Let's Get Emotional

Think about the last piece of content you saw online that you were compelled to share. Did you do so because it was solid fact or would gain you followers? Or was it because it evoked a feeling – maybe awe or happiness, or even anger?

According to a marketing survey, our buying decisions are determined 80 per cent by emotion and 20 per cent by logic. As humans, we pride ourselves on making logical decisions when, really, we are just slaves to our emotions. We feel first and think second. Every day, every moment, we are bombarded by sensory information that our brain’s subconscious part processes much more quickly than its ‘thinking’ counterpart.

A few years ago, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a groundbreaking discovery. He studied individuals with damage to the part of the brain in which emotions are generated. Apart from being unable to feel emotions, the individuals appeared to behave normally. But then Damasio found out something odd: they couldn’t make decisions. They could describe what they should be doing in logical terms, but they found it impossible to make even the simplest of decisions, such as what to eat or what to wear. The conclusion? Without emotions, humans aren’t able to make decisions.

Behavioural psychologists have boiled down the decision-making processes into two distinctive (and not-very-creatively named) systems: System 1 and System 2.

System 1

This system is perceptual and involuntary, and therefore very fast. It’s what we mean when we talk about gut reactions or initial impressions. These influence our thinking and behaviour at a subconscious level.

System 2

This is a slower and more considered process. It uses the rational, logical part of our brain that assesses facts and uses deductive reasoning to reach conclusions.

The academic consensus amongst psychologists is that we are not rational beings, but that we are nonetheless rationalisers. We are evolutionarily predisposed to System 1 for reasons that almost certainly stem from early survival instincts. Put bluntly, if our ancestors paused to rationalise the world they were far more likely to get eaten, hence our genetic survival favouring System 1 over System 2.

In the context of marketing, while emotion is a key factor it shouldn’t totally replace all rationality, as that could lead to irrelevancy and style without substance. When used at the right time and in the right way, a combination of rational and logical creates the glue that helps to reinforce audiences’ emotional response.

How, then, can we use this information to help customers, colleagues and clients make decisions that benefit our businesses?

As communicators we want content to provoke action. The question is, how do audiences need to feel to do that? In other words, are they inspired to act by happiness or fear or curiosity or anger, or any other emotion?

The human range of emotions is vast. Below is a modern adaption of Robert Plutchik’s ‘Wheel of Emotion’, illustrated by CopyPress. It shows the range grouped into eight primary emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger and anticipation.

Robert Plutchik’s ‘Wheel of Emotion’, illustrated by CopyPress

Let’s take a look at a few of these in more depth.



According to research done by Wharton University in the United States, content is more likely to be shared if it makes people feel good or it creates positive feelings, such as leaving people entertained.

The fact is, we all like to be happy and feel joy. Humour is an invaluable tool for marketing. We’ve all seen adverts or campaigns that bring a smile to your face. Think of the Specsavers ones, with the poorly sighted vet trying to resuscitate a fluffy hat, or the elderly couple out for a walk who settle down for a cheese sandwich only to discover that their chosen bench is actually a roller coaster. The adverts don’t present statistics on the importance of getting your eyes checked or how qualified Specsavers’ opticians are; they simply associate the brand with an emotion that appeals to the audience.

Even seemingly dry topics can be given the happiness treatment. British Airways recently transformed their dry, potentially scary and often-ignored safety videos by using humour and joy to captivate the passengers.

But happiness can be short-lived. ‘It was funny the first time’ can also be applied to marketing content. Brands need to ensure they keep content fresh so audiences don’t get bored.



A study done analyzing the top 10,000 most-shared articles on the web found that content with the greatest influence was driven by feelings of awe. Awe works to captivate audiences and keep them riveted. From sensationalist tabloid headlines to clickbait, awe urges audiences to find out more. People experiencing awe are more focused on the present and less distracted by other things in life. They also tend to give more of their time. 

Awe can also be interpreted as shock. Many safer-roads campaigns shock audiences with dramatic images. A recent campaign, Belted Survivors, in New Zealand featured portraits of real crash survivors, whose injuries were recreated from post-crash photographs using makeup. All of the survivors have bruises caused by seatbelts, sending home the fact that, without seatbelts, they wouldn’t have survived. 

Portraits of real crash survivors as featured in the Belted Survivors campaign



It’s easy to assume that trust comes from repeated and reliable performance, usually backed up by fact, but often we simply like certain behaviours and personality types. We are aware of virtues we like and we see virtues in people quickly. We see, for instance, the wise person, the courageous, the just, the hopeful and the loving.

We trust people who exhibit virtues we admire. If you want your brand to become trustworthy, your team needs to cultivate admirable virtues in your employees and business and make them visible.

We recently published an issue of White Light's Got Issues about trust. One of the features focuses on 'trust at first sight' and how often emotion drives us to trust. 



Charities are masters of using sadness to encourage audiences to act. Images of desolate families or horrific stories of animal cruelty yank audiences’ heartstrings and encourage them to give, whether time or money. This is because sadness leads to empathy and inspires us to act.



Fear doesn’t mean sending round the heavies to ‘persuade’ your audience into buying a product or trolling them on Twitter; it’s about using fear to persuade audiences to act.

Accommodation booking sites play on the fear that rooms will sell out by claiming that several other people are looking at the same ones at that very moment – something for which they’ve recently received a hand slapping.

At the same time, many companies send emails and social content warning that sales are ending imminently, putting pressure on buyers who think they’re about to miss out on good deals. Such tactics can offer a shortcut to buyer’s remorse but by addressing anxieties honestly rather than exacerbating them, marketers can play a constructive role.



Anger is usually seen as a negative emotion, but it can have positive influences as well as positive outcomes when used in the right way. It’s been used throughout history to rally. Women’s suffrage, for example, developed from anger and frustration. Environmental NGO Greenpeace routinely uses it to gain supporters and incite action. Politicians use anger in their campaigns to encourage audiences to vote for them by exposing opponents and current government flaws.

Anger can be empowering for the individual, bringing a sense of clarity and positive forward momentum. It gives people a feeling of direction and control. The key to using anger in content is to frame issues that incite anger or frustration in a way that’s constructive. Content needs to be thought-provoking and engaging.

Superdrug created a recent content campaign, Perceptions of Perfection, in which they sent the same image to 18 graphic designers around the world and asked them to photoshop it in keeping with their own country’s beauty norms. The campaign incited anger at how ridiculous these beauty ideals were. It was covered in major publications such as the New York Times and The Telegraph, gained 1 million social shares and got the company more than 700k page views within a five day period.

So what does all this actually mean for creating content? 

Here’s our advice:

  • Use emotive language and emotionally persuasive words
  • Tell a story
  • Consider what emotion you want the target audience to feel to make them most likely to follow the call to action
  • Make it authentic – audiences can identify the fake very quickly
  • Whilst emotion is certainly important, there are other factors like timing, exposure, the format of the content, how it’s presented, who produced and shared it. Keep everything in mind.

And to finish: