Affect Heuristic in Your Ads: How Buyers Make Decisions Based On Emotions

March 19, 2024
A person holding thee emojee faces in their hand. The faces being sad, happy and neutral.
Nandini Agarwal
Written by

Nandini Agarwal

Content Marketer

What Is the Affect Heuristic?

Imagine you have had a long day where nothing worked out for you. You started your morning by eating burnt toast to messing up your day at work by not completing your tasks. Now you feel a bit blue and instead of heading straight home, you find yourself wandering into a boutique you pass by. You end up splurging on a pair of expensive shoes that you’ve been eyeing for weeks, convincing yourself that they'll instantly lift your spirits. Right after the purchase, you feel the happiness kick in but soon that dips, and the guilt creeps in for purchasing something completely out of your budget! Welcome to the concept of affect heuristic. The affect heuristic happens when how we feel right now affects the choices we make. Instead of thinking things through logically, we go with our gut feelings and do what feels right at the moment. But this can sometimes lead us to make decisions that aren't the best for us, like purchasing those expensive shoes that were not in your budget. 

This heuristic comes under cognitive bias. Imagine your brain like a supercomputer that's really good at solving problems. But sometimes, instead of carefully thinking through every detail, it takes shortcuts to save time. These shortcuts are called cognitive biases. They're like little tricks your brain uses to quickly make decisions without thinking too hard. However, these shortcuts can sometimes lead to mistakes or errors in judgment because they don't always consider all the facts or possibilities. So, cognitive biases are just the ways our brains can sometimes make mistakes when making decisions.

How It All Started

In 1980, social psychologist Robert B. Zajonc shook up the field by emphasizing emotions' primacy in decision-making in his seminal work "Feeling and thinking: Preferences Need No Inferences." He argued that emotions underpin all perception, suggesting that when we see something, we don't just see it neutrally—we attach feelings to it, whether positive or negative. For instance, “We do not just see ‘a house’: we see a handsome house, an ugly house, or a pretentious house.” Zajonc demonstrated that when we encounter something new, we often feel emotions right away. This goes against the idea that emotions only come from thinking and perceiving. He believed that emotions stay the same, while our thinking can change.

This groundbreaking idea—that emotions can precede or even exist independently of cognitive activity—paved the way for discussions on how our emotional states shape decision-making. Fast forward to 2000, Paul Slovic and colleagues delved deeper into this realm with their paper "The affect heuristic." In it, they introduced the concept of the affect heuristic and provided empirical evidence demonstrating how our emotions influence how we perceive and evaluate risks and benefits associated with various behaviors.

The Biology Behind Affect Heuristic

There are several studies done by Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California, that show how emotion is required in almost all decision-making processes.

In these studies, he researched patients who can no longer process emotional information because of damage to the orbitofrontal cortex. He observed that they appeared typical, but they couldn't feel emotions. What stood out was that they all had trouble making decisions. These individuals could analyze information and think critically, but they had trouble deciding because they didn't feel strongly about their options. Even for simple choices like what to eat, they knew what they should do and why, but they still couldn't make up their minds.

The reason behind this can be explained by fMRI studies which show that when subjects evaluate products or brands, the brain regions that process emotions get activated. Knutson et al. (2007) investigated neural responses to marketing stimuli, including product images and pricing information. They found that the presentation of attractive products activated brain regions associated with reward and emotional systems, such as the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal cortex, while the presentation of high prices activated brain regions associated with negative emotions, such as the insula.

The Psychology Behind Affect Heuristic

Dual process theory in psychology says we have two ways of thinking when making decisions. System 1 is fast and emotional, while System 2 is slow and logical. People often think System 1 is bad because it's emotional. However, as highlighted by Daniel Kahneman in his book "Thinking, Fast and Slow," both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. System 1 is helpful in emergencies when we need to act fast, like breaking suddenly in traffic. The affect heuristic is when we use our emotions to make quick decisions instead of thinking carefully. It's useful for fast decisions but can lead to different choices than if we took more time to think.


Benefits of Using Affect Heuristics in Your Ads

  1. It delivers better results:

An emotional message can nearly double the success rate compared to solely rational content. This has been seen in a study mentioned in the book Brand Immortality by Pringle and Field. The last finding from that book is about a study using data from the IPA (the UK-based Institute of Practitioners in Advertising). They looked at 1400 successful advertising campaigns from the past thirty years. They wanted to see how well campaigns did when they used emotions in their ads compared to when they used facts and logic. The study found that purely emotional ads did much better, making a 31% increase in profitability compared to those with only facts and logic, which only had a 16% increase. Also, purely emotional campaigns did a bit better (31% vs. 26%) than those that used a mix of emotions and logic.

  1. Emotions make connections:

By evoking emotions in your audience, you establish bonds with them. Consequently, this fosters customer loyalty and a probable rise in brand advocates. Indeed, research by Motista

found that customers who feel emotionally connected to a brand are really important for retailers. They tend to spend twice as much as those who are just satisfied with the brand. Also, these emotionally connected customers stick with the brand for longer, about 5.1 years on average compared to 3.4 years. They are also much more likely to recommend the brand to others, with a rate of 71% compared to 45%, which is an average recommendation rate for a company. The report also compares findings across different sectors, which can be seen below.

  1. Emotional content amplifies your brand reach:

In the advertising field, emotional content is highly shareable. When advertisements evoke emotions like joy, surprise, or empathy, viewers are more likely to engage with the content by sharing it with others. Emotional connections compel people to share their experiences, opinions, and recommendations, amplifying the reach and impact of advertising campaigns. By tapping into human emotions, advertisers can create content that resonates deeply with their audience, fostering greater brand awareness and loyalty.

  1. Emotions make your product more memorable:

When you appeal to emotions in your advertising, it makes your ads more memorable. Studies demonstrate that people tend to remember emotionally charged events for a longer time. Researchers have identified a probable biological explanation for this phenomenon: a hormone released during emotional arousal prepares nerve cells to remember events. It does this by enhancing their chemical sensitivity at the locations where nerves reconfigure to establish new memory circuits. This principle applies to marketing too. Essentially, when your ads evoke emotions in your audience, they're more likely to remember your content and, consequently, your brand.

How Can You Make Use of Different Emotions in Your Ads? Let’s Learn from the Big Brands!

  1. Happiness: 

Many brands want people to connect their names with happiness and positivity. Positive ads can get more people interested and sharing them.

For example, in 2015, Coca-Cola had a campaign called "Choose Happiness." It encouraged people to share happy memories and experiences. Making people feel happy is a good way to make them think of your brand positively and share your content with others. Coca-Cola has been doing this for a long time with ads like "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" and "Open Happiness." They show how happiness can be linked to a brand over time.

  1. Fear:

You don’t always have to appeal to people's preferred emotions. Sometimes, fear can be powerful, especially when you need them to act quickly. The BMW, luxury vehicles company,  used fear in a campaign to highlight the urgency of stopping texting while driving. You can watch their ad below, which generates this fear of losing a loved one. Fear can make people more loyal to a brand, product, or service by prompting them to take action. It encourages careful consideration of certain issues and warns of potential dangers if precautions aren't taken.

  1. Anger:

Using anger in emotional advertising aims to provoke a strong emotional response, often related to politics, environmental issues, or other contentious topics. This emotion can create a positive associations with the brand for standing up for the right thing.

Brands using anger hope to prompt people to address important issues and rethink their viewpoints. They aim to highlight the current situation and inspire positivity for improvement. For eg. Always' impactful 2014 campaign, which won an Emmy, a Cannes Grand Prix award, and the Grand Clio award, challenged the derogatory term "like a girl." The campaign aimed to evoke feelings of anger and disgust among viewers. While negativity is not commonly used in marketing, the success of "Like a Girl" lies in its subversive approach, challenging stereotypes about its core audience. The campaign encourages women to share their stories and challenges, particularly regarding sports.

  1. Pride:

Encouraging your audience to feel proud can boost their self-esteem and their perception of your brand. When they get emotionally invested and feel inspired, that automatically develops a positive association with your brand. A notable recent example is Nike's Kaepernick ad, with the tagline "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."

  1. Belonging:

Everyone seeks a sense of belonging, whether within a group, community, family, or social network, as it fulfils crucial psychological needs. Numerous companies leverage this emotion to foster a sense of inclusion among customers. A classic example is Harley-Davidson. They have created a tribe, a community where they promote the thought that “You Never Ride Alone”. Their 'Live Your Legend' advertisements feature glimpses of enriching life experiences, along with the distinct and lasting friendships forged through riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

Is Using Emotions Enough For A Successful Ad?

This is an important question that needs to be addressed. An emotional approach does make it easier to nudge the viewer into choosing your brand, but for this to work, your audience needs to pay attention to your ad first! Without conscious awareness of your brand name and the innumerable distractors in the viewer’s environment, grabbing their attention should be the first step. Other than just using emotions, one must ensure that their brand name is well placed in the ad for better brand recall, the ad should not be cluttered but simple to view and comprehend and lastly, it should stand out from all the distractors. 

Using all these strategies combined makes an ad that is un-ignorable. Achieving this can be a time-consuming task, but let’s not forget we are living in the AI era. Things that took days to accomplish can now be done within minutes. For ads, one could only know how successful their ad was in grabbing attention and gaining brand recall, after it was made live. AI has taken this massive uncertainty out of our work and has allowed us to predict for attention before our ads would go live! Some examples of such AI tools are and These tools help recognize what elements in your content are getting the most attention while exposing the areas that are not being seen well by the viewers.  


Using emotions in your advertisements is not just a marketing strategy but a deeper way to connect to your customers. As the famous quote by Maya Angelou says, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. Don’t let your audience forget your brand and for that, you got to connect with them, emotionally! So inspire them, make them happy, give them a sense of community, and instill rage in them for standing up for the right thing. 

Other than that, take your ads up a notch by instilling other value-added elements like testing for attention before releasing the ad, making the ad less complex, and making it stand out from the distractors. Use AI tools to accomplish these goals as they will increase efficiency and add scientific value to your results! 

There you have it, the major influence of affect heuristic in your advertisement. 

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