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Making holiday ads that make people cry (in a good way).

By: Amy M.

Sometimes, I feel a bit like the canary in the coalmine when it comes to emotional advertising. Well-crafted emotional ads often make me cry.  And when it comes to advertising, the holidays are all about charm and tearjerkers.

Why? The mushiness of the holidays gives brands a license to get emotional. And it’s often a savvy move since the heart is a much more powerful motivator than the brain when it comes to buying decisions, especially with parity products and services.

Yet even for an unabashed softie like me, some emotional ads work way better than others. Like this Christmas ad from British department store chain John Lewis:

What makes this ad shine?

Well, for starters, it nails three of TDH’s rules for creating effective emotional advertising:

1) Show, don't tell: we aren’t TOLD the little boy is impatient for Christmas to come. We see it in his actions. Which makes us feel more like we’ve discovered the insight about him ourselves (even if it’s spoon-fed). Likewise, we aren’t TOLD how touched his parents are. We see it. In his bypassing the gifts beside his bed, the wrapping job he did, and the looks on their faces.

2) Don’t be afraid to go negative: there’s a melancholic feel to the music track. And a loneliness and frustration in much of what the boy is doing. If the music had been cheery and all his actions had been fun and cute, we wouldn’t connect with him nearly as deeply. And in emotional advertising, bittersweet beats syrup. (More on that in a minute.)

3) Ears + eyes = goosebumps.

That track. What a wonderful, haunting, simple choice.

So what are some of the biggest mistakes emotional ads make?

1)They forget who their target is: an emotional ad is a brand’s way of telling people, “Hey, the stuff that moves you? It moves us too. We’re alike, you and us.” But if you don’t listen closely enough to your target, you may express values or insights the target doesn’t share. Maybe that’s why this Apple holiday spot from last year doesn’t really move me.

Disconnected teens just aren’t something I relate much to right now. (My kid’s only four. Check back with me in nine years. Maybe I’ll get it a lot better then.) Or maybe the moments of teenage disconnection aren’t poignant enough for my taste. Or maybe I’m just bitter because my iPhone screen’s shattered twice in six months.

2) They forget to hold the syrup: the words are too dripping with emotion. The voice, too cloying. The actors’ reactions? Too over-the-top. Got a spot that feels like it could quickly taste of Saccharin? Use a matter-of-fact, male voiceover. More Kevin Spacey. Less Sally Field. Cut copy. Make the reactions smaller. When it comes to emotion, less is more.

3) They forget TDH Rule no. 1: Show, don’t tell.

For me, these two spots are a great example of the show/tell difference. The “Jeep” spot tells while the “Anheuser Busch” spot shows. And it’s the A-B spot that still makes me reach for the Kleenex, even after all these years.


So now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s only 10 days till Christmas. I’ve got some more blubbering to do. 

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