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  • Marlee John

“And I Took that Personally”: Emotion in Advertising

It’s only personal, if you make it personal.

So the other day, I was sitting at home watching a TV show, it went to commercial break (yes, those still exist) and one of those animal cruelty commercials comes on. Slow-zooming clips of sad, abused dogs and cats stared up at me as a saddened voice spoke about the perils of animal abuse. Even when I tried try to look away the melancholy music continued to paint the picture of despair.

I knew what they were doing to me, but the longer I watched, the worse I felt. I don’t even like dogs that much but I was considering adopting one just to end the sudden feeling of immense guilt.

Why Does it Work?

Our emotions have a strong connection to our behaviour. Commercials like these ones have mastered the art of appealing to our emotions to persuade us to act. We may be able to recognize the strategy but we still fall victim to it.

In an article for LRW, Collette Eccleston PhD argues that the most effective way to motivate people to take a desired action is through a high stimulation of emotions. When we are deeply moved, we are more inclined to take action.

People will take it personally, if we make it personal.

The American Psychology Association (APA) defines emotion as “a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioural and physiological elements by which an individual attempts to deal with a personally significant matter or event.” A key term here is “personally significant”.

In The Last Dance, a 2020 documentary miniseries following Michael Jordan’s basketball career, Jordan himself shares about his inclination to take even the smallest offences personally in order to motivate him to beat his opponents. While a company’s call to action may not be sports related, the concept of using emotion to drive action is relevant to the realm of advertising.

Advertising is often the first impression people have of a brand or company. And, if the professional world has taught us anything— first impressions are everything. Within the first few seconds of seeing an advertisement, an individual makes a subconscious decision to find something else or to keep looking. By making it personal through a use of emotion, advertisers are able to both attract and keep their viewers’ attention long enough to help guide them to the next decision of purchasing the product or service.

Though some people are more selfless than others, a good rule of thumb is that when things feel personal, we are more apt to be more involved.

For animal cruelty commercials, the goal is to raise money and/or encourage adoption from shelters. By pulling at our heart strings with sad and innocent looking animals in a vulnerable position, we are enraged and deeply saddened enough to want to respond to the “but with your help” call to action.

Four Ways to Appeal to Emotion


Colour is everywhere in nature and in our domestic lives giving out non-verbal cues and warnings. Brightly coloured insects and reptiles are often the poisonous ones giving heed to predators and humans to stay away. Biologically we are hardwired to take note of colours as this was a necessary skill when foraging and hunting for food, long before we had access to local supermarkets.

Our modern day domestic lives have adopted this. Research has shown that we have a psychological connection to colour. The same colour psychology works across all sectors, not just for animals or our ancestors in the wild. From warning labels to traffic signals, a universal sign for “stop” or “danger” is red. Red says “urgent, urgent stop now!” while paler colours give off a less immediate more calm sentiment. Researchers have discovered how to implement tools like colour psychology into advertising to help companies convey their message better. What better way to sell something than to nudge people in their feelings?


It is commonly said because it is true, that music extends where words cannot. Hans Christian Andersen, an author and playwright said “where words fail, music speaks”. Very similar to colour, music has the ability to trigger our feelings. Music directly impacts our emotional and psychological state which is why it is used in many things from therapy to film. Without a soundtrack, suspense films would be boring, horror films wouldn’t be as scary and superhero films would just be a long train of special effects. Recall the animal abuse commercials, they are sadder with the slow piano and orchestral music because of the nuances in melody and rhythm. Though there are intricate explanations for this, we don’t need to be professional musicians to recognize a sad-sounding song from a happier one.


Know your target audience. Advertisements for children’s cereal are very different from advertisements for a women’s fitness and wellness product. What is the tone of your advertisement and what emotion is it trying to evoke? Do you want bold and flashy like a superhero comic to trigger excitement, or pastels to suggest calm, peacefulness and simplicity. Visual cues will either draw your viewer towards your product, deter them from it, or worse: cause them to overlook it.


Everyone loves a great story. Thomas King PhD, lecturer and Indigenous storyteller, writes in his book that “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are” (King, 2). Our lives are a collection of experiences, the emotional and psychological impacts of which can be accessed through the telling of stories. Stories allow us to tap into the essence of our humanity and relate to one another on the basis of experience. Share your brand though a story. Who is it for? Who does it help? What experience does it promise? We are emotional beings, guided by our emotions to help us make decisions every day. Whether an individual runs through an entire range of emotions daily, or is as stoic as a rock in the middle of winter, we all maintain some level of emotion. Have your product or service appeal to the emotions of people. Tell a story. Make it personal.


Eccleston, Collette. PhD, “Sad Dogs and Sad Songs: How Emotions Impact

King, Thomas., The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative., House of Anansi Press, 2003.

“n. emotion.” APA Dictionary of Psychology, American Psychological Association,

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