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Rational Appeals vs. Emotional Appeals in
Advertising and Marketing Communication

by Ken Orwig


The decision about whether to base marketing communication on rational logic or emotional appeal is at the center of a perennial debate within the marketing community.

Since Claude Hopkins proclaimed, "Advertising is salesmanship" in 1923, this phrase has been the rallying cry of the rationalists. Rationalists contend that a precise presentation of clear sales arguments creates the foundation for great marketing communication. They believe that a logical progression of cogent sales points leads the prospect by the hand to wherever the advertiser wants him.

Advocates of emotional appeals argue that effective communication connects at a visceral level. They make the case that the very writing and graphic elements of the message itself speak to consumers through a subconscious language. Some suggest that with the typical home exposed to 50,000 messages each year, the mind rejects traditional messages. They believe that only by flying in below the radar screen of consciousness, can a marketing message reach its target.

In some instances, the rationalists are indisputably correct. In other cases, the proponents of emotion-based advertising are right. In most marketing communication, a blend of both produces the best results. The controversy may be best resolved by saying:

           People buy on emotion then justify their decision with facts.

Neurological research as well as a substantial body of anecdotal evidence supports this premise. In describing the work of the Supreme Court, Justice William O. Douglas pointed out, "At the constitutional level where we work, 90% of any decision is emotional. The rational part of us supplies the reasons for supporting our predilections."

Rational Appeals In Advertising

Some of the tactics typically used in marketing communication that is framed upon the logical approach include:

  • Listing Product Benefits - To use this method effectively, the advertisement must underscore consumer benefits rather than product features.
  • Convincing Proof - This approach is based upon the premise, "Seeing is believing." Ads or commercials take the form of a product demonstration.

Emotional Appeals In Advertising

Each of us enters the world as an irrational individual. For infants, feelings are everything. Our earliest response is to nonverbal communication. In the first years of life, mother's smile is comforting. Thunder is threatening. Life is simple. Meanings are clear. Then we invest 12 years or more in formal education to learn how to think rationally. By adulthood, it has become a habit.

However, rational thinking is an overlay on the primal vocabulary that continues to influence our decisions and behavior. So, we invest in a certain stock because "it feels right." We vote for a candidate because "he can be trusted." We make a critical business decision based on our "gut feeling."

Emotion-based advertising speaks the primal tongue. It communicates through design and color. Motion and stagecraft. Music and tonality. While the rational mind acts on logical relationships, the primal mind seeks symbolic relationships.

Symbols are, indeed, the vocabulary of emotional marketing. Just as we instinctively trust the person with a warm, firm handshake, we have confidence in the announcer with a smile in his voice. The best radio and voice-over announcers understand this. They know just when to smile - even though they're not on camera.

The primal mind evaluates the photo in a magazine advertisement or a televised image just as it would a real life situation. We immediately recognize that the Marlboro man is a rugged individualist because we see his tattoo. He controls his destiny as we would like to be in command of ours. By emulating him, we, too, might find fulfillment.

The Strength of Creativity And The Great Trap

Frequently in advertising agencies, a battle line separates art directors from copywriters. The reason is easy to understand. Artists instinctively communicate through symbols. Writers, on the other hand, profess to speak to the rational — and primarily verbal — left hemisphere of the brain. This representation is simplistic.

We are all familiar with great literature, which suggests underlying imagery through word choice and order. Great authors use their pen as an artist uses his brush, to invite us to read between the lines. When you feel the emotions of Jean Valjean, you sense the passion of Victor Hugo's pen. In the same way, skilled copywriters weave underlying meaning into marketing text.

There is, however, a danger in embracing this approach. The idea of communicating to the non-rational, childlike mind sometimes transmutes into "We want to make our advertising fun." In the absence of strong leadership, the creative team loses its bearings. Once this happens, the team is be lured down the path of irrelevancy. At the end of the trip, they arrive in a land of style without substance.

The problem generally begins with the (very rational) assertion that, "we must be creative to break through the clutter." In order to achieve this, the team tries to "think outside the box." Unfortunately, freeform thinking can lead the project away from both primal communication and rational persuasion.

Done well, freeform thinking results in brilliant advertising successes:

  • The AFLAC duck turned the name of this little-known insurance company into a household word and a powerful brand.
  • Many local retailers have made repetitive use of an outrageous stunt, such as smashing their cash register, to create a "memory hook" in the prospect's mind.
  • When character actress Clara Peller asked, "Where's the beef?" Wendy's increased its sales by 30%. (In this case, however, I would suggest that the tag line was a clever implementation of a rational sales point.)

The unfortunate reality is that most attempts to entertain the viewer result in meaningless irrelevancy, which fails to sway the prospect in any way at all.

Choosing the Dominant Mood

The term "dominant mood" describes where the product's most important appeal resides on the scale between rational and emotional. Once we select the dominant mood for our brand, it will generally remain consistent throughout all marketing communication.

Having said this, there are notable exceptions to this rule. An example that is familiar to cable TV viewers, ditech.com, comes to mind. This advertiser runs parallel campaigns. One (the rational campaign), features a stand up pitchman who outlines a list of logical reasons why you should choose ditech to refinance your home.

The other campaign presents a buffoonish banker who "just lost another one to ditech." This surprisingly powerful campaign is "attack advertising in a velvet glove." At the conscious level, it's harmless and cute. At the gut level, this lighthearted campaign drives home two powerful messages that undermine the competition: 1) bankers are stuffy, foolish and socially inept, therefore not worthy of our respect; and, 2) the process of refinancing through a conventional lender is a paperwork nightmare.

The consumer's perceptions of (opinions about) the product or service define its subjective characteristics. These characteristics determine the appropriate dominant mood. Opinions of the advertiser should never decide the dominant mood.

More importantly, the personal philosophy of the creative team should not define the dominant mood. Some advertising agencies develop a house style based on the philosophy of the creative team. For example, if the creative director is an artist, the shop might emphasize attractive design and emotional appeals. This is particularly true if the firm has built its reputation on handsome ads and awards. On the other hand, if the creative director learned his trade as a mail order copywriter, the work will likely emphasize rational appeals.

The brand itself should always be the basis for the decision of dominant mood, which is selected by evaluating the product or service in several dimensions:

  • Uniqueness - When your brand has a legitimate point of superiority, you can apply a rational approach. In order to be effective, the unique characteristic must be demonstrably beneficial to consumer. If there is no real difference between your product and its competition, a campaign aimed at the emotions may be your best strategy.
  • Price of the Product or Service - The purchase of expensive items generally involves rational deliberation. Having said this, some marketers effectively use emotional appeals to sell big-ticket items. Automobiles and corporate jets are two categories that come to mind. Nevertheless, I'm confident that you would spend more time evaluating the relative attributes of private schools for your child than you would the ingredients in a candy bar.
  • Consumer Perceptions of the Brand Category - Some categories naturally lean to one approach over the other. If I were creating a marketing message for work boots, I might offer 8 reasons why my client's brand offers more protection and better value. On the other hand, were I persuading a man to buy a diamond bracelet for his wife, I'd concentrate on emotional appeals.
 
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  • Innovative or Intangible Products - The information revolution continues to spawn a stream of new product categories. From wireless technology to financial products, the consumer often can't understand why he needs any of these items - much less how to differentiate between brands. If you are introducing an innovative product, take it to market with rational information. On the other hand, if yours is an undifferentiated, old economy product, consider an emotional appeal that gives your brand a unique personality.
  • Importance to the Prospect - Rational appeals are generally more effective in selling products or services that might significantly contribute to the success of a business — or to the fortunes of an individual. An executive looking for a consultant to turn his company around will be motivated by marketing communication that offers many persuasive, logical points. So, will an individual who is watching a "You Can Make a Million By Investing In Real Estate" infommercial on Sunday morning TV.

Conclusion

Advertisers can achieve success with both rational and emotional appeals. Each has its place in the marketing toolbox. The challenge is to know which is right for your product or service.

 


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