Advertising agency

Can advertising drive empathy?

30 Jun, 2020

The best advertisements are the ones that stay etched in our memories. The most memorable advertisements are the ones that we absolutely relate to. What makes an ad so relatable? It’s not when our favourite cricketer shows up trying to advertise a morning drink. It is not when our favourite actors show up in a funny, larger than life scenario. It is not also when that famous song from long ago is parodied to create a brand jingle.

An advertisement is relatable only and only when we see a reflection of ourselves in the story the advertisement is trying to tell. Think about it. Go back a few decades. Recall the immortal advertisement from Dhara oils that centred around a young runaway kid being brought back home with the promise of ‘jalebis’. Recall the ‘Hum Main Hain Hero’ advertisements. Think about all the ads that Piyush Pandey ever created. They all embody a slice of the life that we experience as common Indians. Which is why these ads have stayed with us for all these years.

This is not to say that your ads need to be relatable to be worthy of the public memory. Yet, relatability is something we are all trying to achieve in all our ads across the board. Relatability is not just an option. It’s a necessity. When we see ourselves in the characters in the ad, we helplessly end up empathizing with them.

Empathy vs Sympathy

Now, we cannot get into empathy without first exploring what it entails, and how it is so similar yet so different from Sympathy. Sympathy is when you experience feelings of sorrow for someone else because of what situation they are in. Empathy is the same, only difference being this time you are in the shoes of the person you’re sympathizing with. It might sound confusing but in sympathize you always put yourself at a distance from your subject. In empathy you step into their shoes, you live their life, you understand how they feel.

Advertisements are built around human insights. Copywriters, Designers, Planners, they all have to think long and hard to pick out the universal feelings that connect us all as humans, or at least our socio-economic groups. Take a look at this ad for example:

Digital marketing agency

I understand if you are thinking, ‘This is not what empathy is…’. However if you look closely, you will realise that stinking shoes and stinking feet from someone close to us, is as universal as it gets. In fact chances are, if you do not have one such friend, you probably are that friend to your near and dear ones.

The inherent disgust we feel towards the stinking feet of our peers, is perfectly communicated through the copy and design of this ad. In other words, the makers of this ad have created a scenario that we can all relate to, but at the same time the makers of this ad are empathizing with the situation that we go through when we cannot point out the stinking shoes to our many of our peers because we consider it impolite. Hence the copy reads ‘It’s High Time You Get The Hint’.

The mutual understanding that exists between every brand and its customer is the very essence of branding. The understanding is based on the mutual empathy that a brand’s communication and target audience share with each other. Each brand communicates differently and therefore the nature of this mutual empathy often varies.

But when it comes to the big question, ‘CAN ADVERTISING DRIVE EMPATHY’, I think it goes beyond saying that empathy is the very essence of advertising. In fact, it’d be difficult to find an effective ad that is not relatable on some level with its target audience.

Advertising never uses sympathy. It must and should always use empathy. Superficial sympathy is never enough to bring about a real influence in someone’s behaviour, and each advertisement only has so much time. 30 seconds, 3 minutes, one single frame in the quarter size of a newspaper page. Advertisement is something everyone needs but no one likes. We are at best a necessary nuisance in the lives of most people. In the little time we get, we must maximize the impact we are trying to make.

So why are we asking this question?

The way I see it, advertising has evolved immensely in the last decade and that process will probably not stop for the years to come. The media are evolving. We are getting more immersive, more subtle, more intrusive.

For example, if you remember a Youtube show called ‘What The Folks’ produced by Dice Media. The entire first season was produced and promoted by Zoom Cars - a car rental service. The narrative of the TV show puts people in situations where they have to rent cars - to go to the airport or perhaps a picnic.

This is one of the most nuanced ways of advertising that borrows from the empathy we have for the show’s characters. At the same time, the show went deep into the usage of the ZoomCar app, something that was not necessary.

Advertising is merging with a lot of other existing media and the way we generate empathy differs from one media to the other. That leaves us confused, unsure whether we even need to use empathy to come up with the next great idea. To be honest, however, that is the wrong approach. Advertising cannot exist without advertising. If we are going to create ads that merge with a pre-existing media, the right way to do it wouldn’t be without empathy for sure. Ideally, the creators of the ad should be asking how they can borrow empathy from different places for the brand/product. How they can infuse the functional benefits of the product in the daily lives of people. That is the way forward. As advertising evolves, the way we present empathy to the world to give them an emotional hook to invest in, must also evolve with it.

Written by

Tathagata Mitra

Copywriter

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