Advertising: Emotional Versus Rational

Jack TroutJanuary 10, 20083 min

Slowly, I’ve watched the advertising industry get very emotional. I’m not referring to their getting upset with the fact that their income is being squeezed by aggressive clients making them work more for less. What I mean is that in their work, rational reasons to buy are being replaced by emotional reasons to buy. I suspect that their argument for this approach is that emotional advertising gets more attention than advertising that presents a solid rationale for a purchase.

Let me give you two examples:

Once upon a time, Continental Airlines had a simple, rational reason to fly with them instead of their competitors. Their slogan: “More airline for the money.” They had plenty of support for this idea, and they still have. Then some agency that didn’t come up with that line changed it to “Work hard. Fly right.” What in the world does that mean? I suspect that their argument was something about how this was a more powerful emotional argument. That’s silly.

Lowe’s, a very successful challenger to Home Depot, had a brilliant rational argument for shopping at their stores. Their slogan: “Improving home improvement.” So what did they do? They replaced this concept with a more emotional slogan, “Let’s build something together.” More silliness.

This kind of advertising is being produced all over the industry as clients are being sold on the concept that people have to love brands, not just buy them. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have an artful or dramatic way to involve a prospect in your message. The current Wal-Mart advertising is a good example of this kind of work. Their advertising uses a tried and true “slice of life” commercial to dramatize the fact that the money you save will enable you to have more fun in life. Nicely done. But saving money is still the reason to shop at Wal-Mart–fun or no fun.

All advertising and marketing has to supply that reason to buy your product instead of your competitor’s product. Sure, you can say that buying a $50,000 BMW or a $10,000 Rolex is an emotional purchase. Yes, these products are all about prestige or impressing your friends and neighbors. But you still have to supply a rationale for that purchase. BMW is a driving machine. A Rolex takes a year to build. No one wants to admit to themselves that this purchase is all about prestige.

Interestingly, some folk are finally beginning to weigh in on the more rational approach to selling. Mark Penn, in a new book called Microtrends, makes the point that “the rational side of people is far more powerful in many areas of life than the purely emotional side.” He should know, as he is widely regarded as the most perceptive pollster in American politics. He is also the worldwide CEO of Burson-Marsteller, a very large PR firm.

But what really begins to undermine this emotional silliness is an important piece of research conducted by the digital video-recorder maker TiVo. They examined the commercial-viewing habits of some 20,000 TiVo-equipped households, including which ad campaigns are fast-forwarded past by the lowest percentage of viewers. The results, so far, weigh heavily in favor of rational arguments. Relevance outweighs creativity in TV commercials by a lot. The ads on the “least-fast-forwarded” list aren’t funny, they aren’t touching and they aren’t clever.

Last June, the No. 1 least fast-forwarded campaign was for the home gym brand Bowflex. Viewers looked at the good-looking people on those machines and said, “Maybe I can have a body like that.” A sculpted abdomen is one heck of a rationale for a machine like that. Other winners were for CORT furniture company, Dominican Republic tourism and Hooters Restaurant. Several even throw 1-800 numbers at the end of the commercial.

Clearly, the moral of the story is: If you only have 30 seconds to state your case, skip the seduction and sell your heart out!

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Jack Trout


  • Ron Hayes

    January 10, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    It is interesting that in the top “least fast-forwarded” campaigns you find 3 very emotional-driven messages, Bowflex, Dominican Republic vacationing, and Hooters. It is not rational thinking that encourages us to get a Bowflex (we want to become sexy like those models which is all about emotion), to desire a Dominican vacation, or to eat at Hooters. All 3 are emotion driven and 2 of them are using sexuality to sell. You’re certainly right that fun and cleverness isn’t necessarily part of those spots (since I didn’t see the spots I can’t judge for sure) but seduction is certainly a main part of their strategy.

  • Jeff

    January 14, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    What’s the difference between the rational and emotional? Nothing. The rational does not exist. Every “rational” example that might be presented is actually an emotional decision.

    There is no such thing a truly rational decision. We might try to explain that a decision is rational, but you can always reduce the rational to the emotional – or the effort to fulfill a motivating need… E.g., why save money on a purchase? Money has no intrinsic value. It’s what you can do with the money that matters. So, I save $20 at WalMart. Why is that important? I can save it for the future? Why does that matter? (I will earn more money in the future). I can spend it on other products? Why do I need these other products at the expense of buying lower grade items at WalMart? (Somehow I am balancing needs and preferences in the decision).

    Why spend $10,000 on a watch that takes a year to build? What is “rational” about spending the extra money for that? A Rolex is an elegant hand-made piece of jewelry that took a year to create. Talk about indulging one’s emotions… Tell you what. I will be even more rational: Rolex will come out with a watch that takes 2 years to create, and charge $20,000 for it. Heck, let’s make if 4 years and charge $40,000.

    WalMart identified that it needed to present a value benefit to have people return – frankly, the shopping experience at WalMart is awful when compared to Target, Best Buy, and the other retailers it considers to be competitors. The argument for “saving money” does not work in this era of consumerism when people have so many choices to meet their limited needs.

    As for the advertising examples – Bowflex? CORT? Dominican Republic tourism? I’m already seeing huge problems with this study. Maybe people fast forward through these ads because of the types of shows they are watching? Or because they see the ads repeatedly – and no matter how many times they pause and rewind to get a better glimpse of the woman in the bikini, they realize it will never happen.

    When I see a successful advertisement that lists only the products and features being offered, then I will agree with you. But, as long as any advertisement shows something more – even a man or woman at a cash register or a car driving in snow- the ad is now an emotional message.

  • Ryan Gerardi

    January 15, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    Ok well Jeff really throws a thoughtful response here to the whole idea. I was sold on the idea of advertising for rational purposes over emotional despite knowing that people do buy on emotional draw.

    The primary message I see in Jack’s post here is for the advertiser’s message to impact you at the rational level first and then offer some sort of emotional benefit. The Wal-Mart example accomplishes this. You save money (that’s rational) to have more fun with it (and that’s emotional).

    But you hit on a good point here Jeff in that all rational impact can be broken down eventually to an emotional benefit. As Jack suggests, the rational impact needs to be clear to the consumer.

  • Alexander Sugiarto

    February 14, 2008 at 1:05 am

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  • tom

    May 16, 2008 at 9:27 am

    Wow! That is the shoddiest argument I have read in a long time. The very example you use with Bowflex is pure emotion…looking sexy is feeling sexy and that is pure emotion. The facts are the latest brain science support that emotions overall rational – or at least have to interact with rational. Further, in a day and age where people are bombarded with messages, they are cynical of the ‘reason to believe’. And if that wasn’t enough, in a day and age where everybody has perfect information and capital to invest, any product with a product (rational) advantage will probably only have said advantage for a month or so until somebody one-ups them…so much for the rational proof point. You better insulate your brand in something more – or get ready to sell commodities…

  • Brad

    December 8, 2009 at 11:29 am

    “Clearly, the moral of the story is: If you only have 30 seconds to state your case, skip the seduction and sell your heart out!”

    No, clearly the moral of the story is that buff and busty half-naked men and women are free porn for 13 year olds watching dad’s Tivo.

    You are trying to divide up something that can’t and shouldn’t be divided in advertising–emotions and rationality. They are both under the umbrella of logical benefit that the product brings: feeling good. That’s all anyone is ever buying.

    The trick to effective advertising is finding the right nerve that makes the most people feel like your product will make them feel the best and then convey that to them. Simple concept, remarkably difficult execution.

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