Marketing’s Least Loved – the visceral

In her regular column for Mumbrella, VMLY&R chief strategy officer Alison Tilling explores emotion's inexplicable.

One of marketing’s biggest myths is that we love emotion.

When was the last time an ad made you feel something, rather than showing you mediated feelings? And if you have been lucky enough to feel something, when was the last time that something wasn’t a glossy take on ‘inspiration’ or ‘self belief’? When did you last shudder or wince or gasp or jump or really belly laugh at an ad? Of course there is marketing out there that does this, but there’s plenty of unrealised value in the visceral.

What is ‘visceral’ and what is its place in marketing?

Visceral has several definitions and all have marketing potential:

  1. Felt in, or as if in, the internal organs of the body
  2. Not intellectual: instinctive, unreasoning
  3. Dealing with crude or elemental emotions

A visceral reaction to something is deep, often inexplicable in the rational mind, and usually memorable. A powerful ingredients list for marketing, especially as a counterpoint to the one-dimensional take we have on what constitutes emotion in advertising.



Marketing has made a monster of ’emotional’

Daniel Kahneman’s work has shown that the human brain uses two systems of thinking (not two sides of the brain). The first fallacy is that one or the other system is ‘better’; for example, that System 1 is more creative and System 2 less prone to bias. In fact the two systems not only work together but are complementary (and sometimes detrimental) to each other. Just as Field & Binet’s original thesis was The Long and the Short of It, so the brain works on the one and the two of it.

As an industry, what we’ve tended to do is mediate advertising’s idea of emotion almost entirely through System 2, using cues from what has been described as ‘left brain thinking’. So while System 1 is “rooted firmly in bodily or visceral experience”, System 2’s view of the world “is flat, lacks nuance, and sees the world as moments or snapshots.” The upshot is montage ads with abstract voices telling us about being inspired, or abstracting self-belief, without a complementary system 1 encoding.

Life isn’t a montage, and through the last year for many of us it’s been more visceral as our ways of doing things got overturned and changed at a moment’s notice. So how can we bring more visceral in?

Look at where visceral is building value

As most people with a womb will tell you, periods are visceral. So’s birth. So’s endometriosis. Bodyform’s “Pain Stories” from AMV BBDO removes stigma by creating a new visual language around the pain of endometriosis in particular, making a distinctive brand asset of the visceral experience that blue liquid, roller blading and shaming of truth have so long sought to avoid. There are untold visceral stories everywhere, and they can be around pleasure as well as pain. Some brands have used the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR – pleasurable brain tingles – to get more visceral with their message.

Don’t just rewrite but re-feel the ‘Desired Response’

I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but we often frame the desired response on a brief – even when it is written as a think/feel/do – through a marketing lens. We frame how will it achieve the objectives, and often replay that language. Try getting more System 1 on it. Could causing people to squirm, jump, gasp, recoil, lust after, be more effective? Could confronting them or even overwhelming them lead better to the encoding of what you’re trying to own for the brand? If that’s a step too far, even writing the desired response or ‘think feel do’ in more visceral language will make it more creatively powerful.

Get visceral on peaks

One way to up the visceral is to think in the context of the Peak-End Rule (for which we also have Kahneman, among others, to thank). The human brain remembers experiences through the peak of intensity, and what the end was like. We need to get braver on our ‘peaks’ – these could be moments of disgust, of jumping in shock for example – as long as the end of the ad or experience wraps up the overall message and owns it for the brand.

The visceral is often inexplicable, and that makes it a challenging concept for marketers and agencies to use. Even using more visceral language on briefs and allowing for the visceral in our understanding of people will make for stronger work, especially as it brings some complementary System 1 into what has become – looking industry-wide – a very System 2 concept of emotion.

Alison Tilling is the chief strategy officer at VMLY&R. Marketing’s Least Loved is a regular Mumbrella column.


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