How to Trigger Emotional Responses in Your Audience

How to Trigger Emotional Responses in Your Audience
Nayomi Chibana

Written by:
Nayomi Chibana

Aug 14, 2015

Imagine the following scenario: It's wartime, you're in a concentration camp, and an evil doctor forces you to make a difficult--if not impossible--decision. You must choose within 24 hours which one of your two children, 8 and 10 years old, should be gassed and which one should survive--or see both of them die.

For most people, it would be a heart-wrenching decision. The mere thought of choosing one life over another would torment us endlessly, as occurred with the main character of the novel Sophie's Choice. A study published in 2007, however, revealed that people with injuries in the part of the brain that governs emotions had an immediate response: choose one child in order to spare the other.

The results led researchers to an astounding conclusion: Human beings do not make decisions--especially moral ones--based on logic, but rather on emotions.

Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist came to the same conclusion in a separate study:

"We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think."

He found that in simple, everyday decision-making processes without a rational choice--such as what to eat for lunch or what to wear--people with this type of brain damage were at a loss as to what to do. Damasio concluded that many of the decisions we believe are made on the basis of logic or reason are actually based on emotions.

How is this knowledge used in marketing and advertising?

Marketers and advertisers have always known that the key to moving consumers to make buying decisions is to appeal to their emotions.

According to marketing expert Susan Gunelius, there are commonly used emotional triggers that are always effective in turning viewers and consumers into customers, such as trust, fear, and belonging. In a previous post on viral content, we noted that a mixture of negative and positive emotions--such as awe, anger, surprise, anxiety/fear, joy, lust, and amusement--also elicits high engagement. These coincide with some of the primary emotions identified by Robert Plutchik in his wheel of emotions below.

Captura de pantalla 2015-08-13 a las 12.40.10 p.m.


The key to a successful campaign, however, is to not overdo it. While triggering emotions is necessary to almost any effective piece of communication, consumers will also not appreciate blatant manipulation or heavy branding, which will most likely have the opposite effect of repelling them.

To help you implement these emotional triggers effectively and judiciously in your own content, we've summarized these concepts and provided our own hand-picked examples of successful ads that have used these triggers.

1 Joy

Most people appreciate content that brings a moment of joy and lightness to their lives, even if it's part of a marketing campaign. Take, for instance, this heart-warming McDonald's "Pay With Lovin'" campaign in which customers are able to pay for their food with displays of affection, such as hugging their families or paying other people compliments.

This feel-good sentiment is so appreciated by audiences that it has been the aim of other successful advertisements, such as Kleenex's "Feel Good" campaign, in which they located people all around the world who had posted on Facebook that they were sick with a cold and sent them care packages.

2 Self-Esteem

Some of the most effective marketing campaigns are those that make people feel better about themselves. The "Dove Real Beauty" campaign, for example, struck a chord with many women, particularly those who feel they don't live up to society's standards of beauty. With the knowledge that a mere 4 percent of women see themselves as beautiful, Dove was able to craft an authentic message that really resonated with its audience and, at the same time, communicated something meaningful that rose above the commercial hype.

3 Fear

It comes to no surprise that the emotion of fear--whether it's the fear of suffering hardships, such as identify theft and health issues, or being the last to know about a new trend--moves audiences to make buying decisions.

The following ad by St. John Ambulance, for example, clearly exploits the emotions of fear and helplessness to make its audience fully aware of the need for on-call emergency care.

4 Amusement

In a high-stress society, who wouldn't like to have a few laughs? Just like people appreciate anything that makes them feel light-hearted and happy, they will also remember you for amusing content that gets them to de-stress for a few minutes.

This Pampers commercial, for example, will get most people to smile, especially parents who are all too familiar with their baby's hilarious "poo-faces."

This viral Kmart ad resorted to some risky humor to get its message across. It certainly got the attention it was after--and a reputation boost for its daring ad--quickly becoming an audience favorite, with over 22 million views on YouTube alone.

5 Surprise

Whenever you trigger strong emotions like surprise or awe in your audience, you're much more likely to become a top-of-mind brand.

Take, for instance, this Guinness commercial in which we see six men playing a highly competitive game of wheelchair basketball. Toward the end, we're surprised to see five of them stand up while one of them remains in his wheelchair. The message at the end is crystal clear: "The choices we make reveal the true nature of our character." As with most truly memorable commercials, this ad strives to send a meaningful, heartfelt message that aims to cut through the noise.

Another good example of an ad that was able to generate emotions of shock and empathy was this creative Pepsi commercial featuring the race car driver Jeff Gordon. In an elaborate prank played on an unwitting car salesman, Pepsi was able to attract a lot of attention by simply allowing the viewers to witness this event, Candid Camera style.

6 Affection

Emotions such as affection, love, and romance have always moved people in ways logic and reason have never been able to do. Like with any of the previous emotions, though, you have to be careful to tread lightly, especially on the line between warm feelings and sappy romance.

Consider the following outstandingly viral video--with more than 105 million YouTube views--by the clothing company Wren Studio. For starters, its premise is daring and provocative: They asked 20 complete strangers to kiss for the first time on camera.

The unfolding of each kiss, with the initial awkwardness and shyness giving way to tenderness and even passion in some cases, stirs strong emotions in viewers for obvious reasons. At work here is the Mirror Rule, which states that as human beings, we are hard-wired to mimic what we see other people doing in front of us. So if we see someone smile, we tend to want to smile; if we see someone cry, we tend to get teary-eyed; if we see two people kissing, we tend to feel the same emotions they're feeling.

7 Trust

One of the most desirable emotions you can trigger in your audience is trust. This not only ensures that they will go to you when they have a need, it also means that they will do the hard work of telling others about your products and services for you.

The company Always was able to hit the mark perfectly on this end of the emotional spectrum with its "Like a Girl" commercial. One of the most popular Super Bowl ads of this year, this commercial was applauded by viewers for the way it effectively challenged prevailing stereotypes of women. In fact, it was so successful that it increased positive emotional engagement with customers by a staggering 23,000 percent over the daily average. As a result, viewers reported that it generated emotions of trust, joy, and happiness.

Another ad that successfully evoked trust was a commercial by Esurance. Featuring the lead of the Breaking Bad TV series, Bryan Cranston, this amusing ad expertly used Cranston's ethically challenged TV character to highlight its own values of trustworthiness and dependability.

8 Hope

In a world where news of violence dominates the 24/7 news cycle, a commercial with a message of hope is likely to resonate well with any audience.

This Thai mobile ad does exactly that by telling a heartfelt story of a thief who stole medicine from a cafe owner to treat his sick mother. Their paths meet again 30 years later in the most unlikely of ways, sending the message: "Giving is the best communication."

This Thai commercial for a life insurance company follows this same formula by providing a glimpse into the life an altruistic man who at first glance gets nothing in return for his daily good deeds. In the end, however, he learns that he has a much bigger impact on those around him than he ever suspected.

9 Pleasure

Marketing campaigns frequently appeal to visceral desires, such as the desire for wealth, power, and sex. As much as we would like to consider ourselves rational beings, we are often governed by feelings of envy, jealousy, lust, and ambition.

Take, for example, this Lexus commercial which unabashedly appeals to these common human emotions.

10 Uncertainty

Most people like to feel like they're in control. This is why marketers often exploit the need for certainty by posing questions that raise doubts.

For example, this very amusing Adobe commercial combines humor with a bit of prodding to get its audience--business owners--to rethink what they believe they already know. It asks: Do you know what your marketing is doing?

These are some of the most common visceral emotions that lead us to make buying decisions we at times convince ourselves are based on a product or service's qualities or merits. If you arouse these emotions in a balanced yet provocative manner, you'll be sure to generate better results than simply aiming for a purely objective and unemotional stance.

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    About the Author

    Nayomi Chibana is a journalist and writer for Visme’s Visual Learning Center. Besides researching trends in visual communication and next-generation storytelling, she’s passionate about data-driven content.

    8 responses to “How to Trigger Emotional Responses in Your Audience”

    1. […] to Emotions (joy, fear, surprise, self-esteem effection, trust, hope, pleasure, uncertainty, amusement)  Nothing can be stronger than provoking emotions in your audience to encourage them to share your […]

    2. […] covered in our previous post on how to engage audiences with video content, the key to effective visual storytelling in the form of video is to forge an emotional connection […]

    3. […] (Many of these presentations starters are successful because they appeal to human emotions such as curiosity, awe, surprise or fear. You can read more on creating viral content that triggers emotional responses in this post.) […]

    4. […] we mentioned before, it seems that many of our choices are emotion-triggered – sharing content included. As long as you understand that everything you feel is managed by your […]

    5. […] you heard of these 10 psychological triggers used in viral content? Or how to evoke the right emotions with strategic color […]

    6. Rocky says:

      many videos are not available , can you please update the source ? dont remove the points though . thank you .

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