Thinking vs Feeling: The Psychology of Advertising

Advertising has shaped our society. It has become part of the global culture and is deeply ingrained in our society. It's the pretty pictures of happy families next to housing developments. It's our favorite celebrities using new beauty products. We see household names selling cleaning products or food. Advertising is everywhere, and it is a large industry.

We might not know it, but the average American is exposed to a large number of commercials from various mediums in 24 hours. This includes radio, television, social media and print ads. If you use your phone a lot, it's the ads that pop up when we browse through merchant stores and while we wait for a picture to load in a photography application. Since we are exposed to so much advertising, how do advertisers and marketers make sure their ads stand out?


To learn more, refer to the infographic below created by the University of Southern California’s online Master of Science in Applied Psychology Program.

Psychology of Advertising


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The Number of Ads We See

In the 1970's, people were exposed to about 500 ads per day. At present, people see roughly 5,000 ads per day. There are 5.3 trillion display ads shown online every year. On average, children see 20,000 thirty-second commercials each year. Adults see an average of 2 million of those on a yearly basis.

Advertisers and marketers know that people readily respond when they find anything enjoyable, noteworthy or interesting. They use that to make their brands popular. They target ads campaigns based on that. It may be an interesting image, music, a story or the brand itself that catches the eye of a person. A good advertising firm will be able to identify viral content and use it in their ads.

Emotion over Rational Content

Ads are geared towards both thinking and feeling. However, feeling seems to rank higher. Based on advertising campaign performance, 31% of ads with emotional pull succeeded versus the 16% success of ads that focused on rational content.

Ads that trigger sentiments do so using different themes. However, pride, love, achievement, man's empathy, friendships, loneliness or memories perform best.

Emotional response to an advertisement, rather than the ad’s actual content, produces great influence on the intent of a consumer to buy a product. Likeability is the most predictive measure that can help ascertain if an advertisement will increase the sales of a brand.

Color Impact

We are all aware that color can evoke certain feelings in a person. This is why it is used heavily in sales and branding.

Color plays a strong role in conversion as well. Studies show that changing the call-to-action button of an online ad from light green to yellow can increase conversion rates by 14.5%. A colored border around a Facebook ad image can also double the click-through rate.

Color contrast helps too. Research has shown that contrasting colors of two links within a single image can increase the conversion rate by 60%.

Two Types of Emotive Responses

There are two types of emotive responses. Both are used in the industry and have provided astounding results.

The first one is based on empathy. An empathetic response is when a person empathizes with, or feels close to, a brand after seeing an advertisement. This is achieved by showing images such as children, cats, dogs and babies in ads.

The second response is due to creativity. A creative response happens when an ad makes a person feel that the brand is ahead of the game or imaginative — a class all its own. This is achieved by perfecting the tone of the voice-over, proper casting, setting, storyline and even the background music. How the ad is directed plays a major part as well.

To capture the audience, it is important to apply a few key strategies. The advertising firm has to create surprise or joy right away. This will keep viewers involved. Joy and surprise are the best ways to achieve this. It is also important that one builds an emotional rollercoaster, as this will most likely ensure that viewers continue watching a video due to the emotional ups and downs they experience.

Real Advertising Campaigns That Have Been Successful

Unilever's "Dirt is Good" campaign was successful. They wanted a message that would resonate. Due to intense research, they were able to learn that consumers did not dislike stains and dirt as much as most advertising campaigns imply. They raised the bar by launching a campaign that talked about dirt and stains as a part of their kids' natural experiences.

Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign is also another winner. The brand artfully created videos and images that were made to empower women and make them feel good about themselves. They were able to elicit emotional responses that ranged from knowledge, warmth and even happiness from their target demographic. In fact, many of the videos went viral on social media, expanding the brand’s reach.

Coca Cola's "Happiness Factory" campaign is another powerful example. Over the last few decades, the brand has cultivated a connection between Coke, joy in living and optimism. They were able to send the message by depicting happy friends and families drinking Coke in cheery settings. This constant formula has allowed Coca Cola to arouse the emotions they want from their customers, owing to the prolonged use of the campaign.

Google's "Friends Forever" campaign was the most shared ad in 2015. At present, it is considered the most shared ad of all time. Since the ad was launched in February of that same year, Google has amassed 6,432,921 shares on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and various places in the blogosphere. They were able to do so by using the emotional attachment that humans feel towards their furry friends; the video featured surprising animal friendships. To this day, the campaign still remains a hit and is still in circulation.

Ads can compel people to want to buy or use certain products and services. The emotional route remains one of the best ways to do so. This form of marketing is a great way for companies to present their brand or culture to their consumers. This is where a company’s likeability grows, as consumers are able to see the personality of the brand.

Chapter 1: Thinking vs. Feeling: Psychology of Advertising

The average American is exposed to a wide range of commercials on various media (including TV, radio, online and print) on a 24-hour basis.

The Explosion of Advertising

  • The average American is exposed to 4,000-10,000 ads every day. [Zippia]
  • Global digital ad spending is expected to reach $681.39 billion in [Statista]
  • The programmatic advertising market will reach $18.42 billion in 2026. [Yahoo]
  • Businesses make an average of $2 per $1 spent on Google Ads. [Google]
  • Social media advertising revenue is expected to surpass $252 billion in 2026.
  • Instagram ads have the potential to reach 1.8 billion people.
  • More than $50 billion was spent on Facebook ads in 2022. [Hootsuite]

Types of Advertising

  • Traditional:
    • Broadcast
    • Direct mail
    • Billboards, ads on public transportation and other outdoor ads
    • Print, such as newspaper, brochures, flyers and magazines
    • Product placement in films or TV shows
    • Word-of-mouth referral programs
  • Digital:
    • Display, such as pop-ups and banner ads
    • Mobile
    • Native
    • Paid search
    • Podcast
    • Social media
    • Video [MasterClass]

Chapter 2: The Importance of Color and Emotions

Experienced marketers know that they should employ interconnected techniques to achieve their goal. Strategic use of color in advertising helps enhance messages, inspire consumers to act and create a cohesive brand. For this reason, understanding the psychology of color and the power of emotion is essential for developing effective advertising campaigns.

The Psychology of Color in Advertising

  • Businesses use color strategically to express identity, target specific types of customers and influence purchasing behavior. They can also use it to establish:
    • Brand personality or identity
    • Brand recognition
    • Brand loyalty
  • Establishing a strong, recognizable brand can help influence:
  • Certain colors are associated with particular feelings or characteristics:
    • Red
      • Passion, aggression or power
    • Blue
      • Serenity and calmness
    • White
      • Purity
    • Yellow
      • Energy
    • Green

The Need for Emotion in Advertising

Jorge Barraza, Ph.D., Program Director and Assistant Professor in the online Master of Science in Applied Psychology program at USC notes that emotion is a core aspect of advertising. Advertisers can foster engagement by evoking emotions like nostalgia, which “can remind us what it feels like to be loved and accepted, providing feelings of stability and comfort.”

  • Emotion in advertising:
    • Increases authenticity
    • Makes the brand personable
    • Fosters engagement
    • Creates entertainment opportunities
    • Increases memorability
    • Increases effectiveness [Forbes]

Emotive Responses in Advertising

  • Positive response. Happiness, joy, love, relief and excitement
  • Negative response. Worry, concern or even anger
  • Shocking facts, statistics or other important information
  • Content that’s engaging, relevant and meaningful
  • Thought-provoking questions or content [Indeed]
  • “Sadvertising.” Evoking sadness in consumers
    • Advertising that tugs at the heartstrings to elicit an authentic emotional response, including tears.
    • Strategy is driven by the realization that daily purchases aren’t made using rational thinking, but rather through emotional responses.
    • Marketers incorporate certain emotional characteristics to increase emotions among consumers about the product. [Forbes]

Chapter 3: Real-World Advertising Campaigns

Many brands incorporate emotion into their advertising psychology to connect with audiences and make their mark on the competitive landscape.

Effective Campaigns

  • Netflix:
    • Created a billboard that said, “Don’t give up on your dreams. We started with DVDs.”
    • Evoked feelings of nostalgia and perseverance [The Inspiration]
  • Subaru:
    • Commercial featured Frida, a paralyzed and abandoned dog that was rescued and put into braces, allowing it to walk again
    • Evoked feelings of sympathy and love [YouTube]
  • Apple Watch Series 7:
    • Recorded 911 calls demonstrated the power of Apple Watch to support communication during a crisis
    • Evoked feelings of fear and relief
  • BMW:
    • Arnold Schwarzenegger as Zeus and Salma Hayek as the goddess Hera retired in Palm Springs, California, with an electric BMW
    • Evoked feelings of humor and curiosity [Daily Commercials]

Tips for Effective Advertising

  • Increase the frequency of emotional ads that evoke a range of feelings.
  • Ensure that emotions endear the consumer to the brand.
  • Craft authentic, emotional stories that resonate with the target audience.
  • Identify emotions that are true to the brand. [Forbes]


Marketers know that there’s more to advertising than meets the eye. Effective ads focus on what consumers feel, rather than on what they see or understand, to elicit the desired response.

Sources (note: an ADA-compliant source list will be provided with the on-page summary for this infographic)