Emotional ads are a very effective form of advertising, particularly when attempting to go viral. This short guide will take a look at them and focus on their different styles (sad, happy). The fundamentals of story and its impact in creating these ads, will also be reviewed.

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This post has been updated in August 2021.

The Basics of Story

The first thing to say about emotional ads is that they must be rooted in story. Story is the foundation of content like television and film and should be used in advertising too.

In fact, the greatest cause of lackluster audio ads is usually poor knowledge of the fundamentals of storytelling and thus flawed copywriting.

Steps to a Full Story

Writing coach John Truby states that a full story, from start to finish, is composed of several steps:

  1. Weakness and need
  2. Desire
  3. Opponent
  4. Plan
  5. Battle
  6. Self-revelation
  7. New equilibrium

If we were to break down a movie using these steps, we could do an analysis such as this:

The Godfather

  1. Weakness and need: Michael Corleone has no experience in the family business, indeed he has never contemplated joining. Michael will be thrust into the spotlight by circumstance.
  2. Desire: Michael wishes to make his own way in life and not join the family business.
  3. Opponent: There are several different opponents throughout the movie such as Sollozzo, and eventually Barzini.
  4. Plan: Wipe out Sollozzo, McCluskey and clean up the other mafia families in New York.
  5. Battle: Fight the other mafia families.
  6. Self-Revelation: Michael eventually realizes, although perhaps it is more accurate to say that the audience realizes for him, that he has become like his father. Michael is the Godfather now, a position he never craved or even considered. Kay realizes all this at the end, when the door is closed on her face.
  7. New Equilibrium: Michael is now Godfather. However, problems lurk in the near future and his life is now something else altogether.

Apple ‘1984’

These story steps are also found in advertising in general. Consider the famous Apple ‘1984’ ad, directed by Ridley Scott.

  1. Weakness and need: The world is an Orwellian totalitarian dystopia. The need for change, creativity and freedom is intense.
  2. Desire: The young woman’s desire is to bring about total change, by destroying the large screen.
  3. Opponent: The opponent is the system, embodied by the guards and the leader speaking on the screen.
  4. Plan: To destroy the large screen and bring about total change and revolution.
  5. Battle: Destruction of the screen, battle with the guards.
  6. Self-revelation: The final phrase of the ad says it best: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”
  7. New equilibrium: The world is now set free from tyranny.


Audio ads are in some ways superseding radio ads. Audio ads appear in many audio platforms and are targeted more accurately. Radio ads, on the other hand, appear on the radio. Jingles are a style of radio ad featuring a tailor-made song; they have been left behind somewhat, in favor of simply using the pop music in vogue.

The point however, is that these ads, whether radio commercials, jingles or audio ads, also tell stories. Consider one of the very first jingles ever created. It too tells a story:

“Have you tried Wheaties?

They’re whole wheat with all of the bran.

Won’t you try Wheaties?

For wheat is the best food of man.

They’re crispy and crunchy

The whole year through,

The kiddies never tire of them

And neither will you.

So just try Wheaties,

The best breakfast food in the land.”

  1. Weakness and need: The need for a nutritious and delicious breakfast.
  2. Desire: To have a breakfast that tastes good.
  3. Opponent: Too little time to prepare a good breakfast.
  4. Plan: To use Wheaties to prepare the best breakfast possible.
  5. Battle: The conflict between little time and need for nourishment.
  6. Self-revelation: “So just try Wheaties, The best breakfast food in the land.”
  7. New equilibrium: Proper food and nutrition.

emotional ads and the feelings they can bring

The Emotional Ads Matrix

Robert McKee writes that: “writers and the stories they tell can be put into three grand categories, according to the emotional charge of their Controlling Idea.”

McKee identifies three basic controlling ideas in storytelling: idealist, pessimist, and ironist. An idealist story has a last act climax where the idealist idea prevails. The pessimist story has a last act climax where the pessimistic idea prevails. In the case of the ironic story, the last act climax has an ironic controlling idea.

An example of an optimistic movie would be The Shawshank Redemption. A pessimistic movie could be Chinatown. An ironic ending could be something like the ending in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Which Emotion Should I Use?

These three controlling ideas that McKee talks about (idealist, pessimist and ironic) are the basic tapestries over which we may craft emotional ads:

Idealist: ‘Happy Ads’

Some of the different iterations of ‘happy’ emotional content are, amongst others:

  • Liveliness
  • Contentment
  • Joy
  • Success

All these emotions, and more, may appear in an ad and make us catalogue it as a ‘happy’ ad.

Pessimist: ‘Sad Ads’

A sad ad attempts to create a feeling of sadness. Such feeling of sadness is etched into the story structure, particularly in the ending. Other similar feelings may define a commercial as a ‘sad’ ad:

  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Nostalgia
  • Even pity may be an emotional response which gets the audience to follow the ad’s call to action.

Other Emotional Ads

There are many different emotions that can be used in an ad according to experts: “On the surface, it might seem sensible that one should always go positive. However, the answer is not that simple. As it turns out, both positive and negative emotions can be effective catalysts in persuasion.” There are other emotional ads such as those which generate these emotions:

  • Anger (Mostly trying to generate feelings of outrage in political ads, for instance).
  • Disgust and Fear (Consider the pictures on cigarrete packs which show illnesses and diseases caused by smoking).
  • Neutral feelings (wherein information is simply stated. Think of ads issued by government agencies warning of a legal deadline for this or that).

Troubleshooting Emotional Ads

Quite a few things can go wrong with emotional ads. The two main problems are the issue of melodrama and, consequently, the dualism between phony and real.

The Problem of Melodrama

An emotional ad, specifically a sad ad, may come across as melodramatic. Robert McKee writes in ‘Story’: “Melodrama is not the result of overexpression, but of under motivation; not writing too big, but writing with too little desire. The power of an event can only be as great as the sum total of its causes. We feel a scene is melodramatic if we cannot believe that motivation matches action.”

Such ads resemble soap operas, in that the negative emotions they produce are too extreme, too under-motivated. These ads are often not even sad at all, but funny.

The Dualism between Phony and Real

Creating an organic story solves this problem of melodrama. Such storytelling is usually able to curtail other problems too.

Truby describes the main key to good story: “Work through a writing process that is also organic, meaning that we will develop characters and plot that grow naturally out of your original story idea.” He explains how to create a solid storyline and plot:

  • An organic plot shows the change of a character or makes clear why such a change is not possible.
  • All the events in a plot must be casually connected.
  • Each event must be essential.
  • Each action must keep a certain proportion in length and pacing.
  • Plotting should come naturally from the main character. It should not be imposed by the author. Such imposition of plot comes off as mechanical.
  • The sequence of events should have a unity and sense of totality.

emotional advertising and audio ads

Examples of Emotional Ads: Sad and Happy

In this final section we will attempt to create a fictional short audio ad in a sad and also a happy version. This will begin to show us how to craft emotional ads of different kinds.

  • “Bunny Studio Sad/Happy Audio Ad”
  • Client: Tony’s Barber Shop
  • Writer: IgnacioS
  • Audio Ad
  • Prepare
    • Audience: Men (20 to 35-year-old demographic who need a barbershop in their area).
    • Purpose:
      • Benefit: Men in the target demographic will benefit from having a barbershop nearby.
      • Reaction: The target demographic will want to visit the barbershop.
    • Type: One sad and one happy audio ad.
    • Time: Short audio ad (around 30 seconds).
  • Deliver
    • Format: Traditional Script.
    • Wording and Tone: Sad audio ad and Happy audio ad.

Example 1 (‘Happy’ Ad with uplifting, joyous, energetic, vigorous emotions and feelings to be transmitted):


NARRATOR: Hey, you!


NARRATOR: Yeah you!


NARRATOR: Looking for a barber shop in the area?


NARRATOR: Don’t look any further! At Tony’s Barber Shop we provide service for winners!


NARRATOR: Come be a winner!


NARRATOR: Click on the banner or visit tonysbarbershop.com


Example 2 (‘Sad’ Ad with somber, gloomy emotions and feelings to be transmitted):


NARRATOR: Hey, you.


NARRATOR: Yeah, you.


NARRATOR: Looking for a barbershop in the area?


NARRATOR: Don’t look any further. At Tony’s Barber Shop we provide service for people who don’t want to be losers.


NARRATOR: Don’t be a loser.


NARRATOR: Click on the banner or visit tonysbarbershop.com


Start your own emotional ad today with Bunny Studio! 

In a Nutshell

Emotional ads must be rooted in story, just like a film or TV show would be.

The three basic controlling ideas (idealist, pessimist and ironic) are the basic tapestries over which we may craft emotional ads.

An emotional ad, specifically a sad ad, may come across as melodramatic. This is often the result of under motivation and weak writing.

Creating an organic story solves this problem of melodrama. Such storytelling is usually able to curtail other problems too.