It’s not just at Christmas: brands usually default to positive emotions, reflecting the idea that people just want to be happy all of the time; humans, however, are complex beings and their emotions are complex things, argues Faris Yakob, but brands are leaving a vast unexplored area untouched.

As so many ads are telling us at the moment, often by directly quoting the first three words of the phrase including its much loved, and abused, contraction, “t’is the season to be jolly”. Glad tidings, festive spirit and the joy and bittersweet nostalgia of an imagined childhood innocence, encapsulated in animated characters, are all on creative display as brands attempt to stir up emotions to get you to buy. Emotions, we have reliably been informed, are the key to effective communication.

In one of their earliest research reports, Empirical Generalizations about Advertising Campaign Success, Binet & Field wrote that “The most effective advertisements of all are those with little or no rational content." So emotional content then, but which emotions? According to the most recent research I could find, there are at least 27 distinct emotions and proponents of the ‘emotion wheel’ suggest that we experience them in combinations which lead to thousands of possible permutations.

Ever since John Lewis initiated the creative arms race that turned Christmas into the UK’s SuperBowl, brands have attempted to perfect, subvert or push against the formula, which tends to include an interpretation of a classic pop song, a child, some magic, and ‘Bags of Joy”, to quote the current Boots commercial.

For the last six months the UK has been attempting to function as though it were 'post-pandemic' (although it has recently shifted approach once again) and so the advertising developed has been tapping into this sense of a return to better times. 

Coca-Cola is once again running their perennial classic “The Holidays are Coming” in the UK, after an absence last year, with an accompanying Christmas truck tour. The mood encourages brands to run towards the same cultural tensions and territories, the same small spectrum of emotions that we are constantly chasing in our culture: happiness, joy, togetherness, and so on. That said though, it’s pretty much the same any time of the year. When we run workshops on propositions or look at brands and advertising with clients, at some point I will feel compelled to point out that nearly all brands find their way to happiness.

Obviously Coca-Cola has been mining that emotion for decades but most brands have a go at it. Skoda wanted to be the “manufacturer of happy drivers” and Febreze wants you to “Breathe Happy”. Unilever’s ice-cream brand Walls released a “Manifesto for a Happier World – Choose Happier Together” in 2021, while portfolio mate Ben&Jerry’s promises a “Scoop of Happiness”. French’s Yellow Mustard claimed that “Happy Starts Here”, and Honey Nut Cheerios told us to “Bee Happy, Bee Healthy”. I could go on, and on, and on.

This is very much the point made by Holt & Cameron in their excellent book Cultural Strategy. If all brands are climbing up the classic propositional ladder, then every brand in the same category, and indeed most categories, will ultimately get to the same peak, which is, all too often, happiness. Beyond the obvious lack of differentiation this also leaves a lot of fertile opportunities for brands brave enough to embrace them.

Humans aren’t one note tunes but rather complex symphonies of interacting emotions and thoughts and more than half of those are entirely unrepresented in the advertising we see. Most advertising leans on heartwarming happiness and humor, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the tear jerker or shock tactics approach of ‘sadvertising’.

The psychologist Susan David, who has written books on emotions, points out that we live in times of great complexity and uncertainty but are given limited scope to experience it fully, because culture has taught us to embrace ‘positive’ emotions and express them rigidly. A third of people, according to her research, judge themselves harshly for even having ‘negative’ emotions like sadness, anger or grief. As that framing highlights, we have been taught that some of our natural human emotions are good and some are bad, and thus we feel bad when we feel bad, about feeling bad and so do additional emotional labor to pretend we are fine. According to Dr. David, “research now shows that the radical acceptance of all of our emotions – even the messy, difficult ones – is the cornerstone to resilience, thriving, and true, authentic happiness.” (TED 2018)

We recently had the innovative research company Nonfiction present remotely to our experimental learning community and they mentioned the idea of ‘emotional realism’ in reference to a piece of research they had done on people’s Spotify playlists. The Spotify playlists are a remarkable data set: 4 billion lists of songs, each list featuring some connective tissue for at least one person, and a title to explain it.

The key discovery from the research was that companies only understand a fraction of their customers’ emotions. A significant portion of the playlists were used “to purposely feel moods like sadness, frustration, loss, anger and regret.” There were playlists titled “Now excuse me I need to go take a shower so I can't tell if I'm crying” and “My grief, my infertility.” Forty four percent of Americans have listened to music in order to “feel dark emotions.” The report America’s Secret Playlist calls this openness to the full spectrum of human feelings (not just the happy ones) a desire for “emotional realism.”

I prefigured some of this thinking in my book, with an idea I stole from my old colleague and friend Adam Ferrier, who was a clinical psychologist in prisons before getting into advertising. I called it the dark side of brands, the idea being that there is a vast unexplored territory of emotions that most brands shy away from because they remain locked in a mode of endless positivity.

People want, and need, to embrace the totality of the human experience. The complex, tortured psyche of Batman is far more compelling than the buoyant boy scout Superman. The opportunity remains – if anything it is more salient than ever – as the reality we experience continues to be complex and uncertain but brands insist that one more purchase will finally deliver that oft promised happiness, in a convoy of well-lit trucks.