System1’s Orlando Wood: what happened to love in ads?

Valentine’s Day is an occasion to tell your loved one how much you care. To make them feel special. Love has been celebrated in songs, poems and paintings for as long as can be remembered. We are all moved by this force – a crucial part of human interaction and something that has been celebrated it in all its shapes and forms.

Ads that tell a story and that evoke powerful positive emotions are more likely to be noticed and remembered, and to be highly effective. You might therefore imagine that love is an obvious card to play in advertising. But is it, actually?

Recently at System1 we revealed the 100 most emotionally effective video ads of 2019 – 50 each from the US and the UK, as tested amongst the general public. Across all of these ads, just one out of a 100, was a love story.

Jeep, with its US ad “Forever Young”, was the only brand that brought romance to the screen. The ad tells the story of a couple and their Jeep through the course of their lives together. The System1 score for this commercial was 5-Stars – evidence that romance can be used effectively today. And yet only one ad chose to embrace it.

It is true to say that love was visible in different forms. The love between a mother and a daughter, a friendship, love for a pet or even for a neighbour. In the high-scoring Cadbury’s ad “Fence”, for example, we see a heart-warming friendship flourishing between two kids and their elderly neighbour. Not a love story perhaps, but love and compassion were undoubtedly on display. While we spot forms of love in a multitude of 2019 ads, romance is not on the cards. We’ve hit a barren patch.

This wasn’t always the case. Those with longer memories will remember the classic Nescafé Gold Blend campaign from the 80s. These were phenomenally popular commercials, a long-running ‘will-they-won’t they’ campaign that put coffee at its heart. Or take Rolo’s “Would you share your last Rolo?” ad, which depicted two cartoon characters blushing and glancing while sharing the last chocolate in the pack. More recently, romance featured in KFC’s “Love Is Forever”, which showed through a series of receding flashbacks how a relationship had developed, while a Match.com Train Station ad depicted a serenade at a railway station from one platform to another, and the tentative early steps of what we are to assume develops into a relationship. But these were some years ago now.

In Lemon, I illustrate the progressive decline of the effective features in advertising that attract the attention of the right brain and generate an emotional response. As neuropsychologist Iain McGilchrist explains, the right hemisphere pays attention to the relationships between things and people, implicit communication – intonation, gestures, flirtation – what surrounds the words, what isn’t said; while the left uses more focused attention, flattening, abstracting and devitalising what it sees. “Betweenness” or a sense of connection between people is like nectar for the right-brain. The physical interaction between people – along with dialogue – has proven to be a recurring feature in some of the most emotionally engaging ads and is, of course, central when it comes to romantic stories.

Romance, sense of place and betweenness in ads has been replaced by flatness, devitalisation and other left-brain features. Decontextualized and generic locations are becoming increasingly frequent, with fast-cut scenes replacing storylines that unfold, and individuality replacing interaction. And it’s not just in advertising, either. Romantic comedies and TV sitcoms featuring characters and betweenness are no longer in fashion, in spite of their continued popularity on Netflix.

Romance is a tried and tested formula, but, as I describe in Lemon, the creative Reformation has stripped it away. Perhaps a new Romantic period will return once we tire of today’s aesthetic and social mores. Romance is an undoubted opportunity out there for brands willing to embrace it.

Orlando Wood is chief innovation officer, System1.

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