Emotional Contagions

Think of the last time you felt moved by a television commercial. Was it the story it told that triggered your emotional response? Was it a song? Perhaps it was just an image of another person showing emotion. Each of these examples has an explanation and a reason for being used in communications — especially advertising.

When a baby is born, it is immediately wired to copy mechanical behaviors. If you smile at a baby, it is likely he/she will smile back. It is mirror neurons that are responsible for this. A baby, after all, hasn’t really learned yet that a smile represents happiness. Another wiring of behavior is the emotional contagion. This is seen when a baby simply cries because another one is crying. If you put ten babies in a room and provoke one to cry, it is likely that you’ll have a room full of crying babies in no time. It is this emotional contagion that follows us into adulthood.

There is currently one television commercial that seems to trigger an emotional response from me (besides laughter) and I’ve been curious to find out why. It isn’t the sight of another person with tears rolling down his/her face, but a rapid flood of smaller cues that trigger stories I can relate to. The commercial is from Chevron’s Human Energy campaign, which launched in 2007.

In this 30 second ad, a total of 15 clips of candid and seemingly unrelated scenes appear during a voice over:

“The world is changing and how we use energy today cannot be how we use it tomorrow. There is no one solution. It’s not simply more oil or more renewables or being more efficient. It’s all of it. Our way of life depends on developing all forms of energy and to use less of it. It’s time to put our differences aside. Will you be part of the solution?”

The cast of talent recruited to create this 30 second “rallying cry” included director Lance Acord (cinematographer), British composer Paul Leonard-Morgan, and voice-over narrator Campbell Scott (Damages). The tone of voice, complimented by the gentle piano melody, reinforced the analogy-triggering clips of video that evoke feelings of chaos and problem-solving and contrast it with family and responsibility. All of this to present a plea of awareness, participation, and cooperation.

Now, if you really want to sob, throw in a curve ball and create a story that has heightened exposure at the same time — an immediate, very visible analogy. A perfect example is another Chevron commercial (aired in 2007) about The Impossible. If you’ve been watching the news over the last month, I guarantee it will leave you with goosebumps. It has convinced me that I need to be part of the ‘solution’.