Joyous family reunions, sweater-clad couples strolling on beaches, dads and toddlers sharing a bowl of cereal, joyous babies chuckling in the bathtub, steaming cups of coffee shared with good friends in sunlit kitchens, relatives rejoicing over e-mailed images of the new baby, happy moms unloading sparkling soccer clothes from the dryer, diminutive flower girls romping through meadows …

According to conventional wisdom, advertisements that lift your spirits sell products. But what if everyone’s spirits don’t get lifted in the same way – that is, what if purely happy messages and images don’t work that well on large segments of the population? In a new paper, “The Peaceful Co-Existence of Conflicting Emotions: Examining Differential Responses to Mixed Emotional Appeals,” Wharton marketing professor Patti A. Williams and Stanford’s Jennifer L. Aaker highlight the psychological impact of advertising that presents various consumer groups with a mixed (happy and sad) emotional appeal, as opposed to a purely happy one. Their research is directed in part to managers and advertisers in the business of selling goods and services to an increasingly multicultural, and aging, population at home and in the global market abroad.

To look at the effects of mixed emotional advertising appeals on persuasion, Williams and Aaker conducted experiments using three groups of subjects: Anglo-Americans, older Anglo-Americans, and Asian-Americans. Existing research had suggested that Asian-Americans’ cultural background instills in them a greater willingness to accept duality, the simultaneous presence of two conflicting ideas or emotions. And they chose the older Anglo-American group based on a similar idea, says Williams. “The elderly are also widely perceived to be more comfortable with this kind of ambiguity or conflict – to possess what our popular culture tends to define as wisdom.” They asked subjects to respond to two fictitious advertisements, one for photographic film and one for a moving company, presented in happy, sad, and mixed versions.

For example, the “happy” moving company ad emphasized the “new chapter in your life that’s just beginning” and “new friends you’ll make” because of your move; the “sad” ad focused on hiring a mover who’ll help buffer the stress, finality, and uncertainty of moving; and the “mixed” ad combined the “happy” excitement of future possibilities with a “sad” longing for the old neighborhood. In addition to using two different product categories (film and moving companies) to ensure subjects’ reactions weren’t tied to a particular product, the researchers also used two different formats for prompting emotions: The film ad consisted of a photograph with words, and the moving company ad, words only. What’s more, Williams and Aaker tailored their study to be sure that people were reporting their “aroused, experienced emotions,” not merely their conscious recognition that the ad was intended to be happy or sad.

Overall, Williams and Aaker managed to identify two substantial segments of the Anglo American population for whom traditional, purely “feel good” advertisements may not be the best emotional approach: Asian-Americans and older Americans. Williams first describes how Anglo-American and Asian-American reactions differed: The Caucasian group, because of their lower propensity to accept duality, “experienced significant amounts of discomfort in response to the mixed emotional appeal.” That substantial discomfort directly caused the Anglo-American subjects to like the mixed ads less. “In contrast, the Asian-Americans, who have a much higher propensity to accept duality, did not experience that same discomfort,” and so had a more positive emotional response to the mixed appeal. In experiments that compared the reactions of younger and older Anglo-Americans, says Williams, “The older Anglo-Americans come out looking very similar to the Asian-Americans” in that they too reacted more positively to ads containing conflicting emotions than did the young Anglo-Americans.

The researchers’ findings may be of particular importance to companies trying to capture Chinese and other Asian markets, since as Williams points out, people born and raised in Asian nations – steeped in those cultures – are likely to have an even greater level of comfort with duality than the Asian-Americans in her research. “Businesses are wondering if they should use the same advertising appeal in a global context or different, more locally-oriented ads. Part of what our research is saying is that Asian populations may often ‘prefer’ an emotional appeal that is mixed, that has this sense of yin and yang,” says Williams. “To a large degree they may feel that’s the way things should be, positive and negative balancing one another.”

Since the elderly study participants also reacted more positively than young Americans to the mixed appeals, advertisers may want to think twice about how they approach the enormous aging baby-boomer market. Williams asserts that her study is just the tip of the iceberg: “There’s been relatively little academic research that looks at differences in how the elderly [react to] marketing, whether it’s advertising appeals, knowledge of pricing, whatever. However, there’s a lot of work in psychology that talks about how you age cognitively. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to apply that knowledge from psychology about cognitive aging to aging baby boomers, particularly since they’re the wealthiest older group in the history of the country.”

While their experiments involved print ads, Williams believes that the emotional reactions she and Aaker identified probably occur with even greater intensity in response to radio and TV appeals. “Moving images, music, color, voice-overs, timing, editing and so forth make the emotional experiences in those media much stronger.” She adds that any industry can successfully apply emotionally-oriented advertising. I honestly believe that there is virtually no product out there that can’t have an emotional advertisement. It’s just about recognizing how consumers are actually using your product, and the degree to which you can find the kernel of emotion in that use.” Williams remembers seeing an ad two years ago for an outboard motor – not your typical high-emotion product. “But the ad showed families going out and having a great weekend together. It was a touching moment and it effectively used emotion to sell the product, demonstrating the emotional value it can have on the lives of users.”

Understanding consumers’ emotional reactions and how they differ should be a prime focus for marketers, Williams believes. “This is part of a trend in academic research to pay more attention to emotions in persuasion. And I think that’s increasingly important for marketers. More and more products – particularly if you look at things like packaged goods – are in the mature phase of the product life cycle. They’re not really differentiated from one another based on real, rational attributes any more: Laundry detergent is laundry detergent. And more and more marketers are trying to create an emotional bond between their product and consumers, and relying on increasingly emotional advertising to differentiate themselves. Our research is part of understanding how consumers respond to emotional appeals, and how you can use those appeals to create a relationship with your consumer. You also need to understand what kinds of emotional appeals to use for different groups, particularly if you’re thinking cross-culturally.”

“We think of emotions as fundamental basic things,” says Williams. “But there are differences in the way that various groups of people process emotions. And understanding that can help you predict how your campaign is going to impact consumers.”