Wired for Stories: Inspiring emotions in advertising

Wunderman Thompson’s Mark Truss explores how to create ads that inspire genuine emotion

Mark Truss, Wunderman Thompson

Chief Research Officer


“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” —Maya Angelou

In the world of advertising, it’s a widely accepted belief that emotional ads are the most effective ads.

The goal isn’t to create ads that have emotional things in them, rather it is to create ads that inspire an emotional response among people who view the ad

Mark Truss, Chief Research Officer, Wunderman Thompson

There’s plenty of empirical evidence to support this contention, and numerous tools that measure just how emotional an ad is. The psychological reasons for this belief are well documented: The human brain has evolved to pay attention to things that stimulate our emotions. Whether positive or negative, if something is important enough to activate our emotions, our brain assumes we would benefit from remembering it. Happy things like where you were when you had your first kiss, frightening things such as what led to an auto accident you were in, or shocking things like where you were when 9/11 happened—most people can recall these events with surprisingly exquisite detail and precision. Because your emotions were so stimulated, those events (and their associated emotions) became cemented in your memory. And memory is what marketers and advertisers are after.

It does beg the question then, “What is emotion as it relates to ads?” 

This is a critical question. And one that few people, save for some select researchers and agency people, ask—which is a real miss. The role of emotion and how it shows up in advertising is frequently misunderstood. 

As part of the ad development process, I’ve heard people in meetings say things like “This ad needs more emotion.” Someone will then invariably ask something along the lines of, “Can you add in a ____?” With the blank being things like a baby, a puppy, a grandpa, etc. The implication is that if you simply add something “emotional” to an ad, it will be an emotional ad. 

No, it won’t.

The goal isn’t to create ads that have emotional things in them, rather it is to create ads that inspire an emotional response among people who view the ad. 

Sometimes it can be one and the same, though more than often not. If I view puppies or newborn babies, in the moment I’ll say, “Awwww”—but then that’s it. Onto the next thing. The images will not have inspired a deep emotional response from me, nor will they have cemented those images in my memory. 

Think about how many ridiculously cute cat videos you’ve seen on YouTube. How many could you remember today?

So, how do ads inspire an emotional response? Through stories. Emotion by itself does little. The emotion that’s integrated into a story is impactful. Why? Because humans are wired for stories—it’s one of the primary ways we make sense of the world. For millennia, stories of information and knowledge were shared between individuals and across generations.

Recently, when discussing this topic with Chuck Young, founder of ad-testing company Ameritest, he posited a question intended as an insightful analogy. He asked me why people re-read books but not newspaper articles. As soon the question was asked, I got it: Because books are filled with stories while newspaper articles are filled with facts. Facts, besides not being something, humans are naturally wired to engage with, are usually devoid of emotion. Books, on the other hand, are all about the story and often replete with emotions. And if I can see myself in the story (that is, it’s highly relevant), I experience a visceral emotional response.        

If an ad tells a highly relevant story, which includes aspects designed to inspire or elicit an emotional response, and you can integrate your brand into that story (especially at the moments of high emotional response), you’re highly likely to cement your brand, product, or message into the consumers’ memory.  

Don’t just think about whether your content includes emotion, rather think about how people will emotionally respond to your content. After all, as the great poet Maya Angelou said, people will remember how you made them feel.

Guest Author

Mark Truss, Wunderman Thompson

Chief Research Officer, Wunderman Thompson


Mark Truss oversees research, insights and brand intelligence at Wunderman Thompson. Mark and his team help brands uncover hidden truths about consumers, cultures and brands that drive engaging communications across a variety of media channels. Mark is an active contributor within the research industry, writing for and speaking at events hosted by the Advertising Research Foundation, the 4A’s and the IAB, and lending his expertise to industry bodies such as the Market Research Council, the Ad Council’s Research Committee, Social Media Week and as a member of ESOMAR. Mark is also an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and NYU teaching market research and consumer behavior to graduate students and is a board member of the ANA’s Educational Foundation (AEF) and the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF). Mark’s work has been covered in numerous news outlets including Time, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, Buzzfeed, Ad Age, Adweek and Reader’s Digest, and has appeared on PBS’s Charlie Rose. In addition, Mark has been a guest speaker at corporate events for companies including Facebook, NBC Universal, and Scholastic, and a lecturer at numerous colleges and universities, including Miami Ad School, Villanova, Brandeis, Franklin & Marshall, Fordham University, Berkeley College, and Hofstra University. Before joining Wunderman Thompson in 2002, Mark held the position Senior Vice President at market research companies The NPD Group and Ipsos. In his spare time, Mark plays lead guitar, sings and arranges for his band, The Outliers – a band of market researchers. You can catch the band playing at local NYC area venues.

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