Tearjerker Advertising

I hate crying during films, even if I can’t help it. I don’t like how you have to hide your sniffles and try to surreptitiously palm tissue out of your bag, or how I pretty much felt emotionally drained after films like Moana and Coco. Ads are worse, since I usually watch them in the office in order to decide whether they’re good enough to post on our social media. Anything with cute puppies is usually an easy sell for me. I confess I’ve cried in the office over Budweiser ads, Shiseido ads, and even an IKEA ad. Tearjerker Advertising is memorable, easily shareable, and built for contemporary attention spans: a very short emotional film that just happens to sell a product.

At the same time, there’s been an increasing backlash towards brands tacking themselves onto movements without actually contributing much more than a token nod to the cause. Dove, I’m looking at you. After a few award-winning femvertising campaigns, including #LikeAGirl, Dove stepped into it in 2017 with its ill-considered and crass Real Beauty Bottles campaign:

The question is: why? The concept – six differently shaped bottles of shower gel, designed (in Dove’s words) to “evoke the shapes, sizes, curves and edges that combine to make every woman their very own limited edition” – might have seemed compelling in an energetic brainstorming meeting, but that’s surely where it should have stayed. Packaging is one of the most important ways a brand communicates with its customers, and translating a bunch of different body shapes into plastic is crass. As one Twitter user pointed out: “The Dove bottle with my body type hurts my feelings.” And therein lies the rub: allowing customers to “choose” a bottle that mirrors their body shape is the opposite of empowering. Suddenly, shower gel is as fraught with body-image dilemmas as their jeans purchase.

Not sure if Dove reacted very much to the controversy, since the video’s still up on their brand YouTube. That being said, there was criticism over even its earlier award-winning femvertising campaigns:

Why no major ad critics have aggressively called Dove’s bluff on this unethical fakery is amazing to me. But finally, Tom Ellis-Jones writing for U.K. trade publication Marketing, called foul on Dove’s latest ad “Choose Beautiful” — where women in five cities around the world were given a choice to walk through one of two doors labelled “Average” and “Beautiful.”

First, he noticed that the woman in the opening scene was an actress, Dezi Solèy. He then went on to call the ad’s scenes “perfectly engineered … clichés being dressed up as a genuine social experiment.”

Watch the ad closely and you’ll see he’s right — the reactions, what’s said in the interviews, the mom playfully pulling her daughter through the “Beautiful” door — it’s all just so perfectly wonderful, isn’t it?

It’s an ad — it’d be scripted, and chances are, the people in it are paid actors. The ad can still resonate emotionally with people, and it did. Dove’s Real Beauty campaigns caused sales to jump from $2.5 to 4 billion in the first ten years of the campaign. It might not be entirely ethical, but it worked, and they won awards for it. Speaking of which, is it possible for a brand to have authentic, ethical tearjerker advertising?

Tearjerker Advertising and Ethics

Ethics and advertising? You’d be forgiven for thinking that they can’t be said positively in the same sentence. Given that in this day and age, many people do buy brands that align with their personal beliefs, brands have to tread carefully for fear of being seen as inauthentic. Take Samsung’s extremely choreographed ad with clunky brand advertising in its script, Hearing Hands:

Made by Leo Burnett, the ad went quickly viral online, racking up millions of views. We’re not sure if Leo Burnett consulted very many deaf people in the build up to this ad, because the reaction wasn’t all policy — from the deaf community:

It’s pretty obvious that the vision here has been created by hearing people…for hearing people. And most likely done with little input from the Deaf Community itself. The whole tone of this video is doing FOR the Deaf person, rather than WITH the Deaf person. What comes across isn’t a sense of empowerment…it’s a sense of pity. We see Muharrem as this “poor deaf guy” whom we have to help, for whom we have to do these nice, kind things to help him have a “special day” – as if he was a child that we have to encourage to smile.


So please…put away that box of tissues. Stop feeling sorry for this guy and his obviously “anything but normal life in a silent world.” Stop applauding these folks who came together to help create an advertisement. Yes, this video might have gotten people thinking – but did it really change their views about Deaf people? Judging from what I have read…not really. We’re still being labeled with the wrong terms, seen as suffering from an affliction, viewed as objects of pity. We are still characters being used to make people cry and feel sorry for us, rather than making them cheer and feel proud of us.

I realize that Samsung had the best of intentions here. I do applaud their efforts at creating accommodations. That’s what we in the Deaf Community want and need – Equal Communication Access. I do wish the company the very best of luck with this video calling center. But I’m not sure that their approach here is as positive, as sensitive or as Deaf-Friendly as it could and should be.

Another tearjerker campaign is Microsoft’s push to inspire more young girls to pursue careers in STEM, including their recent “She Can STEM” campaign:


As well as earlier ads like the “Make What’s Next” campaign:


This would be more heartwarming if Microsoft tried walking the walk. According to Reuters, women make up 26% of Microsoft’s worldwide work force, and only 19% of its leadership. Worse, there’s been a pervasive sexual harassment and discrimination issue:

Microsoft received 238 internal complaints of gender discrimination or sexual harassment from 2010 to 2016, according to court filings made public in March. It was sued in a Seattle federal court in 2015 for systematically denying pay raises or promotions to women. The company has denied these claims.

The company said in March it had dealt with 83 complaints of harassment and 84 complaints of gender discrimination in 2017. The complaints resulted in about 20 employees being fired.

So sure. Girls can look forward to a STEM career in Microsoft — if they’re happy being paid less, promoted less, and maybe harassed in the mix. It makes you laugh.

On a more positive note, Gillette recently ran an ad about combating toxic masculinity, with their “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” campaign:

The trolls promptly came out of the woodwork, but the ad was overall well-received by its audience:

On January 13, Gillette released a new ad that takes the company’s 30-year-old slogan, “The Best a Man Can Get,” and turns it into an introspective reflection on toxic masculinity very much of this cultural moment. Titled “We Believe,” the nearly two-minute video features a diverse cast of boys getting bullied, of teens watching media representatives of macho guys objectifying women, and of men looking into the mirror while news reports of #MeToo and toxic masculinity play in the background. A voiceover asks “Is this the best a man can get?” The answer is no, and the film shows how men can do better by actively pointing out toxic behavior, intervening when other men catcall or sexually harass, and helping protect their children from bullies. The ad blew up; as of Wednesday afternoon it has more than 12 million views on YouTube, and #GilletteAd has trended on Twitter nationwide. Parents across Facebook shared the YouTube link in droves, many mentioning how the ad brought them to tears.


Gillette’s ad plays on the feeling that men right now want to be better, but don’t necessarily know how. When Gillette was researching market trends last year, in the wake of #MeToo and a national conversation about the behavior of some of the country’s most powerful men, the company asked men how to define being a great man, according to Pankaj Bhalla, North American brand director for Gillette. The company conducted focus groups with men and women across the country, in their homes, and in online surveys. What Bhalla says the team heard over and over again was men saying: “I know I’m not a bad guy. I’m not that person. I know that, but what I don’t know is how can I be the best version of ourselves?”

“And literally we asked ourselves the same question as a brand. How can we be a better version of ourselves?” Bhalla adds. The answer is this ad campaign, and a promise to donate $1 million a year for three years to nonprofits that support boys and men being positive role models.

This dual-pronged approach of not just being unafraid to offend part of its core audience, as well as supporting the community by earmarking donations to nonprofits, makes a campaign like this stand out, authenticity wise. Oh, and the ad is great, too.

Things to Think About

Emotionally resonant ads are a great way to get your ad widespread attention, but there can be pitfalls and risk if not approached in the right manner. Some quick tips, in summary:

  • Be genuine and authentic. Your brand should be genuinely interested in the social issue that forms the core of the ad.
  • Involve others. Consult with advocacy groups and the community in that area of interest.
  • Do some good. Earmarking money for donations to support the issue will go a long way to making it clear that your brand is genuinely interested in the matter.
  • Have the ad as part of a core strategy, not just a throwaway.
  • If all else fails, make a story about cute dogs.

Still curious? Get in touch.

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