Emotional Triggers – When bumming people out is good for business


Have you see this ad for the ASPCA, featuring Sarah McLachlan?

Unless you’re a heartless monster, this video is really, really sad. So sad, that even Sarah McLachlan changes the channel when they come on (

And yet, sad videos like this one are effective marketing collateral. In this instance, the ASPCA ad campaign has already raised $30 million.

Sadvertising, on first glance, seems a weird marketing strategy. It flips the feel-good hype, excitement and positive emotional triggers of traditional marketing in favor of depressing the hell out of your audience to the point they’re willing to do anything to help, make a donation, or buy your product.

The strategy, here, is one of emotional involvement. Once you’ve got them hooked you quickly move viewers along to a point where life seems intolerable without your brand or product.

It’s basically a shrewd way to associate a brand with the positive feeling of support and awareness for a depressing issue.

Torches of Freedom

The use of emotional triggers to market, brand, and/or sell is nothing new. Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, sometimes referred to as the “father of public relations”, used similar tactics in his 1929 campaign Torches of Freedom. Bernays associated smoking with women’s liberation. He connected the desire to challenge gender inequality with smoking. Cigarette smoking became a way for women to fight for equal rights.

Nobel Prize in Undergarments

Imagine assembling a scientific panel of nobel laureates to objectively discuss the pros and cons of which underwear to purchase. That would be ridiculous. Your emotions are there to save you from sifting through the masses of logical arguments such a panel would generate. People normally just pick the underwear they like. It works well for most people most of the time

Gut Feelings

People take action based on emotions. Most people can’t ignore their gut feelings. This kind of decision making is not necessarily a bad thing, emotions are designed “to appraise and summarize an experience and inform your actions” ( Psychology Today). It’s a way for people to be efficient in their decision making. A good marketer should know how to leverage emotions to their favor.

Emotional Triggers

Before you jump on the sadvertising bandwagon and sync up Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” to sell your iPhone app – don’t forget, being one hell of a downer isn’t the only emotional trigger available to you.

Basic Emotions

Marketers can use any emotion to their favor, but understanding the basic emotions available to all humans “regardless of language or culture” is a useful start. The latest research on emotions points to the existence of only four basic emotions:

  1. Happiness
  2. Sadness
  3. Fear – of which surprise is a variant
  4. Anger – of which disgust is a variant

(University of Glasgow)

There are hundreds of variations of these basic emotions, as you probably know. Sexual desire, fascination and mystery are good go-to triggers.

Triggering Action

Arousing any one of the basic emotions or their variants shouldn’t be too difficult, but getting people to take action can be challenging. People tend to avoid pain and seek pleasure. This is also known as the Freudian pleasure principle and is a good place to start thinking about how to get people to take action.

Key Takeaways

  1. Don’t forget that misery can sell. There’s a proven track record. In fact, we have an emotional negative bias that makes negative emotions seem stronger (Psychology Today).
  2. Businesses need to establish a niche in the market and that goes for marketing materials too. If goes without saying that if the entire world is smiling, a scream will get noticed. But it’s what you do when you’ve got the attention that matters.

Get your audience emotional and then gently guide them towards the desired result so that they only need to take that small final step. Make your proposed action the final step to achieve pleasure or avoid pain and you’re good to go.


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