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How Ads Elicit Emotion From U.S. Consumers

Tom Ewing

Weathertech ad

What we can learn about American consumers based on the ads they love most

We test a lot of ads at System1. For our Ad Ratings service, we test every ad that airs on U.S. TV in seven key sectors, from finance to food and drink. With Ad Ratings, marketers can look at effectiveness metrics across entire categories and see which ads are driving long-term growth for brands.

The key measure in Ad Ratings is the star rating, a one-to-five-star score that predicts the potential for an ad to amplify media spend into growth. The key is emotion: A long-term effective ad creates positive emotion and reinforces memory structures around its brand so that when it comes time for a purchase decision, those positive feelings make brands seem like a better choice.

Five-star ads are the most powerful of all, creating exceptional levels of positive feeling. But they’re rare, with less than 1% of TV ads hitting that score. This year to date, barely 20 TV ads have managed a five-star score. Some are for household names, such as Hershey’s and Microsoft, while others represent lesser-known brands, such as WeatherTech and dairy company Kemps. But they all have one thing in common: They delighted viewers.

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By looking at some of the themes in these emotional ads, you can find advertising and product trends that aren’t readily apparent from the work that generates most marketing conversation. I’ve taken a look at five of them.

Familial Relationships

The bonds of family are a well that rarely runs dry for advertisers, and it’s worth noting how much emotional mileage brands can get from showing parent-child interactions. A 15-second, five-star ad for Google Home and its voice apps is a great example: A dad and his toddler son do sit-ups together, with Google encouraging users to turn its devices off and cherish these moments. It’s a charming way for the brand to stay on the sidelines of the emotion but maintain its presence in the ad.

Other parent-child ads include one for Dole fruit bowls—which follows a daughter enjoying healthy snacks as she grows up—and an ad for Cheerios that shows parents and kids biking together. These are traditional ads, with only the health and tech detox messages betraying the concerns of the late 2010s.

Pet Care

With America’s dog population growth outpacing that of humans, it’s hardly surprising that so many of the most-loved ads have a canine element. Dogs generate warm and fuzzy feelings in viewers, though without good brand relevance, a dog’s uplifting effect can be blunted.

The highest-scoring dog ads are for pet food and accessories, and they reveal an interesting trend. These aren’t your parents’ pet food commercials; these are promoting products for dogs that are central to families and whose owners treat them more like a human than a pet. The selling point for Freshpet food is that it “belongs in the fridge just like your food.” Merrick Pet Care offers breath mints, dubbed “Fresh Kisses,” to treat your pup’s halitosis. And WeatherTech’s five-star Super Bowl ad offers pet comfort in the high-tech style of a top-end car ad. These pet products go further and build more emotion than older brands. If there’s a ceiling on pampering, we haven’t found it yet.

Summer Treats

The world of emotional advertising is seasonal; every year, there’s a crop of summer-themed ads that evoke the season and make viewers happy. Summer in ad land is a time for indulgence, a chance for snack, drink and dessert brands to make their mark. This year, Frito-Lay positioned this theme front and center in an ad celebrating summer socializing and our “favorite people, favorite places, favorite snacks.” It’s not an especially subtle or original ad, but it’s dynamic and fun. We rightly celebrate creativity, but done well, scenes of happy people having fun together can trigger positive emotions just as strongly. When life is good, sometimes all the advertiser needs to do is portray it on screen, make the brand connection and stand back.

Other brands aiming for a bit of summery indulgence in their five-star ads are Kemps (advertising its ice cream with a lovely, folksy bit of animation) and dipped strawberry treat brand Shari’s Berries (pushing a Mother’s Day deal). Both show that smaller brands can tap into our desire for sweet indulgence as strongly as the big names.

Inclusive Purpose

Brand purpose has become one of the most-discussed topics in the marketing world, with figures as senior and influential as Unilever’s CEO yoking their companies to the pursuit of wider, socially beneficial goals. Looking at the most emotional ads, it’s easy to see that purpose can be motivating and emotionally effective for consumers—but within limits. The kind of purpose-driven advertising viewers particularly enjoy is highly inclusive and focuses on providing opportunities to the disadvantaged. Purposeful advertising that is more controversial, which looks to break social norms or take political stances, tends to score lower.

Top purposeful ads so far this year include Microsoft’s Cannes-winning Super Bowl spot featuring its adaptive controller, technology that allows mobility-impaired kids to join in with their friends on Xbox without limitations. Coca-Cola landed two five-star ads highlighting its work supporting teachers and helping poor families afford shoes. These scored higher than any of Coke’s dozens of product ads this year, highlighting how strongly viewers respond to a company being a good corporate citizen.

Dogs (inevitably) get in on the action, too, with pet adoption and mobility services for injured dogs scoring five-star spots.

One interesting example comes from Hershey’s, whose “giving happiness”-themed ads scored five stars by adapting the style (mock-documentary) and format (people being charitable) of many purposeful ads, but in this case, the charity involved handing out free chocolate bars.

All-Ages Ads

One of those Hershey’s ads is the highest-scoring ad so far this year. It has a very unusual lead: a 94-year-old man who hands out Hershey’s treats to people in his neighborhood.

The success of this ad is a reminder that brands occasionally take myopic views of who or what will appeal to buyers. Brands often fill their marketing with youth, whether because they are the target consumer or because brands think that young people make their product more appealing across demographics. But what’s notable about this year’s five-star ads is the range of ages represented. There’s plenty of other diversity, too: We’re well past the days of only white, middle-class families showing up onscreen. It’s heartening to have this proof that conventional wisdom is wrong and that viewers can and do respond well to ads showing a far wider age range than the narrow norm.

Tom Ewing is head of marketing at System1.