate that millions have safely used the service before and could be the golden ticket to a conversion.

Also, the use of trust icons ensures a business is an established entity that will not leave customers stranded high and dry. People also want to know what they’re getting into and that any mistake can always be reversed. By highlighting product features like satisfaction guarantees, the ability to cancel anytime, and the lack of monthly commitment visitors are reassured that they’re not making a risky, irreversible decision.

While digital marketers will always have a deep love for numbers, it’s imperative that we begin to step outside the box and explore new ways to differentiate our clients in this increasingly automated space. We’ve seen emotional appeal work wonders in various other mediums and it’s time to get (responsibly) risky with our creative techniques.

Have you found success in incorporating emotions or psychology into your digital marketing campaigns? We’d love to chat.

portrait of Haley Nininger

Haley Nininger

Haley joined the Workshop Digital team after graduating from James Madison University in 2018 with a B.S. in Media Arts & Design and a B.B.A. in Marketing. She discovered her passion for Paid Digital Marketing after competing in the Global Online Marketing Academic Challenge. She also has a passion for graphic design and has worked with a variety of clients to assist in achieving their Paid Search and visual design needs.

As a Richmond native, Haley has loved growing up around the hustling and bustling of the lively city. However, she enjoys traveling abroad and has visited several beautiful destinations such as Italy, Spain, the U.K., France, Ireland, and more. Outside of work, she loves exploring Richmond’s eclectic food and beer scene, and attending concerts as often as possible. During her down time you can find her watching Netflix and cuddling with her dog, Zoey.