Navigating the Nuances of Emotional Response in Advertising: A New Perspective

Understanding the new science of emotion will help advertisers to avoid audience tools based on outdated science and help them to forge more authentic connections with their creative.

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In the cutthroat world of advertising, understanding the emotional resonance of brand messaging with consumers can make all the difference. Recently, numerous agencies have turned to science-based tools like emotion reading or facial coding, promising precise insights into people's emotional responses to advertisements. But how reliable is this approach? Let's explore the science of emotions and what the recent developments in science mean for the advertising industry.

The Birth of Basic Emotions Theory

Prof. Paul Ekman

In the 1960s, a significant stride was made in the field of emotion science. Researcher Paul Ekman and his team embarked on a global exploration, attempting to identify universal emotions prevalent across different cultures. Their efforts culminated in the identification of six fundamental emotions – happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust – hypothesized to be biological aspects hardwired into our brains.


This ground-breaking theory proposed that upon encountering a stimulus, say a picturesque sunset, visual information transmitted from the retina in your eye instigates a series of reactions in the brain, eventually culminating in a physiological response, like a radiant smile or increased heart rate. Essentially, emotions were perceived as occurrences that happen to us, an automatic response ingrained in our biological framework.

The Evolution of Emotion Science

When we see cute puppies our body reacts by feeling good and getting more excited.  Our brain interprets these changes as feeling a positive emotion like excitement or delight.

But as the adage goes, change is the only constant, and science is no exception. Over the past six decades, our understanding of emotions has undergone a substantial transformation, offering a new perspective that holds significant implications for advertisers globally.

Contrary to the earlier belief that we are born with a set of predefined emotions, modern neuroscience proposes that we come into this world with rudimentary bodily signals - defined by attributes of pleasantness(valence) and activity level (arousal). This novel approach suggests that the brain's processing is not merely a straightforward stimulus-response mechanism.

Prof. Lisa Feldman Barrett

When we encounter a stimulus, like an adorable puppy, our brain triggers a physiological reaction in the body, marked by sensations of pleasantness and activation. However, it's not the amygdala that creates this emotional state; rather, our conscious mind observes these bodily alterations and assigns them an emotional label, such as joy or excitement, based on the context.

According to neuroscientist Prof. Lisa Feldman Barrett:

"Emotions are guesses your brain constructs to link the sensations in your body with what's going on around you in the world so that you know what to do."

The Implications for Advertising Industry

This revolutionary understanding of emotions presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the advertising industry. Given that emotions are essentially labels we use to comprehend our physiological responses, accurately measuring the specific emotions evoked by an image or video becomes virtually impossible.


This realization casts doubts on the efficacy of tools like emotion reading or facial coding software, which claim to offer granular insights into emotional reactions to advertisements. Relying on these could potentially lead to flawed creative or strategic decisions, given their foundation in outdated science.


There is, however, a silver lining. By focusing on the dimensions of valence and arousal directly, it is still possible to garner accurate insights into your audience's responses to various content. Though it might not offer the precise emotional breakdown that was previously promised, these results are arguably more valid and vastly more significant than attempting to infer specific emotions.

Embracing this more nuanced understanding of emotions can only help pave the way for more meaningful and authentic connections with audiences.

For additional information on consumer neuroscience, download our free Guide to Quality Neuromarketing.

About the Author

Prof. Joseph Devlin

Head of Neuroscience, Co-Founder

Joe's PhD is in Artificial Intelligence but he found himself much more interested in natural intelligence -- how the human mind works. After training in neuroimaging at Cambridge and Oxford, he established a reputation as a leading researcher in how the human brain processes language. He is a former Head of Experimental Psychology at UCL as well as the current Vice Dean for Innovation and Enterprise. Joe’s collaborations with corporate partners include Audible, Vue cinemas, Finecast, the rail industry, and EncoreTickets.  His research has been featured in CNN, the BBC and the Times, among others.

Joe has published more than 80 scientific articles in international journals.

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