Why Christmas Commercials Make Us Cry

Chances are you’ve already seen a fair share of Christmas commercials this year -- and many of them weren’t sandwiched into 30-second spots during a Law & Order: SVU marathon. The first Christmas spots of the season were popping up on the Internet well before Thanksgiving, and then rolled out across Facebook, many with captions close to (if not in fact): “Ooo I got the feels.”

In other words: If you found yourself looking for Kleenex about 45 seconds into a two-minute ad -- either the lonely man on the moon, or children that set up a Christmas tree for a sad neighbor, or a cat that tries to save a family’s holiday -- you're not alone. Especially if you watched a sad commercial, found yourself teary-eyed, and then, when the ad was over, you too shared it on Facebook or Twitter.

John Lewis' "man on the moon" tearjerker.
John Lewis' "man on the moon" tearjerker.

But why do we find these tearjerkers so irresistible? Why isn’t anyone sharing the classic commercial of Santa on his Norelco-razor sled? Or Folger’s commercial of Peter coming home for Christmas? And why have advertisers moved away from ads of good tidings and towards a cryfest?

Turns out advertisers want to make you cry -- sadness sells, and it sells a lot. In fact, it even has its own term: sadvertising. A quick Google search turns up over half a million results for sadvertising, which Technopedia defines as “using a certain set of strategies to play on people's emotions and touch off feelings of sadness, melancholy or wistfulness,” in order to make a beeline to your heart strings, and in turn your purse strings.

But why do tears equal dollars?

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When neuroeconomist Paul Zak conducted a study where he showed a sad video of a father and son and then looked at the viewer’s brain, he discovered two neurochemicals were being produced: “As [the viewers] experienced the story, the participants produced cortisol, known as the "stress hormone” [which made them pay attention]; and oxytocin, a hormone that promotes connection and empathy.” And it’s particularly this release of oxytocin that advertisers take note of; the study goes on to state “oxytocin’s ability to help us create understanding and empathy may also make us more generous and trusting.” This translates into trusting the brand that causes a rise in your oxytocin levels, and in turn you give them your money.

Does this sad cat make you want to shop at Sainsbury's?
Does this sad cat make you want to shop at Sainsbury's?

Now, what about the ends of these sadvertisements? The man doesn’t stay lonely on the moon, the children do cheer up the sad neighbor, and the cat does save a family’s holiday. You’re left with feelings of hope, joy, cheer -- and other Christmas-like emotions. And that’s on purpose too.

Jonah Berger, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is an expert on why things go viral, and the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. He shared this discovery in a Q&A with the Huffington Post: “The more positive a news story is, the more likely it is to be shared. Certain negative emotions like anger or anxiety also increase sharing, but overall, positive things are more likely to be shared.” So now the advertisers have invoked two powerful emotions from you: sadness and happiness, where your sorrow builds a positive brand identity, and your rise of happiness at the end of the commercial makes you want to share it with others.

If you’ve managed to escape the sadvertisements this season, Eonline has compiled a list of their eight favorites. But it’s really all about the granddaddy of them all: John Lewis, a British department store that’s been trying to make you cry since 2007.

They’ve really outdone themselves this year, tying together everything that makes someone cry: a lonely elderly man, a child with a pure heart and determination to make his day better, and of course, the perfect soundtrack to set off the entire thing with a sense of melancholy tinged with hope -- and all in two minutes and 10 seconds. Quite a feat. And it has over 20 million views on YouTube, so it’s obviously working.

The trend shows signs of spreading beyond the holidays, too: Remember the tearjerker Budweiser commercial of Super Bowl 2015, where the puppy goes on a quest to find his long-lost Clydesdale friend? The next day everyone from your coworkers to the TODAY Show was talking about the ad.

As the advertising market continues to compete for the attention of viewers across a multitude of visual platforms, and each try to stand out from the pack, it’s likely the competition to make you cry the hardest won’t be going away anytime soon.

So -- next time you see someone share a clip with “Ooo I got the feels,” think about if those two minutes are worth the extra time it'll take you to break out the Kleenex. If not? Keep scrolling.

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