Tearjerkers – When They Score and When They Fail

We’ve all seen those ads. The ones that pull at your heartstrings, bring tears to your eyes, and go viral on social media. Like this one, by Google India.

We love them, we share them, and we grant them fame. But are they good marketing?

The answer isn’t as obvious as it might seem.


Ads as Art

Even radio spots or print ads, like this one, can sometimes have a powerful impact on your tear ducts. They can also send a powerful message about morality, safety, or values.

But are these necessarily good marketing tools? maybe tearjerkers are a great way to drive home the importance of something that we all agree on — like driving safely — but not the best way to convince people to, say, buy your brand of toothpaste or hire your HVAC company.

Even more so, some commercial ads seem to be as artistically done as many top short films. They may go far above a typical budget, requiring professional actors, brilliant scriptwriters, and more. Are they really worth it?


The Risks of Tearjerker Ads

To understand where some tearjerker ads go wrong, let’s examine this American commercial.

Entitled “The Story of Lucy,” it shows the relationship between a father and daughter, from the daughter’s birth straight through childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, until she has a baby of her own. The father drives a fishing boat, and throughout the commercial, he continually leaves his daughter behind and reunites with her.

As a viewer, your emotions rise and fall as their relationship changes, and at the end of the commercial, you are meant to feel the joy of the grandfather viewing his infant grandchild for the first time, and the strong relationship that crosses three generations.

Poignant. Beautiful. But…what was the ad for again?

The ad was created by Windex. And yes, if you look carefully enough, you’ll catch two glimpses of Windex being used – once at the very beginning of the ad, and once at the end. There’s also a disproportionate amount of glass that flashes across the screen, from the father’s car windows to the glass table that his toddler daughter cruises along.

But does it send you a strong message about the importance of buying Windex? Not quite. In fact, you might not even realize which brand put out this commercial after watching it.


The Secret to Tearjerker Marketing

But there is a way to create a great ad that pulls at your viewers’ heartstrings, without falling down the Windex cliff.

Let’s contrast the previous ad with this one, a MetLife Hong Kong commercial that also shows a father-daughter connection.

You can still see their relationship, and it definitely hits close to home for most parents — who are the target audience in this ad. But in this case, the ad ends with a line that ties the emotional pull together with the brand: “A child’s future is worth every sacrifice.”

The message? While you’re feeling these powerful emotions about parenthood, about sacrificing for your child, realize that the ultimate sacrifice you can make is to ensure that they are cared for, no matter what — by having the insurance that protects them.

The bottom line here, as with humorous ads, is that the ad has to be somehow tied to your service or product. Then the emotion can be harnessed as a marketing tool to drive some intended action – sales, donations, or whatever your ad’s goal is. But if your ad is only emotional, then it’s just art, and not really an ad at all.


A Last Caution

Of course, some emotional ads cross the line, and they are offensive, manipulative, or just plain cruel.

For example, this McDonald’s UK ad caused an uproar, as people felt that it exploited child bereavement, leaving them feeling manipulated for the sake of a Happy Meal. In fact, over 100 complaints poured in to UK’s Advertising Standards Authority after this commercial was aired, prompting the company to pull the ad.  

But if you keep things tasteful, pulling at your customers’ heartstrings can be a powerful way to promote your brand. Just remember to make sure that your ad connects the emotional reaction to your service or product, and provides the viewer with a clear next step after they hit Share.