Emotion Analytics Affdex Emotional Engagement

The Fine Line of Sentimental Advertising


By: Daniel McDuff, May Amr, Rana el Kaliouby

Have you ever felt emotional watching an ad? Has it been happening more recently? Do you think sentimental ads are better at making you feel connected to an experience or brand?

“Sadvertising” is the emerging trend of brands deviating from humorous ads to sad, sentimental real life stories. This year has seen an unprecedented rise in emotional advertising, from UK Christmas TV to the US Super Bowl. Major brands including Microsoft, Coke, McDonalds, Nissan and Toyota all used highly emotive content in their Super Bowl ads, much of which was heartwarming. In the UK, John Lewis’ “Monty the Penguin” ad was similarly emotional. However, success is a fine line, when heart-warming advertising strikes the right chord it can foster a sense of goodwill and a strong emotional connection but when executed poorly it can seem tacky. The good news for advertisers? The differences in viewers’ emotional responses in these two cases can be measured.

Brands are seeing the importance of building a strong emotional connection with their consumers. It’s believed that consumers’ emotions shape the attitudes that drive their buying decisions and behavior. Not only that, it also impacts the buying behavior more than the technical and functional factor of the product.

Consumers may not realize that, but these unconscious feelings can have a solid impact on business. Emotional connections can establish passion, loyalty and advocacy to a product determining the strength and length of a customer / product relationship. Without that emotional bond, customers can be easily swayed into trying a competitor’s product. Sentimental advertisements can be a way to build this customer / product emotional bonding.

Another motivating factor behind sentimental ads is that companies are trying to cut through the advertising noise coming from different social media channels. Brands need to make each impression a deep one – on an emotional level. There is evidence that content that evokes emotion from viewers is more likely to get “liked”, shared by the viewer and will be more engaging. The movement towards ads that capture real-life stories with meaningful content is driving the counts of online shareable media. It is not a coincidence that emotional advertising is getting more popular at a time when people are actively seeking media to share. The questions now are: “Are brands succeeding at emotionally engaging their ad viewers with sentimental ads?”, “Can facial coding technology (Affdex) capture this?” and “ Is this kind of advertising good for the brand?” So we did a test: to prove that people do express emotion when viewing sentimental ads and that we can measure this accurately.


Over the past five years Affectiva has collected and analyzed over two and a half million facial responses to over 11,000 media units (mostly ads) for 1400 brands, from 75 countries and 30+ product categories.

It was found that the most recurring themes for sentimental ads are:

To investigate the growing trend of “Sadvertising” we analyzed viewer responses to a set of (29) ads that were viewed in the US, different parts of Europe (UK, Germany, Spain) and Asia (Thailand, Singapore). The analysis started with testing if people even express emotion when viewing a sentimental ad. The second part of analysis was to check if Affdex can measure this accurately.

The variation in peoples’ expressions through different sentimental ads grouped sentimental ads into two different types. One is the type that plays on positive emotions. While the other is more serious / negative in nature. This can be illustrated by watching the ads below, comparing the John Lewis Christmas ad (Ad A below) and the Thai Life Insurance ad (Ad D below).

The most emotionally engaging sentimental ads were:

Analysis of the facial expression responses to these ads showed high engagement as well as a variety of combinations of expressions. The graph below shows the emotional expressiveness of the viewers while watching the John Lewis ad and how this changes with each scene. This ad successfully elicited positive emotion responses and a strong connection with the viewers.


In countries such as Thailand and China sentimental ads are used frequently. Below is a typical example of a high emotive ad from Thailand.

  • Ad D: Silence of Love – Thai Life Insurance Ad: 



We analyzed the frequency of different facial expressions within the facial responses. The most common facial expressions contained activity around both the mouth and eyes. Below is an example of an expression that contains a chin raising and a lip pressing or stretching action. This was typical of the types of expressions that were observed during the most sentimental content. These actions would most commonly be associated with sadness.


Much of the content had heartwarming messages that were effective at making the viewers feel positive and we also observed “Duchenne” smiles (often believed to be representative of genuine positive emotion or happiness).


These observations reinforce that “Sadvertising” content can elicit multiple types of emotions and is more complex than purely amusing content.

We believe that this is just the beginning of a new wave of advertising that aims to build a stronger emotional connection between a brand and consumers. Expect TV ads to be pulling at your heartstrings for a while yet!


Emotion Analytics Affdex Emotional Engagement