Rational Vs. Emotional Appeal in Advertising: Which is the Right Approach?

I had a professor once at The University of Colorado, Boulder who taught a marketing course called Strategic Brand Management. He was an industry veteran who had worked numerous senior roles at Coors, P&G, and Kellogg's and knew exactly what he was talking about.

One of the big takeaways from the course was that there is no relationship between how much a consumer likes an ad, and how effective it is — an advertisement needs to provide a clear product benefit and a reason to believe for the consumer. We were taught, therefore, that advertising without these two critical factors is simply entertainment.

This is in contrast to what I heard in a number of advertising courses at CU, and most recently the Miami Ad School. One teacher, in particular, a senior strategist at a well regarded global advertising agency, taught us close to the opposite: emotional appeal is what creates a connection with the consumer and drives sales. We certainly heard this to be true from other teachers who were active in the field, and we used it to our benefit in every weekly project, most obviously in the Clinton 2016 campaign. The message to us, future advertisers, was clear: brands use storytelling to connect with consumers and turn them into customers. 

Most recently I read "The Illogical Logic Behind Rational Advertising", a smart, well-researched post by Patrick Tomasiewicz, Communications Planning Director of BBDONY. In it, he lists a number of studies that point to how information is processed and retained in the brain:

On the cognitive science side we have Damasio, Bornstein, Zajonc and Watzlawick saying that emotional communications imprint better and last longer, while rational communications are less likely to be absorbed and last only a short time. While on the meta-case study side Binet and Field have found strong correlations between emotional campaigns and brand success, while rational campaigns were less likely to produce business effects and their minor effects lasted shorter.

Tomasiewicz makes a strong case, and in my opinion, the more we can use the scientific method to create great ads, the better.

So, between emotional appeal and rational appeal, which is right? In short, I don't think the two are mutually exclusive, and that a combination of both can be achieved. But there are a few ways of explaining the discrepancies between these two approaches I was taught. 


First is the campaign objective, which could be to drive product sales, or build awareness and brand equity. I’m confident that my marketing professor would say, of course, everything is about driving sales, and that emotional draw needs to be built around the critical factors of the marketing message. And while my instructors from the agency side wouldn’t neglect the client’s bottom line, they would argue that connecting with consumers emotionally builds long-term brand loyalty and creates cultural buzz. (They’re also concerned with, ahem, winning awards, but that’s a topic for another time!)

Second is the rapid change in consumption habits and the channels consumers are reached through. As we see advertising and entertainment become increasingly fused together, consumers wield more power in their relationship with brands, and are demanding a higher level of engagement from their advertising. There has always been the mute button on the remote, but consumers are now either paying for services without ads, or viewing content in an environment where they can be skipped or blocked entirely. This means that advertising, more than ever, needs to add value or entertainment to consumer’s lives to earn their attention. With this in mind, a shift towards more emotionally driven messaging makes sense.

Finally, both approaches rest on different assumptions of consumer rationality. Everyone likes to think they make well researched and informed purchasing decisions the majority of the time, even though we know this not to be the case. But consumers are not entirely irrational either, and some categories and purchase situations require more thought and consideration. For example, most anyone would spend more time considering their next cell phone than their next stick of deodorant. Providing key product benefits and differentiators to the consumer can therefore provide them with necessary information when weighing a number of options.

Ultimately, I don't think it can be definitively said that either approach is the "right" or "wrong" way. In my own experience, I find I am most attracted to the products with a benefit that is immediately clear and relevant. But the messaging will stick with me longer and make me more likely to purchase if it connects with me on a deeper level. In creating great work and reaching consumers, these are two approaches I'm going to strive to keep in balance.

If any great advertising or brand communications come to mind that use either type of appeal, or an artful balance of both, send them my way! I’ll include them in a future post diving into great examples across the spectrum.