Creativity and emotion – is it risky business?

Earlier this year, less than a week after its release, McDonalds was forced to pull one of their TV adverts in the UK and issue an official apology. This decision came after the advert sparked a series of complaints and national headlines accusing the food chain of exploiting childhood bereavement.

Of course, emotive advertising is nothing new. From John Lewis’ tear-jerking Christmas ads (remember Man on the Moon?) to Coca-Cola’s classic Holidays are Coming, advertisers are increasingly tapping into emotions to build memorable, genuine relationships with customers. And it works; documented studies have proven that the emotional response to an ad has far greater influence on our intent to buy than the ad’s actual content.

However, emotive advertising involves an element of risk, especially when brands choose to align their message with pressing social issues. Just look at Pepsi`s recent PR catastrophe, for example, The in-house Kendall Jenner advert was meant to take “a more progressive approach to truly reflect today’s generation and what living for now looks like.” Instead, it was pulled the next day following complaints that the ad appropriated the Black Lives Matter movement for commercial gain. Pepsi’s global message of unity, peace and understanding failed to convince its audience.

Getting emotive advertising right is hard, and the backlash can far outweigh the benefits as brands risk alienating customers. That begs the question, where do we draw the line? Unchecked creativity can be a difficult beast to manage and must be harnessed to be effective.

Perhaps the fault with these emotive campaigns was a lack of rational, objective evaluation? Whether a neutral party such as a test group is consulted or it’s integrated into the development phase itself, the final part of any creative process must include a self-critical stage that takes into consideration any potential misinterpretations and how to mitigate them.

Going back to John Lewis and their Man on the Moon advert, the campaign certainly had the potential to step on toes, and Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty received strong critique, but was an overwhelming success worldwide. Perhaps because the brands here successfully integrated their brand values with the social issue in question and attempted to offer a solution?

Instead of simply talking about the issue, Dove created a fund and partnered with organisations like Girls Inc., Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the Girl Scouts, while John Lewis partnered with Age UK, a charity that provides lonely old people with much-needed company, and launched a charity range to help them raise vital funds. These campaigns had substance; they became more about raising awareness and helping combat the social issue than any potential commercial gain. In terms of the emotional rollercoaster within the narratives, they ended on a definite high, and most of us probably still remember them vividly because of how they invoked a real sense of emotion.

At the end of the day, emotive advertising needs bold creativity and when you get it right the results can be phenomenal. Isn’t it worth the risk in the end?