The Power of Emotions in Advertising: The Ad that Changed How I Saw McDonald's

2 Minutes Read

My favorite ad of all time is the early 1990s McDonald’s Australia James Dean advertisement.

As a little chap, I can vividly remember hearing the iconic David Essex track and seeing the eponymous James Dean walking towards me. At the time, unaware it was an ad for McDonald's, I was captivated right until the end reveal. There was something about that commercial that left a strong emotional imprint on me, still vivid some 30 years later. Such is the power of emotions in advertising — they anchor brand messages not just in our minds but also seemingly in our hearts. Understanding the interplay between emotion and memory isn't just insightful, it's crucial to understanding how we make decisions and, in this context, essential for crafting advertisements that resonate deeply and stay with us for a long time.


Emotions play a pivotal role not just in effectively memorable advertising but also in the seemingly mundane decisions we make every day. Take, for example, the thought process behind purchasing your next tube of toothpaste at the supermarket. At first glance, it might seem like your choice was guided by practical considerations — a price promotion or brand familiarity. However, beneath the surface, a complex interplay of subconscious processes is at work, with emotions steering the helm. Whether or not we're consciously aware of it, the emotional relationships we have with brands significantly influence our purchasing decisions. A warm, trustworthy feeling associated with a familiar brand, or a sense of excitement sparked by an attractive offer — these are emotional undercurrents that guide our hand on the shelf. It's not merely about the attributes of the product but how the thought of it makes us feel, showcasing the subtle yet powerful ways emotions shape our buying behavior.

The processing of emotions is undertaken by a complex network of brain regions within the limbic system, including the amygdala and hippocampus, and other cortical regions such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, basal ganglia, and insula. For example, the amygdala has been well-documented to be involved in the processing of emotions, but it also works in tandem with the hippocampus to lay down the foundations for long-term storage of memories. The emotional overlay not only helps with storage but also with the recall of that memory. When an ad elicits a strong emotional reaction, whether it be happiness, aspiration, or even sadness, it is likely to be encoded more deeply into our memory. Consequently, neural connections between the brand and these potent emotions are strengthened, increasing the likelihood that the product will spring to mind the next time we stand in the toothpaste aisle.


These emotional experiences do not occur in isolation within the brain. They're part of a broader pattern of synchronous activity, where sensory information—like visual imagery and music—are processed alongside emotional content within interconnected neural networks. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for higher-level cognitive functions, works in synthesis with the emotional centers to interpret and assign value to these incoming stimuli. For an advertisement, this means that the combination of a powerful visual narrative, an evocative soundtrack, and a compelling emotional pull can lead to a cognitive 'sticky note', firmly encoding the brand into our memory.

The power of emotion in advertising transcends simple appeal, tapping into many cognitive processes. The challenge for marketers and advertisers lies in skillfully crafting ad campaigns that harness this knowledge, employing emotions not as mere embellishments but as the heart of the narrative that resonates with the audience on a deeply personal level.

Let us be mindful of the emotional legacies we are creating through our brands, and strive to produce work that doesn't simply sell, but also sings to the very heart of human experience. In doing so, we can craft not just campaigns, but cultural landmarks - ones that, like that timeless McDonald's ad from the early 1990s, linger fondly in memories for decades to come...

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Shaun Seixas

Shaun Seixas (Ph.D. cognitive neuroscience, Swinburne University of Technology) is an Associate Director at The Evolved Group. Drawing from his experience in functional brain imaging methodologies and quantitative research, he works closely with clients on a wide range of research programs designed to better understand their customers, using Evolved innovative technology platform.