Remember that Nationwide ad with the dead kid? The one where he talks about all the stuff he can’t do because he’s dead? Yeah, at my Super Bowl party, I made fun of the spot like everyone else. Three days later, cold and alone, I saw the commercial again — and quietly sobbed for 10 minutes.
Since then, commercials are always catching me off guard. There’s this one from Home Instead Senior Care about an aging grandpa:
And this Santander Bank ad about a human-faced piggy bank that gets lost:
I don’t care about animated pigs, and I definitely don’t care about banks. Yet there I am, curled towards the couch in the fetal position, crying through the Bucks’ pregame. Why? What’s wrong with me?
A lot of repressed emotions, it turns out — and brands that are way too adept at exploiting them.
I spoke to Dr. Claudia Luiz, author of the book The Making of a Psychoanalyst: Studies in Emotional Education, and Brandon Bateman, owner of the digital marketing company Bateman Collective.
According to Dr. Luiz, businesses are capitalizing on society becoming more open emotionally. “We’re less interested in having the best and the most perfect, and more interested in what will make us feel better,” she says, “so if a product or service doesn’t have meaning, it doesn’t grab us as much. Thus, businesses are completing to create what’s most meaningful.”
Bateman, whose business revolves around advertising’s impact on consumer behavior, says brands want to carve their names into consumers’ long-term memories, and the cheapest way to do that is called “elaboration,” which is to tie the short-term memory of the commercial to a deeper-held long-term memory.
How do companies like Santander access our long-term memories? By making us cry like little babies, of course. “One of the most accepted models in advertising is called the elaboration likelihood model (ELM),” Bateman tells me. Basically, brands use raw feelings to connect their product to consumers’ long-term memories. “Essentially, brands need to use emotion to form associations that increase revenue and to get people’s attention. The emotion makes the ad more memorable.”
“It is also worth noting,” Bateman adds, that this particular method of ELM “includes ads that play on a lifestyle or image.” In other words, it’s not just about lighting up emotions tied to childhood memories, but homing in on an emotional need for something I, as a man, am missing.
“If you haven’t attained the feeling the commercial is aspiring to on that day or that epoch in your life, you may feel sad about it and briefly grieve,” Luiz says. “Men spend a lot of their day in a goal-oriented consciousness. Relaxing in front of the TV watching a commercial that is emotional can trigger a switch to a different consciousness, opening the heartstrings and releasing a dam of pent-up emotion that many men didn’t even realize was there.”
What emotions are these commercials stirring up, especially in men? “For starters,” Luiz says, “men may cry because they recognize either that they have experienced the feeling, or that they aspire for more: to make their families happy, to experience pride in what they do, to feel connected emotionally, to be satisfied, to have confidence.”
Regardless of what’s making men cry, Luiz says, it’s good that we are.
Not only does the release feel good, she says, but if you process what’s making you cry, you might be able to give your life some direction. “[Crying] is a response that gives you an insight into a thought or feeling that may not yet have a story. Finding that story is always good. It is what gives your life direction and helps you feel more whole,” she says. “The way to move forward with a feeling is to welcome and stoke curiosity, and then fuel that with a good question, like ‘why does this make me cry?’ Or, more specifically, ‘why does this feeling of connection or satisfaction or fulfillment or love bring me to my knees?’”
So next time a commercial makes you cry, don’t get mad at the brand for taking advantage of your unconscious brain. Use it as an opportunity for self-reflection. What about that broken piggy bank is making me cry, and how quickly can I get to a Santander Bank to open a savings account and feel whole again??