The Power of Emotional Storytelling in Digital Advertising

The holidays are coming. Are you excited about all the fun holiday ads?

The usual holiday glitz we are used to seeing in holiday advertising may be less excessive this year, which can be expected living in such recessionary times. Nonetheless, one aspect of holiday advertising that seems promising is emotional storytelling.

System1’s Test Your Ad effectiveness measurement platform awards each ad a 1 to 5 Star Rating indicating the potential for an ad to drive brand growth. The Spike Rating highlights an ad’s short-term sales impact. Through tests, System1 found that the best holiday ads are the ones that evoke a little bit of sadness but then delight with a bright resolution by the end. 

This is great for retailers, but publishers should also take heed and strategize to find ways to include ads that evoke emotion contextually related to the content they publish. We spoke with Jon Evans, Chief Customer Officer at System one, about the effectiveness measurement platform and its benefits for publishers.

Yakira Young: How does System1’s Test Your Ad effectiveness measurement platform work?

Jon Evans: System1’s Test Your Ad platform helps advertisers predict, understand, and improve the effectiveness of their advertising by measuring viewers’ emotional responses to the creative. 

By diving deeper into how ads make people feel, the associations they make, the speed at which they recognize the brand, and even their feedback on music selection, characters, and narrative, it enables brands to finetune creative so that they can put their most effective ad forward. For some brands, a particular campaign may focus more on driving online or in-store sales. For others, the main priority will be to support long-term brand building. System 1’s ad testing metrics predict how a particular ad will perform over the short and long term. 

YY: How can publishers benefit from placing ads on their websites that have an emotional journey? 

 JE: It’s important to take viewers on an emotional journey, as the more people feel, the more they buy. Sadness can be a compelling emotion for creating effective ads, but it’s crucial to avoid the ‘sadness trap.’ This requires resolving these feelings of sadness before the commercial’s conclusion. Aim to turn feelings of sadness to happiness, as it is the most helpful emotion for creating mental availability for a brand and guiding purchasing decisions.

Toyota’s “Celebrate Together” holiday ad is a perfect example of leaning into sadness, as we see a young grocery store employee working over the holidays and unable to spend time with her family. She goes out of her way to help her neighbors and show them kindness. Ultimately, they come together to ensure she is not alone for the holidays, ending happily. System1’s FaceTrace® highlights viewers’ emotional response to the ad, with sadness diminishing and happiness growing as the ad nears its conclusion.

Toyota – “Celebrate Together” – System1 FaceTrace® analysis

YY: We read that the top ad this year was a Christmas story from Hobby Lobby. Why do you think they were able to attain this victory?  

JE: Hobby Lobby’s holiday ad centers on two girls decorating their rival hot chocolate stand with supplies from the retailer. In a gesture of kindness, the more successful seller pivots to selling marshmallows to complement the other girl’s cocoa. The ad scored 5.3 Stars because it successfully puts the product at its center without its storytelling and ends positively. 

 Wegmans dethroned Hobby Lobby and is the new brand with the top US holiday ad ratings. The ad focuses on a young boy who clears leaves and snow from the yard and puts up Christmas lights. As he prepares a plate full of holiday food, we realize that he’s been completing these chores at his elderly neighbor’s house rather than his own. While Wegmans’ festive food gets a supporting role, the star is very much the cross-generational friendship. 

YY: I know that ads without heavy branding seem to rate highest considering they provide something a user can relate to as opposed to a “live ad.” Do you ever find heavily branded ads to test well on Test Your Ad? 

JE: There are certainly instances of high-performing ads with prominent branding – and there’s a way to do it well. For example, Nike’s successful formula involves montages of numerous athletes wearing Nike-branded gear or true emotional stories of individual players. While the Nike logo is always present, it does take a back seat to the overall narrative.

 Another example is when advertisers create a Fluent Device, a recurring character or scenario, which aids brand recognition. The red and yellow M&Ms are an example of a Fluent Device – they bring the branding front and center in the ad, but we still rely on the characters to tell a story and make us laugh. 

Ads that rely only on pushing branding and product may be successful at generating sales in the short term but likely won’t score as highly on the Star Rating scale, meaning they will do little in brand building.  

YY:  What is the correlation between showcasing emotional moments in ads and retail media? Are you finding that consumers spend more money when they are emotionally driven? 

JE: Tapping into consumers’ emotions helps brands in two key ways. First, emotional advertising supports long-term market brand building. As most people aren’t in the market to buy right now, advertisers need to think of ways to create mental availability in consumers’ minds. Emotion guides and simplifies decision-making. When brands produce emotional ads that leave a positive impression on consumers, these ads recall the future when they are ready to make a purchase. 

Second, the quality of advertising affects short-term sales potential. Ads influence how intensely we feel certain emotions. System1’s Spike Rating is based on emotional intensity and how quickly viewers connect a commercial to the advertiser. High emotional intensity and speedy brand recognition indicate greater short-term sales potential. For retailers, this typically results in consumers visiting a website or store, thereby increasing sales opportunities. 

It’s no wonder many advertisers lean heavily into emotional advertising around the holidays. The holiday shopping season is an important one for brands hoping to significantly impact year-end sales, and the right narrative in ads can encourage buyers to make purchases now and in the future.  

YY: Where do you see the future of emotional storytelling in ads?

JE: Emotional storytelling will continue to be important for advertisers to support long-term brand growth. System1’s recent Feeling Seen USA report demonstrates the value of diverse characters in emotional stories. We analyzed 58 US TV ads with 18,500 viewers that cast individuals from under-represented groups and highlighted diverse stories. The average Star Rating for US ads is 2 stars. The average of the ads tested for Feeling Seen is 3.8 stars. Thus, diversity-themed ads are considerably more effective with the general public than the average US commercial. ​

When creating stories, especially those that showcase diversity and inclusion or a purpose like sustainability, it’s important to feel authentic and relevant to the brand in question so they resonate with viewers. Ad testing can help reveal whether the ad is landing well with audiences and properly communicating its intended messaging.