Is "Sadvertising" an Effective Video Marketing Strategy?

If given a choice, I’ll always skip an ad versus sit through it. It took a battery commercial to change my mind—and bring me to tears.

Duracell’s latest commercial hooked me within seconds, an impressive feat for a skippable video ad. Something about the video marketing strategy in this spot felt different than the usual video fare. In the first few seconds, the camera follows a woman calling “Jim” down a dark hallway for unknown reasons. Viewers then catch a heartfelt exchange between a middle-aged husband and wife; suddenly you’re hooked. As the two-minute spot continues, Jim is revealed to suffer from the social isolation that comes from hearing loss. It’s only when he is brought back to life with hearing aids (powered by Duracell batteries, of course), that you’re left wondering why your eyes are watering.

Dubbed “sadvertising,” this type of tug-at-the-heartstrings advertising has grown recently as a marketing trend. Marketers have long understood that emotions, like nostalgia and humor, can help sell products and services. What’s different here is that instead of tickling your funny bone, marketers are aiming to elicit sadness. Even products like gum have gotten in on the sadness action, with sappy spots aimed at giving users “all the feels” while also selling product

Why is it so popular these days?

Sadvertising Is on the Rise

Evolving technology is a major factor behind the rise in emotionally-tinged marketing efforts. With so much information bombarding users across devices and platforms, the more emotionally visceral the content, the more likely it can catch and retain our limited attention spans. Stories are the perfect vehicle to deliver emotion, and digital video is an awesome storytelling tool.

Tearjerker content may also help alleviate another human emotion: disconnect.

“I think that we live such digitally switched-on, always-plugged-in lives, and yet we still also somehow feel disconnected from people,” chief creative officer of agency 180LA, Wiliam Gelner, told Fast Company. “As human beings, we’re looking for true human connection, and I think that emotional storytelling can help bridge that gap. Brands and agencies have come to realize that this is a way to fill that void.”

Marketers have noticed that strong emotions—like sadness and tears—tend to drive coveted social shares. Part of it might be the novelty of tears, i.e. “Can you believe this video? I totally bawled my eyes out!” But the deeper reason may be that crying brings people together. When a brand makes us ugly cry, we want to reach out to others and talk about it. Thus, a highly effective emotional ad, like the Duracell spot, might enjoy two online lives: one as a digital ad, and the other as socially shared video content.

Technology shifts have also provided brands a better format for emotional storytelling. Instead of being married to 30-second traditional broadcasting spots, brands are dabbling in longer-form video like the two-minute Duracell piece. More time means more freedom to develop emotional content (and bring you to tears).

Duracell Hearing Aid commercialGood Tears and Bad Backlash

For brands, sadvertising is a win-win: Sad content captures user attention and gets people talking about the brand. Noticing this phenomenon, more brands have hopped on the bandwagon with tear-inducing video content. In fact, some advertising agencies report that brands are explicitly asking for content that will make viewers cry, Fast Company reports.

The problem with that approach is that it can make for disingenuous content. If tear-inducing content doesn’t fit your brand or industry, going the emotional route will turn into a marketing dead end. Content that’s perceived as too manipulative or cloying will also strike out. Dove’s emotion-ridden “Beauty is a State of Mind” video received backlash for making women seem gullible and desperate. In it, women are given a beauty patch that will “enhance the way women perceive their self-beauty.” After the women report increased self-confidence, they’re told the patch was, in fact, a placebo.

Nationwide’s “Dead Boy” ad from Super Bowl 2015 also earned heated disapproval on social media for being too depressing for the event, USA Today reported. The ad was memorable but received negatively.

These examples underscore the idea that aiming for tears isn’t without risk. Users can sniff manipulation and fakery from a mile away. Perhaps that’s partially why Duracell opted to couch its tearjerker ad as an awareness-building campaign during National Hearing Month. Duracell is sponsoring 50,000 free hearing tests and donating 10,000 batteries to the Center for Hearing and Communication, Adweek reports. By tying its pitch with an important issue, the ad seems more authentic.

As is the case with many digital marketing trends, the fact that more and more brands are adopting sadvertising may signal its imminent downfall. Once a trend becomes mainstream, people develop immunity to its effects. While sad may reign supreme today, future video marketing strategy might put humor, irony, or sarcasm back on the video content pedestal. Instead of shaping content to fit the trend du jour, brands would do better to stick to their core beliefs or values, and letting their stories (happy, sad, funny, or otherwise) develop from there.

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