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Sad or Happy? New Brain Research Helps NPOs Choose The Right Emotional Appeal For Effective Advertising Campaigns

Relevant topics Archive, Advertising

  • Neuromarketing Principle:
    Consumers’ response to non-profit ads is influenced by the positive or negative framing of the message. Choosing the right emotional appeal is mediated by the campaign goal and the donor’s involvement in the cause.
  • Application:
    Non-profit organizations can use neuromarketing evidence to improve their ad effectiveness by choosing the emotional appeal with the highest likelihood of reaching their campaign goal.
  • Remember the last time you donated to a preferred charity or cause. Was it because an advert caught your attention and you felt compassion, shame or outrage? Or was it because you know someone affected by the issue presented in the ad? It’s also likely you were aware of the non-profit organization work; you felt you were making a difference by paying attention or donating. Research suggests we make donations according to our personal preference and values, to reflect our own identity. That’s why we choose to give to different causes (Chapman et al., 2022).

    So what prompted you, at a subconscious level, to feel an emotional connection to the advertising message and take action on your feelings?

    According to the hierarchy of effects, consumers move along a three-stage process before they respond to advertising messages effectively (in a way that meets the advertiser’s goal) (Fennis & Stroebe, 2015):

    1. Perception / communication: we pay conscious attention to and comprehend the message.
    2. Psychology / attitude: we have an emotional response and develop an attitude toward the message. 
    3. Behavior: we act upon the message, such as purchasing or gifting to charity.

    So a positive attitude should lead to a positive action. That’s not always the case though. Attitude and behavior do not go hand-in-hand every time (Erlandsson et al., 2018). To be effective or persuasive, a message doesn’t have to go through steps 1, 2 and 3 in this particular order. Other variables affecting the message are at play. 

    At this point, there is no consensus about which appeal (emotionally positive or negative) increases the effectiveness of advertising for NPOs. 

    Traditional research techniques (surveys, focus groups or interviews) haven’t been able to offer a definite answer. Using brain-imaging techniques (such as Electroencephalogram (EEG), Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), Heart Rate, and Eye Tracking (ET)) can improve our understanding of consumers’ unconscious response to ad messages. 

    A new approach to improve NPO communication: analysing consumers' unconscious responses to advertising

    As a non-profit organization or a marketer promoting a charitable cause, you might have used emotional appeal to attract attention and to change your audience’s behavior. Emotional appeal has been proven to effectively increase awareness and help raise funds (Erlandsson et al., 2018; Lim et al., 2021). Based on the Prospect Theory, framing a message positively (potential gains) or negatively (potential losses) influences people’s decisions and judgments. 

    NPOs use positive or negative framing through images (e.g. smiling vs. sad) as well as the text (e.g. opportunity vs. threat). Yet, which one improves attitudes toward the organization and/or the willingness to donate is not agreed upon. Intense competition in the non-profit sector makes choosing the right strategy even harder..

    The marketing team at the University of Madrid took a new approach to answering the question: which framing (positive or negative) is more effective for NPOs?

    They took into consideration the existing types of ad effectiveness (perception, attitudes and behavior) to measure attitudes, the intention to donate, the actual act of donation and the amount of the donation. At the same time, they employed neuroscientific methods to identify visual attention and emotion to NPO advertisements. 

    133 participants in a lab experiment watched ads from two different types of non-profits: UNICEF and Greenpeace. The ads had both positive and negative emotional appeal, randomly assigned. The Electroencephalogram (EEG) and eye tracking (ET) neurophysiological techniques recorded participants’ unconscious responses to the messages.

    So why these methods? Well, EEG measures frontal brain activity to show reactions such as approach or withdrawal motivations. In other words, how emotionally attracted or averse we are to a situation, event or object (Kensinger, 2004). The ET technique allows the analysis of the subject's attention, motivation, interest level and behavior (Sciulli et al., 2012). It also shows the time spent viewing a particular area of interest (AOI) where the eye pauses. That translates into emotional appeals (positive/negative) impacting visualisation engagement and interest.

    UNICEF ads showcased images of children, as these are generally the most powerful in generating an emotional response (Burt & Strongman, 2005). The positive framing focused on smiling children and a message of gratitude to donors who positively impacted the children's lives. Negatively framed ads featured sad children with health or poverty issues and a threatening message (without donors' aid, the children's lives were in danger.)

    For Greenpeace, the positively framed ads included images of beautiful and healthy animals or landscapes as a result of donors' involvement in their protection. The negatively framed ads featured damaged landscapes and dead or suffering animals, with messages emphasizing people's responsibility for their situation. The participants' willingness to donate was also measured at the end of the experiment. 

    The study demonstrated that no framework on its own is more effective at all three levels of effectiveness (perception, attitudes and behavior). Instead, the impact of advertising effectivenesss for NPOs also depends on the goal of the campaign and the unconscious response of the audience. 

    At the same time, the study highlighted the dynamic relationship between the audience’s previous involvement with the cause, their donation behavior, the positive or negative attitude toward the ad, how attractive or otherwise they think the ad is, and how much attention they pay to the ad in the first place.

    Strategies for Effective Non-Profit Ads Using Emotional Appeal

    When planning your next ad campaign, consider using negative emotional appeals. They tend to capture people’s attention and even motivate donation. For this reason, they are a preferred choice among non-profit organizations. Images and text that use a shame appeal, as a results of inaction or wrong behavior, or generally framed as losses, have shown to drive engagement (Yousef et al., 2022). 

    Take, for example, the Rang-tan ad launched by Greenpeace with Iceland in 2018. The campaign helped make palm oil as toxic as plastic although it was forbidden on TV. Clearcast, the advertising authority in Iceland, would not sign off the ad as it had breached political advertising rules. The animated ad was narrated by actor and Greenpeace ambassador Emma Thompson. It featured a young orangutan, Rang-tan, who finds refuge with a little girl after his home in the forest is destroyed by the palm oil trade. More than 1.2 million people signed Greenpeace’s palm oil petition, and the public became aware of palm oil’s devastating consequences.

    NNM 2024 281 omschrijvingsfoto2


    Rang-tan: the story of dirty palm oil (Watch on YouTube)

    At the same time, there is a risk of generating negative attitudes toward the organization in the long term when the negative appeal is repeated (Baberini et al., 2015). That’s why positive emotional appeals, as they focus on hope, joy and excitement, can also increase the participation in a social cause (Sciulli et al., 2012). Yet, liking an ad doesn’t always convert into willingness to donate.

    As a non-profit, it’s important to research your audience and choose the right emotion or combination of emotions for more effective campaigns.

    Take into account both the conscious and unconscious aspects that may influence your audience response. 

    So how do you choose the best strategy for your non-profit? Is a positive or negative appeal going to resonate with your audience? You could use any of the three frameworks of message effectiveness (perceptual, attitudinal, behavioral). They are ultimately influenced by the expected outcome and the nature of your cause.

    Adapt your messaging strategy based on these two variables: the goal of the campaign and your type of non-profit.

    Goal of the Campaign:

    • To increase donations for the short term: use a negative appeal (people will try to alleviate their negative feelings by donating)
    • To positively enhance the attitude toward the ad for the long term: use a positive appeal that works best for programs such as monthly gift donations.

    Type of NPO

    • For humanitarian NPOs, the images and the text used in ads can have either a positive or a negative appeal. They will both be successful in attracting the attention of your aduience.
    • For environmental NPOs, use negative appeal in your imagery to draw more attention. Use a positive appeal in your text for maximum effectiveness.

    The study has limitations that can’t be overlooked. It was conducted in a controlled environment and with a small sample of respondents. Mostly millennials and gen Xers, so the results can’t be generalized across all generations and environmental situations. 

    The most important aspect of the research is demonstrating the valuable insights that neuromarketing can bring to measuring consumers’ implicit responses and ultimately, to designing better adverts.

  • Reference:

    Sandoval, P. S., & García-Madariaga, J. (2024). Impact of emotional appeal on non-profit advertising: A neurophysiological analysis. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 23(1), 203–217. https://doi.org/10.1002/cb.2168

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