Emotional Advertising: Positive vs. Negative Words in Marketing Messages

By Leah Jarrett, Persado Campaign Manager

Email inboxes are crowded spaces, especially for consumers. The average U.S. adult receives 300-500 marketing emails per month, making it an uphill climb just to get an open. Marketers need to get consumers to feel something to get them to act. But feel what? We often see email subject lines with major deadlines. “ACT NOW!” or “50% OFF ENDS TONIGHT!” Those subject lines induce a sense of urgency — a negative emotion that is overused and consistently underperforms, according to Persado data derived from hundreds of thousands of campaigns. 

It’s essential to speak to consumers the way they want to be spoken to if you want to hit optimal emotional advertising effectiveness. At Persado, we have scored more than one million marketing messages and classified them on a Wheel of Emotions. The Wheel features 15 emotions, ranging from positive (Achievement and Gratitude) to negative (Urgency, Anxiety and Guilt). Note: “Negative” emotions don’t mean these emotions are bad. They’re just not warm and fuzzy. Figuring out the impact of advertising appeals on consumer buying behavior takes constant testing, but we saved you some time by breaking down the top and bottom performers by industry. 


Top Emotions for Advertising in Retail & eCommerce

Achievement: “Nice one! You’ve unlocked a secret discount on cozy loungewear!” or “You’ve scored 30% off your first order!”
Anxiety: “Action required to claim 50% off stylish shoes” or “Major announcement: super-soft blankets on sale today!”
Gratitude: “We want to thank you for being such a great customer with 25% off all bathing suits” or “Your loyalty has paid off: a first look at our new styles.”

Bottom Emotions for Advertising in Retail & eCommerce 

Encouragement: “Grab this chance to get a new pair of shoes” or “Treat yourself to a new shirt”
Challenge: “You cannot refuse these new dresses” or “Ignore this if you dare”
Urgency: “Please act by Tuesday for your free tote” or “Open asap for the best deals of the summer!” 

Emotional Breakdown: Two of the three top emotions are positive, which makes sense for the retail and eCommerce space — shopping should be fun, not stressful! Encouragement and Challenge fall in the neutral zone, though Challenge can be rather forward. Think about it: Would you want a brand telling you that you “can’t refuse” one of their products? Urgency, which evokes negative vibes, ranks 15th out of 15 on the list. The pressure-filled subject lines feel straight out of a used car salesperson’s playbook.  As a note, Guilt, another negative emotion, came in at No. 11 to just miss the bottom three. 

Top Emotions for Advertising in Financial Services

Achievement: “Congratulations! You’ve qualified for our special black card!” or “You’re being rewarded with 10% cashback on all Crazy Beans Coffee Shop purchases!”
Anxiety: “In case you didn’t know: New rewards program coming” or “FYI: Your activation is required”
Gratitude: “We want to reward you for your loyalty to our bank” or “Because you’re a valued user of our travel rewards card...”

Bottom Emotions for Advertising in Financial Services

Urgency: “Please open ASAP to reap limited-time rewards,” or “Last day! Claim your 0% APR card now!”
Encouragement: “Take advantage of our limited-time cashback on all Broadway ticket purchases!” or “Now’s the time to start thinking about your child’s college dreams”
Challenge: “Get ready for a brand-new rewards program” or “prepare for the worst: start your rainy-day savings account now”

Emotional Breakdown: Finances produce Guilt, Urgency and confusion, right? We can’t comment on the last one, but we can say evoking Urgency and Guilt doesn’t tend to get opens in financial services marketing emails. Urgency ranked 13th out of 15 emotions, and Guilt again narrowly missed the bottom three at No. 9. Because of the subject matter, financial services companies need to be sensitive about the kind of language they use. Yes, it’s money and yes, people get nervous about it, but making someone feel like they’re going to go broke if they don’t open an email is not the best way to make friends with customers. It’s no surprise then that the top three follow the same pattern at retail and eCommerce — mostly positive emotions make the cut (Achievement and Gratitude).    

Top Emotions for Travel & Hotel Advertising 

Anxiety: “Action required to enjoy 50% off a Jamaican Cruise” or “Alert: The Tuscan Tours Wine & Horse Tour is Almost Sold Out”
Gratitude: “We appreciate you being our guest on Tropical Cruise Line!” or “Thanks for sailing with us”
Achievement: “Yay! You’ve earned a return trip to Italy!” or “Congrats!! You’ve earned a vacation”

Bottom Emotions for Travel & Hotel Advertising 

Guilt: “Please don’t ignore: Two-night stays 50% off” or “We’d hate to see you miss this sweet deal on flights to Hawaii!”
Challenge: “Impossible to resist deals on luxurious suites” or “Ready or not: Ski season is coming!”
Encouragement: “it’s easy to earn while you travel” or “You’re due for a getaway”

Emotional Breakdown: Vacations are supposed to be a time to leave negativity behind, so it isn’t shocking that Gratitude and Achievement are tops in travel & hospitality emotional advertising. Urgency just missed the cut, coming in at No. 12, but Guilt does get on the bottom of the list in this industry. Though Americans struggle with taking a vacation, it doesn’t appear they like to be guilted into getting away from the office. 

The Case for Anxiety 
You likely noticed a pattern in each industry: Two of the top three emotions were positive in Gratitude and Achievement — and we discussed why — but there’s one negative: Anxiety. Urgency may be an overrated emotion in marketing, but this more dramatic, less-deadline driven language can make a big difference. Anxiety was the top performing emotion for retail and eCommerce email subject lines in 2017. There are several possible reasons for the effectiveness of Anxiety: The human attention span is shorter than a goldfish, and drama catches attention quickly in a crowded inbox. 

Bottom Line: Positive emotions generally win out across industries, but Anxiety is worth a look. And, as always, the best uses of emotional language in marketing will vary between brands. Test, test and test again to ensure your emotional advertising is truly connecting your brand with your consumers.