Laughs & Tears: Emotionality in Advertising

It’s the classic dichotomy of comedy or tragedy. How do you want to grab your audience, with tears or laughter? In the age of “Skip this Ad” and cable-cutting, it is vital that advertisers capture the attention of their audiences. You’ve got to tug on the emotions of your viewers; playing to people’s subconscious will grab attention. How do you reckon with the attention spans of a generation, which, honestly, have been rendered obsolete from our constant and erratic consumption of media?  Furthermore, are tears or laughter more effective than the other?

Let’s examine comedy, first. The attraction to have a funny commercial is because –– well––they’re attractive. They’re like a flash fire; a sudden plume of flame that catches the whole media world on fire, and then there’s the anticipation for more. Neuroscience suggests that our attraction instinctively gravitates towards content that activates our previous experiences, good or bad (The Atlantic). So, commercials that tickle our funny bones often cause an association in our neurons that a certain brand makes us feel good.

For example, Doritos has become essentially synonymous with comedy due to their years of dedication to the laughs. In fact, they have parsed out their content creation to people outside of their companies; people submit their own Doritos comedic commercials. In essence, Doritos has tapped the emotion of comedy and supplanted themselves as a premiere source for laughter and happiness. They strive for outrageous comedy because they know their audience is younger. According to research by Chegg, 80% of college-aged kids remember ads that make them laugh. Simple, enough, right? But, what happens when the joke doesn’t land?

Comedy isn’t easy. It’s an incredibly subjective emotion; what’s funny to you might not be funny to the next person. Advertisers run the risk of being overshadowed by the joke, or, even worse, they stray into the territory of being too offensive. Both scenarios are bad; the latter being worse from a PR standpoint. While I stuffed my face with hot wings and compounded my acid reflux, there were several commercials that I saw during previous Super Bowls that were so focused on the joke that they forgot to advertise their brand. (I’m talking about you, PuppyMonkeyBaby.)

The trick is to discover which style of comedy works for your brand. Geico, for example, loves the tongue-in-cheek comedy that explores no-brainer circumstances. For instance, when you’re at the movies, you silence your cell phone; it’s what you do. That’s their hook: “It’s what you do.” Their message communicates that when you buy auto insurance, you choose Geico because that’s what you do. By building a foundation of recognizable comedy, Geico’s commercials are discussed, shared, and re-watched. If you look at their YouTube page, their commercials consistently garner millions of views. When done correctly, comedy can work. After launching their comedy ad campaign, Dollar Shave Club sold 12,000 orders within two days of the video going viral. Worth it.


Next, there’s the power of tears, or the ability to make viewers have an emotional response to an ad. Dan Hill, author of Emotionomics: Leveraging Emotions for Business Success, posits that “Emotions process sensory input in only one-fifth the time our conscious, cognitive brain takes to assimilate that same input.” Emotions influence the actions we take––in this case, which companies we buy from; sounds familiar, right? Both comedy and emotion tap our neurons into positive associations. However, ads that stimulate our emotional responses tend to trigger actions and manipulate feelings, which isn’t a bad thing.

One of the most successful, emotional ad campaigns was Purina’s “Puppyhood” video. It’s hardly an advertisement; it’s more of a narrative that tells the endearing story of a man’s budding relationship with his new dog. It’s beautiful, sweet, and charming. The tale (HA!) of a man and his dog garnered over 10 million views on YouTube and launched Purina’s newest marketing campaign to lead consumers to their high-level puppy care website. It’s no wonder the campaign was a success, “a study by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising found that ads with purely emotional content generated twice as much profit as ads based on rational content (31 percent vs. 16 percent),” (

On the opposite end of the spectrum, what constitutes a failed emotional advertisement? If you appear to be trying too hard to squeeze an emotion out of your audience, savvy consumers can see right through that. It feels almost like a guilt trip. However, if you’re too successful in telling a dark, emotional story in your ad, then you’re overshadowed by the weight of the emotionality. For example, Nationwide had a campaign that told the stories of children who were killed by automobile accidents, and the advertisements went way too dark. Additionally, they aired during the Super Bowl, which almost seemed tone deaf and, frankly, was a buzzkill. The media backlash to Nationwide’s commercial was scathing; no one appreciated their heavy-handed attempt at emotion. As with comedy, there are subtleties and nuances that must be achieved with emotional maneuvers in commercial content. Let’s not even touch the latest gaffe from Pepsi––low-hanging fruit.


There’s clearly pros and cons with either tactic in commercial storytelling. In the end, it’s not laughs versus tears; it’s about how you approach either one that is the crux of the success of your campaign. Our spots for Audio-Technica, for example, combined their brand messaging while being tongue-in-cheek to their targeted audience. The result: the highest play-through-rate they’ve ever achieved on the web; a wild success. (They came back to work with us again; be on the lookout for a new spot in the coming weeks.) In all art, subtlety and understanding your audience is key to whether or not your content will leave a cultural mark on your consumers. There’s trying to be too funny, there’s trying to be too sappy; in the middle, there’s life. When you’re able to tap into what’s relatable, what’s real, or what represents the essence of your product, that’s when you know you’ve made it. To recall Albus Dumbledore (shoutout to my fellow Potterheads): there’s the choice between what is right and what is easy. Plumb the depths of your brand’s values and aspirations, and tell the story truest to those qualities.

By Benton Olivares