Now with extra brush strokes! What advertising can learn from art


Ads tend toward product features and functional benefits despite the industry’s preoccupation with emotion. Art doesn’t emphasize function, it plays to emotion. Writer and strategist Adam Pierno explores why its up to brands to find the emotions that move consumers.

You walk through a museum and take in all the art on the walls at a distance. Something catches your eye that beckons you to approach. What is it? Color? Composition? Recognition of something you have seen or felt before?

You tap your phone and scroll to find Spotify. You’re looking for music. You are going to the gym, you are driving to work, or heading to a concert.

You’re walking the grocery aisle looking for breakfast foods to put in your cart. You see: 10% more this, 50% less that, zero trans those. Now with more, now with less, none of these ever. Plenty of exclamation marks!!!

In a vacuum, each of these claims is observed by product, brand and marketing people to be as compelling as possible. Yes, en masse the calls-to-action work like so many carnival barkers. One alone might draw attention, but two in proximity can cancel each other out.

When we’re selecting art, we don’t choose based on features of the art. We choose by benefit we get. Usually an emotional benefit, although sometimes expressive. How the art makes us feel, or how it makes us look. The best advertisement for a musician is not a social ad listing features. Imagine? The new Lil Nas X song now contains 15% more samples! 20% more yee yee juice! 100% more Billy Ray Cyrus!!! Without hearing the track, or maybe seeing some video, you’re not very moved to listen. You are more likely confused.

But recorded music is a product. It is art that is created and packaged to be sold, usually with a target audience in mind. Executives think about who they will be reaching when promoting an artist or an album. Replace the artist with a box of granola bars, Spotify with grocery aisles. Suddenly we think people are driven exclusively by quantified features.

So much research is conducted to test benefits and claims. Almost all of that research is within a framework of confirmation bias. Marketers make a major assumption at the beginning that shapes the remainder of the output. We assume that people want features over emotion. We assume that they process those exclamatory red numbers on our packaging as an end benefit to themselves. We assume they have done the work before shopping to carefully consider ingredients, additives, packaging types. Most consumer research into CPG brands is designed to twist the knobs on these assumptions.

The result is, people are fed a list of features while they shop. Packaging tests often assume a baseline will achieve certain goals and callouts will only improve results. Of course, when we ask consumers what a red callout reading “20% more calcium” tells them about the product, we’re setting up the result. Especially when we combine it with our understanding that this consumer is statically more likely to want more calcium.

When we choose art, we aren’t lured by any benefits. We are pulled in wholly by emotion or by mood. The similarity used to be in the advertising and sometimes in the packaging, designed to elicit an emotional response to get a shopper to pick the product up. That’s lost today, but not because people aren’t emotional about products. Even predictably dull ones. It’s up to the brand to work with those emotions to move consumers.

In a study I conducted into floor cleaner solutions, the brand target did have extreme emotions about their wood floors. In addition to all the standard questions about packaging and callouts, we conducted a study solely on emotional state and shopping with our core target group. They signaled that they had high levels of stress and worry about taking care of their wood floors. The floors are a point of pride and symbol of status and skill in homemaking.

When searching for ways to clean and maintain wood floors in social groups or on message boards, there is almost never a solution mentioned that isn’t quickly rebuffed as potentially damaging to the wood. Some people swear by white vinegar, and some say that it can be harmful to the finish leaving the wood potentially duller and less protected. This confusion leads to the stress. In seeking a cleaner, they think ‘what if I choose something that damages the floor?’

The result was packaging that played to the category stress and the relief experienced by core buyers. No callouts on existing products. Advertising that plays completely to the emotional payoff, enjoying (and showing off) the floors as opposed to the laundry list of features. And price elasticity that indicated target customers were comfortable paying up to 30% more for the product.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for the well-considered callout. The challenge is giving features a clear emotional context to help consumers make the decision to buy. The most seemingly dull categories have emotion behind them. It is sometimes difficult to find, but valuable when found. Even very advanced brands get caught pushing features as attributes instead of driving an emotional response that earns expanded attention. We have to push to treat our products as something more akin to art, and reach our consumers on an emotional level.

This article first appeared in

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