March 28th, 2018

Caution: Marketers Can Take ‘Heartwarming’ Ads Too Far for Millennials


Ace Metrix

Ace Metrix ‘next level’ emotional analysis reveals Millennials want their brands to stand for something more, but may not want to carry the load.

Insights and generalizations about Millennial consumers (generally those aged 21-35) abound, and no matter the source (Ace Metrix included), conclusions indicate that these consumers want their brands to be outspoken and stand for something more than just the product or service they are hawking – and brands are certainly listening.

P&G first woke up the advertising world with their iconic #LikeAGirl female empowerment campaign and its “Proud Sponsor of Moms,” with Dove following suit. However, the contentious elections of 2016 raised the stakes, and brands responded by trying to stand for something while avoiding controversy.

The 2017 Super Bowl brought a wave of ads where seemingly strong (and risk averse) brands took social stands on things like gender equality, female empowerment, diversity, and even immigration, with varying degrees of success. In our analysis of When Brands Take a Stand, the data revealed that the best of the best ads were not polarizing at all but rather focused simply on human kindness and hope.

With the dawn of 2018, viewers remain tired of all the social/political anxiety, and some enlightened marketers are leading a new trend and “taking it up a notch” in their messaging – moving from creative that presents a heartwarming or inspiring story (which still does make us feel and outperform advertising norms) to advertising that delivers a message both emotional and personal by appealing to both the heart AND the head-more specifically, our conscience. For some brands, a message that compels viewers to not just passively agree, but to participate. But is there a line for consumers, particularly Millennials, that shouldn’t be crossed?

Brand Identity
State Farm “good neighbor”
Toyota perseverance
Subaru love & kindness
Kraft family/parenting
MassMutual “live mutual”
Nokia put down your phone
Kind Snacks kindness
P&G mom support

Brands are taking cues from their own names or their long-standing images, and building creative around these identities – lest they be seen as inauthentic. It’s deeper than beer aligning with friendship and good times or Coke aligning with fun and refreshment. It’s placing responsibility (sometimes personal) on all of us. And that’s where it gets sticky with millennials.

Using our just-released advanced emotional profiling technology, Ace Metrix is able to measure more subtle facets, intensities and combinations of emotion. We isolated three unique clusters of “heartfelt” advertising to determine whether there was a line that marketers shouldn’t cross as they appeal to millennial sensibilities.

The Heartfelt Ads: “A Story About What We Stand For”

A recent Ace Metrix study of Cannes-winning ads revealed that ads falling into a “heartfelt” powered cluster had a 20x higher likelihood of winning a Cannes Lion than the average ad (but represented less than 1% of the 25,000 ads used in the study). This small but mighty group of standouts were heartwarming and inspiring, and spoke of things we all do, or should, care about- they made us feel. These are the creative that bring forth a “How nice,” “Omg, I teared up!” and “Awwww…”

Reflecting the Cannes-winning heartfelt ads in the study referenced above, for the creative in the heartfelt group used for this analysis, the message is the story. Typically void of iconic music or poetic verse, these ads put “heart” emotions front and center, but don’t really push our conscience. They are lovely to watch, using actors rather than real people at times, and are simply entertaining us with an emotionally (often fictitious) connective story that warms our heart and makes us feel hopeful about the world around us.

In our emotion graphs, red = heart emotion; green = conscience; blue = head.

Brand Ad Title Core Value Ad Length Air Date Millennial

Ace Score

Dove Baby Dove|#RealMoms mom empowerment 1:55 4/5/17 640
Toyota Keep Going :30 perseverance :30 11/17/17 629
Dove Beauty On Your Own Terms female empowerment 1:30 6/30/16 627
P&G The Talk racial equality 1:00 5/18/17 610
Dove Real Moms mom empowerment :30 5/1/17 564
P&G Mom’s Love kindness :15 1/6/18 552
Average 604

These ads, while powerful and effective with industry-beating average Ace Score of 604 among Millennials, get viewers to feel, but something’s missing. There is a distance between the viewer and the story whereby the message is not fully internalized, or “owned” by the viewer, as evidenced by fewer “conscience” emotions. They come off more like mini-movies.

Smart Heart Ads: “How We Live Our Values”

These ads engage both hearts and minds, provoking thought and invoking our collective conscience. Some employ iconic songs or verse to turn up the emotional dial, and each personalizes the narrative in some way by using real people, or individual actors in a very intimate fashion. Typically longer-form these creatives communicate the brand’s values or how the brand is spreading good in the world. As a group, these ads score the highest in Inspiring and Heartfelt emotions—in the 99th percentile compared to all other ads.

Brand Ad Title Core Value Ad Length Air Date Song Millennial Ace Score
P&G #LikeAGirl female empowerment 3:20 7/1/14 746
MassMutual The Unsung kindness 2:00 12/21/17 I’ll Stand By You 725
P&G #WeSeeEqual gender equality 1:40 3/9/17 What’s Up? 720
Hyundai Hope Detector charitable support 1:00 2/4/18 651
Nokia Be the Gift share yourself 1:30 12/21/17 Lost Without You 652
Kind Snacks More Than Nice kindness 1:30 12/28/17 642
Kraft Family Greatly family/parenting support 2:25 12/13/17 634
Average 681

These ads provoke viewers to internalize the message and empathize as brands communicate the values they stand for. Viewers watch them and find them compelling, powerful, and agreeable, performing the best among Millennial viewers (average Ace Score of 681).

Smart Heart with a Conscience Ads: “How YOU Should Live Our Values”

But should you push viewers even further? Some very recent ads push beyond the heart+head connection by more forwardly invoking our personal conscience, with most making a direct appeal for us to do something, for example volunteer, or as State Farm put it, “lift the weight of caring.” Each ad also employs an iconic song to keep the emotional pull strong where the narrative is overpowered – pretty heavy stuff, perhaps pushing viewers too far?

Smart Heart w/ a Conscious Emotions

Brand Ad Title Core Value Ad Length Air Date Song Millennial Ace Score
Subaru Share Kindness kindness :30 12/7/17 Put a Little Love in your Heart 672
State Farm Following share yourself 2:10 3/22/17 Don’t Let Me Down 641
MassMutual Together Strong share yourself :30 12/24/17 I’ll Stand By You 627
State Farm Volunteer Now :30 share yourself :30 12/31/17 Don’t You Forget About Me 570
State Farm Volunteer Your Time :30 share yourself :30 11/21/17 Don’t You Forget About Me 542
MassMutual Human Nature share yourself :30 12/23/17 I’ll Stand By You 527
Average 597

Clearly, these ads delivered the message loudly and clearly:

Smart Heart w/ a Conscious Ads SBT Scores

Yet while still emotional and powerful, when Millennial viewers felt personal conscience first when viewing such ads, response to the ads suffered – in fact, these “Smart Heart With a Conscience” ads reported the lowest average Ace Score (597) among Millennials of all the ads we studied. Moreover, these ads posted the poorest performance of the three groups across every performance measure we track:

In fact, Millennials not only reported a weaker emotional connection with these “Smart Heart With a Conscience” ads (measured as the proportion of all comments received that included emotional terminology), but a markedly reduced purchase intent as well. While the emotional connection was still there, it was offset by a push for personal action—with lower likeability and relevance scores than the other two groups—perhaps being too preachy.

“I kind of feel like the corporation that becomes conscious of the community around the holidays is a worn out cliche.”  – Male, 21-35

“I liked it, but don’t guilt trip people into using your services because they think the company actually does good.” – Female, 21-35

“I learned you arent past exploiting emotions for financial gains :)” – Male, 21-35

“It was a long, creepy, guilt trip. “You cannot enjoy anything unless you help ANYONE or thing that needs help.” – Male, 21-35

“It was a pretty commercial that made me a little sad. I was hoping it would end with a more hopeful message.” – Female, 21-35

“I think it is really bad. Guilt tripping people is not a good way to get them to help” – Male, 21-35

“Trying the jingle to catch me with sentimental short scenes most of which are overused viral events.” – Male, 21-35

“I did not like it because i felt like it wanted to make you feel guilty if you did not help out” – Female, 21-35

“I don’t like it because of its attempt to play on emotions. It tries to guilt people to act” – Male, 21-35

“Using a real disaster to advertise for insurance feels cynical and manipulative.” – Male, 21-35

“I dont like ads about charity, they bum me out” – Male, 21-35


When marketing to Millennials, brands must watch the line (actually, the tightrope) they walk. It is important to these younger consumers that brands stand for something more than just sales and advocate for issues important to them. “Smart Heart” ads connect best with this audience, giving Millennials a reason to select a given brand or company beyond the functional product features themselves. Authenticity is a key attribute in these ads, as well as delivering on Inspiration and Heartfelt metrics.

However, Millennials aren’t as receptive to ads that suggest they be part of the solution or live the brand’s values themselves (or those that appear disingenuous). Millennials want the world to recognize the problems, but might just prefer to wait for someone else to fix them – including their brands.


* (Our sample consisted of 196 Cannes Lions Film category winners from 2011-2016 as well as over 25,000 non-Cannes winners from our syndicated database over a similar time period).


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