Why seduction beats persuasion in advertising (and everything else)

Share this content

If you were to squash the history of human communication into a single day, most of it would be grunts, grimaces and gestures. We are the greatest natural communicators in our planet’s history, but the tools we use are a very recent phenomenon.

Email, LinkedIn, Twitter, iPhones and the rest have been around for an evolutionary eyeblink – far too soon for them to have had any serious impact on the way our brains make decisions and the fundamentals of how we communicate. In those terms, we’re still all about the gestures and grimaces.

Particularly the grimaces. The human face is communication’s first canvas, and it’s still where we first learn to make our needs and responses known. What we communicate, before anything else, is emotion.

The psychologist Paul Ekman has studied human faces across almost every culture in the world to isolate seven core emotions that they all have in common. Happiness, Surprise, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Contempt, they all show on the face in their own unique but universal way. From smiles of Happiness to sneers of Contempt, from the furrowed brows of Anger to the widened pupils of Fear, the fundamental emotions are the foundation stones of all communication.

And we really do mean all communication. We don’t get less human just because we’re writing a business report or trying to clinch a deal, and neither do the people we’re talking to. The reason we learn to communicate our emotions so quickly and express them at a species-wide level is that emotion is absolutely critical to decision-making. It’s one of the baseline heuristics – mental shortcuts – that guide what psychologists call “System 1 decision-making”. System 1 is the rapid, intuitive, emotionally-driven mode of thought which plays a part in every decision we take, and has sole charge of most of them.

How important is emotion?

The famous neuroscientist Antonio Damasio once encountered a patient who had suffered an accident which robbed him of the ability to feel emotions. Damasio realised something very strange. Minor decisions most of us take in an instant – like which day to make an appointment on – had become almost impossible for the man. Without the tiny emotional prompts nudging him in one direction or another, the man simply could not choose between similar options.

That’s also the case with brands, whether in a business or a consumer context. We make rapid, barely conscious choices about brands using our System 1 brains, and then call on the more considered, slower “System 2” to back them up with a credible reason.

Leaving positive emotional impressions makes a huge difference.

But it’s System 1 in the driving seat, selecting between choices on the basis of a handful of instinctive factors – how familiar and recognisable a choice is, and whether it feels good. Brands that can trigger these positive emotions in their customers and prospects have a serious advantage.

It’s easy to think of consumer brands which create these positive emotions. Apple, Nike, Cadbury’s, Coca-Cola. But emotion plays a powerful role in any customer-centric business.

There’s a reason why we talk about “service with a smile” and “surprising and delighting” customers. Leaving positive emotional impressions makes a huge difference. In fact, it’s far more important than the lists of features and reasoned, persuasive arguments for buying a brand or winning someone’s business. Those ultimately appeal to System 2 thinking.

But as psychologists like Nobel-winner Daniel Kahneman have shown, System 2 thinking comes in after System 1 has already pushed you one way or the other. Those lists of selling points and persuasive reasons are mostly useful for people who’ve already made an emotional choice in your favour, and are looking to back it up.

Emotional impression

So how do you create that emotional impression? How do you seduce rather than persuade? That bring us back to communication, because communication is still the best way to get an emotional response – just as it was back in the era of grimaces and gestures. These days we don’t need to bang rocks together: we can advertise.

Emotional advertising is the core of marketing effectiveness, whatever category you’re in. The more people feel, the more people buy. At System1 Research we put emotion at the core of our work by making it the centre of our advertising testing and tracking: other systems claim to measure emotional effectiveness, we place it at the centre of our model for predicting advertising efficiency.

We know emotion is vital to advertising because of pioneering work done by a pair of researchers, Les Binet and Peter Field, who have spent a decade analysing the IPA Datamine, a vast resource of case studies collected by the Institute for Practitioners of Advertising in London. The Datamine includes all IPA effectiveness award winners and entries, in both B2C and B2B categories, making it the greatest possible resource for answering the question: what really makes advertising work?

These days we don’t need to bang rocks together: we can advertise.

Binet and Field’s work is thorough and fascinating – recommended reading for every marketer. But at the heart of the work is emotion. They look at ad campaigns which use purely emotional ads, ones which use purely ‘rational’, message-driven ads, and ones that mix the two. The results are stark. Even in the short-term, emotional ads beat the rational and mixed ones on generating large business effects (like profit growth and share gain). In the long-term, purely emotional campaigns are almost twice as more likely to do so.

In our new book, System1: Unlocking Profitable Growth, we talk about several case studies that go into this, and look deeper into the link between emotion and great advertising. One of the examples we use is an HSBC ad, designed for the bank’s business customers, called Lemonade.

The ad showed a little girl who runs a lemonade stall – when a busload of Chinese tourists arrives, she quickly changes her prices from dollars to yuan. It’s a cute, funny ad, and very different from the standard dry B2B approach. It tested far better than the average financial services commercial, and HSBC found that not only did it drive business for their B2B products, it also generated a rise in custom for their currency trading desk, too! Emotion wins.

What if you’re not looking for longer-term brand growth right now, but just want some effective customer activation? Emotion is your friend here too, but in a slightly different way. For long-term growth, you need to create positive impressions. For short-term activations, what we call emotional dynamism is what counts – the number of different emotions an ad can create, and how intense it is.

Surprise, and even negative emotions like sadness or anger, can be vital tools in driving short-term customer response. But whichever approach you take – and many of the best ads do both, leaving positive impressions and creating a rollercoaster emotional ride for viewers – it’s clear that when it comes to customer communications, seduction beats persuasion every time.

Tom Ewing is a senior director at System1 Group, and co-author of new book System1: Unlocking Profitable Growth, out now, priced £12.99. For more information see www.System1Group.com

About TomEwing


Please login or register to join the discussion.

There are currently no replies, be the first to post a reply.