Emotion V. Reason

“Spock! Your ads are boring.”

In this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, I read about a cool new title called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

In a review titled Why Won’t They Listen?, the writer got into some territory that has direct bearing on our craft in advertising. Which is this: a proposal is more persuasive when it is pitched to a listener’s emotions versus their intellect.

Yes, I know this sounds a little obvious, but once you get into the business and start reading the briefs you’ll be handed in meetings, you may start to see this insight is lost on 90% of the ad industry and its clientele. Most of the briefs I was handed outlined logical reasons to believe the ad.

There are probably many reasons for this, but the first that come to mind are these:

Most clients live with their products and believe in them so whole-heartedly they begin to think, “Heck, if I could just get people to listen to all the cool things about this product, they’d buy it. It’s just a better product.”

The other reason is probably that emotional responses and consumer behavior are pretty dang hard to quantify and predict. And corporate America loves to quantify and predict.

In The Righteous Mind, the author puts it this way:

“Why doesn’t the other side listen to reason? [It’s because] we were never designed to listen to reason. [People] reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later, only to justify what they’ve decided. … Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others.”

All of this kinda lines up with something VCU ad prof Mark Fenske told me a long time ago: “You cannot logic your way to an audience’s heart.”

People are not rational. We like to think we are, but we’re not. If you look unflinchingly at your own behavior, you may agree that few of the things you do, you do for purely rational reasons. Consumers, being people, are no different. Only a very few purchases are made for purely logical reasons. Most people buy things for emotional reasons and then, after the fact, figure out a logical explanation for their purchase decision.

So here’s today’s advice: Trust your intuitions. Trust your feelings, padewan. As you try to figure out what would sell your product to somebody else, consider what would make you buy it. Yes, there are plenty of rational reasons your product is better, but get to the emotion first. Dig inside. If you have to, write the damn strategy after you do the ad. Forget about the stinkin’ focus groups and explore the feelings you have about the product, about the category. That’s where it all happens.


  1. Whipple,

    You know I’m with you. Keep sayin’ it.
    I’ve been sayin’ it for years.


  2. I think a main reason that pitches cater to logic rather than emotion is because there’s too much focus on how products work and not enough focus on why people should use them. It’s easy to list everything a product does. But, it’s much harder to identify the story of why someone should use it. And, it’s much harder to convince clients about the value of appealing to emotion and developing a story for their product.

    One of my favorite uses of storytelling is in Google’s Chrome campaigns. It started with the Parisian Love video (http://youtu.be/nnsSUqgkDwU), and more recently, the Dear Sophie video (http://youtu.be/R4vkVHijdQk). To your point, Google could have easily come up with a list of bullet points about search and Chrome. But instead, through the use of emotionally connective stories, they created experiences that appeal to emotion and not intellect.

    For anyone who’s interested, two books that relate to this are Daniel Pink’s “A Whole New Mind” and Marc Gobe’s “Emotional Branding”. Great reads that have really influenced my thinking about the need to appeal to emotion.

    • I like those two books too, especially Pink’s. Thanks for writing Sarah.

  3. I work in the web industry and ever since I read Aaron Walter’s Designing for Emotion and Colleen Jones’ Clout, I’ve been convinced that the truly powerful web sites and web products out there are the ones that effect us emotionally. Steve Jobs said it best when he uttered the words ‘Sell dreams, not products’. A great mantra to stick to.


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Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.