Emotion’s Key Role In Digital Ad Effectiveness

  • Industry-first research showing emotion determines the long- & short-term success of digital advertising, using 50 Pinterest brand lift studies across multiple markets.
  • Campaigns causing more positive emotions & less negative ones, measured by our Star Rating, saw 6x more Brand Lift & 20% more ad recall.
  • Campaigns that elicit an intense emotional response & rapid brand recognition, measured by our Spike Rating, increase attention & build stronger memory structures significantly boosting ad recall.
  • Creative with more right-brain elements saw a 90% increase in Brand Favorability.

In digital advertising, emotion drives action. We’ve seen the power of emotion proved for TV, Out Of Home and Static ads time and again. Now we’ve partnered with Pinterest for a new study proving the key role emotion plays in digital ad effectiveness.

The study looks at both long- and short-term effects. Brand-building, where positive emotions linked to the brand build mental availability and propensity to buy in the future. And sales activation, where intense emotion helps harness that propensity and nudges people to buy right now.

Pinterest is the ideal platform for such research because it’s set up to build both these effects for advertisers. For its millions of users (“Pinners”) Pinterest is both a shopping and discovery engine (57% discover new brands or products on the platform ) and a source of inspiration and emotional satisfaction. Eight out of 10 Pinners visit Pinterest to feel positive. It’s clearly a place for Pinners to discover themselves, the world and brands.

As Orlando Wood, Chief Innovation Officer at System1, states:

Marketers tend to use both emotional messaging and rational, product-focused messaging to try and drive effectiveness. There’s often a perception that rational messaging works best in the short-term and emotional messaging works better in the long run. But our research – as highlighted in Mark Ritson’s recent column – shows that emotional advertising using strong stories and characters can often smash short-term goals too. The lines are often blurred.

To understand what drives more ad recall, favorability and action intent towards a brand, System1 and Pinterest took a deeper dive into different types of ads running on the platform to understand how their look, messaging and emotional content impacts effectiveness.

Putting Digital Emotion to the Test

The study is in two parts. First, we used Pinterest’s own Brand Lift studies to understand how the look of ads impacts consumers. We looked at 36 CPG studies for beauty, food, beverages, pet food and OTC products. Each study measured three metrics: Pin awareness (ad recall), Favorability and Action Intent. About half focused on just the product – rational messages – and half focused on the lifestyle around it – emotional messages.

Second, we needed to understand the emotions the ads elicit. To accomplish this, we tested 50 of the ads with System1’s Test Your Ad platform. Test Your Ad gives us not only the types of emotion people feel (like happiness, surprise and sadness) but how intensely they feel those emotions. These let us uncover the relationship between the emotional reaction and brand KPI outcomes like ad recall and action intent on Pinterest.

Connecting the Digital Dots

So what did we find out?

First, product-oriented ads drove slightly higher ad recall lifts, whereas emotional/lifestyle campaigns are better at changing opinions (+73% brand favorability lifts) and driving intent (x1.5 action intent lifts).

This makes intuitive sense. Putting the product at the forefront of the ad makes it easier to remember the brand. Showcasing how it’s used and the emotions and experiences around it makes people more likely to feel good about the brand and want to buy it.

Things get really interesting though when we combine these findings with the Test Your Ad results – Star Rating (predicting long-term potential) and Spike Rating (predicting short-term potential). Both these measures involve emotional intensity – how strongly emotional an ad feels, and this turns out to be vital for digital effectiveness.

We found that Pins with an emotional look (storytelling and lifestyle focus) and feel (emotional intensity is high) result in a 75% higher lift in action intent.

But Pins with a rational look (product focused) but emotional feel (emotional intensity is high) result in a 140% higher action intent lift.

In other words, even with more product-based messaging, you can achieve huge uplifts in effectiveness by making sure you’re on trend, relevant and creating a strong emotional response in the consumer. Emotional intensity is the rocket fuel that gives any kind of ad its lift.

We also looked at how positive emotion moves the digital needle. If a Pin achieved an above average Star Rating we saw a 20% higher lift in ad recall and a massive 6 times higher lift in consumer action (Brand Lift).

So on digital as elsewhere, your sweet spot for driving consumer action is intense positive emotion.

We also saw positive effects from System1’s Spike Rating (short-term sales potential) and Fluency Rating (brand recognition). Spike Rating correlated strongly with greater uplifts in Pin awareness, and Fluency was associated with effectiveness lifts across the funnel. Strong branding and rapid recognition help lift every important metric.

How To Get Digital Creative Right

Emotion is vital for digital success. How do you bake it into your digital ads?

In his books Lemon and Look out , Orlando Wood offers a blueprint for emotional effectiveness. Wood has built on the work of Iain McGilchrist, psychiatrist, writer, and former Oxford literary scholar, to show how our left- and right-brain hemispheres orientate our attention and emotions.

In his books, Orlando identified the left and right brain creative features of advertising. For generating strong, positive intense emotion, it’s the right-brain features you want to aim for.

We analyzed 50 Pins to see what impact these features have on effectiveness. The results are powerful. Pins with higher than average right-brain features, and lower than average left-brain features, caused a 90% increase in brand favorability.

In the case of Pinterest, the specific right-brain features that work particularly well are characters with real emotions, recognizable places, humor and scenes unfolding. All these boost Pinners’ approval of brands. But words obstructing the imagery, abstracted body parts or product features and flat backgrounds are creative passion-killers.

As Orlando commented:

“We know that ‘right-brained’ creative is more likely to achieve brand trust, so it is no surprise to see ‘right-brained’ advertising also generate greater brand favourability on Pinterest. Why does this matter? Because we also know that brand trust is becoming an increasingly important indicator of strong business outcomes.”

Key Takeaways

  • Make sure promoted Pins are relevant for the audience, with messages that resonate and references to culture.
  • Align the content with the context of Pinterest users’ search, trends and interests.
  • Keep a varied range of situations on your campaigns’ creatives to increase the likelihood of triggering emotions and avoid fatigue.
  • Build assets that are rich in right brain features to increase brand favorability.
  • Create campaigns that are positive to increase long-term effectiveness.
  • Consistently leverage your brand assets to ensure rapid brand recognition.
  • Pre-test your ads to understand how people will feel about them, and in turn how they will perform on digital channels.

Want to learn more about our research with Pinterest? Get in touch!


1) Reach3, Path to Purchase Study, UK, March ’22, among monthly Pinners who purchased product in at least one category vs people on competing social platforms.
2) Talkshoppe, US, Emotions, Attitudes & Usage Study, Sept ’18.