Sad Men: How Advertisers Are Selling With Emotion

May 31, 2014
Originally published on June 28, 2014 10:11 pm

Anybody who's watched commercials on TV lately will recognize this formula: We meet a character — a grizzled dad or an adorable baby — then add some measure of adversity, the music turns hopeful and then there is an emotional conclusion.

As your tears roll — hopefully — you are then hit with the tagline. This type of marketing is called "sadvertising," and it's everywhere.

In an article this month for Fast Company, writer Rae Ann Fera dissected the topic and spoke with countless creatives and advertising experts on where all this heart-string pulling came from.

She told NPR's Arun Rath it has its roots in old public service announcements like Iron Eyes Cody's single tear over littering. But the real start of sadvertising as we know it, Fera says, was in 2011, with the "Dear Sophie" commercial by Google (embedded at the top of this story). In it, an unseen dad chronicles the life of his daughter using Google products.

"All of a sudden anybody who has a kid is weeping uncontrollably," Fera says. "And you sit back and you're just like, 'What's happening? I'm crying over Google products.' "

Another example is from Procter & Gamble. Their "Best Job" ad showed how mothers fueled the success of Olympians.

Advertising is trying to persuade people, Fera says, as well as make a connection with people, and that's what these ads do.

"It's this idea of connecting with the heart over the head," she says. "Purchasing seems like a very rational kind of thing, but in fact we don't make decisions rationally. We make decisions emotionally."

Fera says advertising recognized, this and it's now become a trend to elicit a physically emotional response from ads, as well as to tell a story that connects with people.

As often happens with trends, however, it can backfire, Fera says.

"When you see something rising as a trend, that can be a bit of a death knell for it," she says.

Marketers who see the success of ads like the ones from Google and Procter & Gamble try to emulate it, which can make an ad seem forced. Fera says that is the worst thing a marketer can do.

"People can see through that," she says. "If you say 'I want to make ad that makes people cry,' you're doing it wrong."

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If you've been watching a lot of TV lately, you recognize this formula. Take a character - a grizzled dad is great, but an adorable baby works fine, too.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have a very special relationship. Some people don't understand, but we do.

RATH: Add a dash of adversity.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Can you stand up on one leg Nicolette?

RATH: Stir in some hopeful music.


RATH: Bring to an emotional conclusion.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: But I've been deaf since I was three, so I didn't listen.

RATH: Puppy comes home, dad hugs his daughter, athlete overcomes disability, and as your tears role - the tag line.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Sometimes the little things last the longest. Give extra. Get extra.

RATH: There you have the recipe for sadvertising. Expedia, Powerade, Google, Duracel, Extra Gum - it seems like everyone is doing it. Now commercials that go for the tear ducts are not new. Remember that anti-pollution ad with Iron Eyes Cody with a single tear running down his face? But in a piece for Fast Company this month, Rae Ann Fera says the real start of sadvertising as we know it began in 2011.

RAE ANN FERA: Google released an ad called Dear Sophie.

RATH: Yeah.

FERA: It was a simple view of a screen, a father is charting his daughter's life. And you get to see his desktop and all of the things he's doing with Google products. And all of the sudden, anybody who has a kid is weeping uncontrollably. And you sit back and you are just like, what's happening? I'm crying over Google products. Another really good example was the Procter & Gamble Best Job wherein it showed how mothers were fueling the success of Olympians.

RATH: And they're beautifully done. You know, the Best Job ad for Procter & Gamble - they're these gorgeously filmed vignettes of families around the world. And they say that they're a proud sponsor of moms.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: P&G, proud sponsor of moms.

RATH: Which is kind of hard. It's hard. How can you be against that?

FERA: When you talk to the agency behind that, Wieden and Kennedy, I mean, they came through with an excellent insight. You know, Procter & Gamble wanted to get behind the Olympics, but, in truth, shaving cream, toothpaste, facewash - that doesn't really help Olympians be better Olympians. But if you think about who is helping Olympians, it's their mothers. And those are all of the products mothers tend to rely on. And so they just really positioned themselves as supporting the supporters, which was brilliant. And then they did it in such an amazing way that, I mean, years later, I still can't see that commercial without becoming a sobbing mess.

RATH: So, did these ads, you know - the Google ad, the P & G ad, why did they catch on? Why did this technique catch on?

FERA: Well, I think, you know, purchasing seems like a very rational kind of thing. But, in fact, we don't make decisions rationally. We make decisions emotionally. And I think if you look at advertising and how it's created, there's a bit of a trend in terms of, you know, getting people's actual physical emotions and getting a bit more of an empirical kind of understanding of how people respond. I mean, it certainly is kind of illuminating a little bit. I think people instinctually knew that it's emotional, it's telling a story, it's telling a story well that really connects with people.

RATH: They can misfire, though, 'cause I know one of the commercials that you have as an example - the Cheerios Nana commercial.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Mom, did Nana ever give you Cheerios when you were a little kid?


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Were Cheerios the same back then?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Cheerios has pretty much been the same forever.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: So when we have Cheerios, it's kind of like we're having breakfast with Nana.


RATH: I had a strong physical emotional reaction to that. But it was more of...

FERA: Probably not what they intended.

RATH: Yeah. It was kind of hating what I was seeing.

FERA: Yeah. Absolutely. Success of these ads, particularly in a viral sense - you put something on YouTube, and you can see instantly how many hits something's getting. I mean, if you look back to the Google ad and the P&G ad, they've got incredible view statistics. And so marketers will say I want that too. And that's the worst thing a marketer could say because then you start trying to force something. And if it doesn't hit the right tone, I mean, you're going to get that instant reaction. So I think that's the real danger. If you say I want to make an ad that makes people cry, you're doing it wrong.

RATH: That's Rae Ann Fera. Her article in Fast Company Magazine is called "The Rise Of Sadvertising." Rae Ann, thank you so much.

FERA: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.