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The Influencers

Why Do We Like Ads That Make Us Cry?

INFLUENCER: Jeremy McWilliams examines the rise of 'sadvertising'

Why Do We Like Ads That Make Us Cry?

It’s that time of year again when tabloid writers and dinner party guests are talking with varying degrees of enthusiasm about the new John Lewis Christmas ad. At the same time, in boardrooms all over the land there are fierce debates about whether traditional television advertising is ineffective. They can’t both be right

And year after year the John Lewis campaign from adam&eveDDB has proven itself one of the UK’s most effective. John Lewis generates £8 of profit for every £1 spent on advertising and Christmas accounts for 20% of their annual sales and 40% of profits. But why are their ads so successful?

The one consistent factor each year is the use of powerfully engaging stories which have made us cry like babies, or cough awkwardly and rub at “something in our eyes”, or leave the room altogether “to look for something”. But why is this “sadvertising” so effective, in comparison to humour or simple price point messages?

Research by Prof Jennifer Escalas of Vanderbilt University shows that people use stories to understand the world they live in, create meaning within it and draw their own conclusions.

Nobody likes to feel they are being told what to do. So a narrative is always a better way of convincing an audience than a lecture or a series of unconnected vignettes. Storytelling has been used since the earliest times when oral history was all we had, to educate, to entertain and to lead thought and action. Elders would tell stories which fostered group culture and ensured the survival of the species. Tales of danger and heroism, tradition and transition. Funny, frightening and sad: the storyteller used all their skill to make the tales memorable and persuasive. The essence of leadership lay in the craft of storytelling.

Peter Guber, Oscar-winning producer of Rain Man and Midnight Express says, “Great storytelling does not conflict with truth. It is always built on the integrity of the story and its teller. Our minds are relatively open, but we guard our hearts with zeal, knowing their power to move us.“

The one that started the trend of amazing John Lewis ads for me. Created by Matt & Steve at adam&eve (before the merger) and directed by the genius Dougal Wilson from Blink.

So what is it that moves us cry in ads? And why do we cry anyway? What could possibly be the purpose? Humans are the only species to cry purely as a result of their own emotions rather than through pain or frustration. Darwin called emotional tears “purposeless”. Yet there must be a reason we evolved to have the ability to cry.

In his book Why Only Humans Weep, Ad Vingerhoets, a professor at Tilburg University, Holland put forward the theory that tears trigger social bonding and human connection – “tears are a signal that others can see.” Remarkably, he discovered that emotional tears are chemically different from onion-chopping ones. “Emotional tears contain more protein which makes them more viscous. So they stick to the skin more strongly and run down the face more slowly, making them more likely to be seen by others.”


Timing is often everything. This HP spot was released when kids were going back to school. From Little Spoon in NY, directed by Rudi Schwab from Bang TV.

He goes on to say that “tears also show others that we’re vulnerable, and vulnerability is critical to human connection.” Tears and the act of crying is therefore meant to be seen, probably by others, possibly for ourselves.

As well as being a powerful means of communication, Vingerhoets also found that crying can be cathartic. In one study, he found that 90 minutes after watching a tearjerker the people who watched it were in a better mood. “We cry because we need other people”, he says. In Tokyo cry workshops "people would come and cry together. When they cried, they said they felt really good afterwards.”

Other research supports this. Professor Michael Trimble, in his book Why Humans Like to Cry states: “We should not be afraid of our emotions, especially those related to compassion, since our ability to feel empathy and with that to cry tears, is the foundation of a morality and culture which is exclusively human.”

Sometimes an ad just tugs at something deep within us, like the relationship between an adult and an older parent. This film from GreyNY is directed by Rudi Schwab from Bang TV.

So, in short, humans weep to show their humanity: our tears are proof of our compassion and empathy. Ads that tell stories make us feel connected to our world. Ones that make us cry remind us of our essential anthropology and allow us to display that to the rest of humankind.

The annual John Lewis Christmas films are not only eye-wateringly effective but, by making us feel connected to each other, they also make us feel just a little bit more human. That in itself should bring tears to the eyes of a board member whose advertising is not quite so popular or effective.



Jeremy McWilliams is Founder/Exec Producer at BangTV

Genre: Strategy/Insight