On an intellectual level, television commercials work by telling us what we are supposed to think about a product or service; but on another level they work by showing us how we are supposed to feel about a brand. Good storytelling, which unites ideas with emotions, lies at the heart of advertising effectiveness. For television, that means constructing a visually compelling story with moving pictures.

In a recent interview with the Harvard Business Review (Fryer, 2003), Robert McKee, one of the most respected screenwriting lecturers in Hollywood, discussed some of the structural principles involved in telling a good story and pointed out the benefits of applying this knowledge to the practice of management. Most executives make the mistake of attempting to persuade using “lectures” replete with statistics, facts, litanies of bullet points and quotes from authorities. McKee argues convincingly that executives could be more persuasive using “dramas” — compelling stories packed with emotional power. For the ad business, understanding the role of the brand in the context of the different structures of storytelling lies at the heart of how to analyze a television commercial.

Along similar lines to McKee, the ad researcher Bill Wells (in Cafferata and Tybout, 1989) classified all television commercials into two fundamental types: lectures and dramas. This simple categorization brought some clarity to the debate about the role of reason and emotion in advertising. But while the lecture type tends to be simply a linear presentation of features and benefits designed to convey a rational argument for buying the brand—a unique selling proposition– when we talk about dramas, both light and comic as well as those more serious in emotional tonality, we must recognize that structural issues are more complex. Good stories can be told in more than one way.

In fact, from the Ameritest pre-testing experience we have identified four distinct structures associated with effective emotional advertising. And the role of the brand in each of these four types of stories is quite different.

To explain these four structures we must first describe how we go about measuring the emotion in television commercials. For McKee, “a story expresses how and why life changes.” To measure the emotion generated by a commercial story, therefore, requires a dynamic variable, one that captures how the audience’s feelings change as they move through the film—we call the measure we use the “Flow of Emotion”.

The Flow of Emotion®

The Flow of Emotion is measured using a similar picture sorting approach to that used to measure the Flow of Attention, which has been described in previous articles and presentations (Young, 2002; Kastenholz and Young, 2003a). A deck of photographic images, created by grabbing key frames from the commercial that represent the visual content of the ad is sorted on a five-point scale ranging from very strong positive feelings to very strong negative feelings.

Importantly, the number of pictures used in the sort is a function of the visual complexity of the ad—from ten to thirty images for a thirty second spot—rather than as a mechanical function of time. By partitioning the advertising experience based on the rate of visual information flow, rather than by the clock, we are measuring the change in emotional response in terms of the subjective time flow of the storytelling.

The construct employed here is to model emotion as a “fluid” which is pumped through an ad—that is, the more emotionally engaging a commercial is visually, the more volume of emotion is pumped in. To slightly expand the metaphor, emotion is thought of as coming in two flavors, positive and negative, so that the dynamic tension between the two can be analyzed to understand the dramatic structure of a particular commercial. We visualize that structure by creating a graphic representation by superimposing two curves: one represents the percent of respondents who choose the top two boxes (positive end) and the other represents the percent choosing the bottom two boxes (negative end).

An example of a Flow of Emotion is shown in table 1 for a commercial tested in the US for the Unilever shampoo brand Thermasilk.

The Flow of Emotion and Performance Measures on Pretests

The average level of these positive and negative flows is the area under each of these two curves. The relationship between these averages and commercial performance measures on two pre-testing systems used by Unilever is shown in Table 1.


For over a year Unilever North America has been collecting television pre-testing measures from both Millward Brown and Ameritest (in Kastenholz and Young, 2003b; Kastenholz, Kerr, and Young, 2003). The correlation between the diagnostic measure of the Flow of Emotion and the performance measures produced by the two systems for a sample of 68 television commercial shows a similar pattern.

The Flow of Emotion does not strongly predict attention-getting power for either system. This is highly desirable since attention and emotion are conceptually distinct constructs. And it is easy to think of commercials that break through the clutter but don’t motivate you to buy (i.e., “video vampires”) as well as those that have a compelling strategic message but don’t get your attention. However, there is a significant relationship between the emotion flows and both measures of branding and an even stronger statistical relationship between the emotion flows and measures of communication effectiveness and motivation (i.e., purchase intent).

Our interpretation of this is akin to the concept of “working energy” in physics, where the distinction is made between the total energy of a system and the energy available to do work. The total emotional energy of an ad may contain a component of entertainment value or even borrowed interest for the purposes of attracting attention, but the flow of emotion as measured here relates primarily to the “working emotion” in the system that is available to build the brand and to sell product.

As we will see below, the statistical relationship between the emotional flow and motivation or selling effectiveness is in fact an understatement, because there is a type of advertising where negative emotions can be organized to sell brands.

Four Dramatic Structures


The dramatic structure of a television commercial may be thought of as organized emotion. In our pretesting work we have identified four types of emotional organization or dramatic structures which, in general, can be found in effective commercials (i.e. commercials that have scored well on pre-test performance measures)—the Emotional Pivot, the Positive Transition, the Build, and Sustained Emotion, as shown in figure 1.

The Emotional Pivot

This dramatic structure involves a “phase transition” in audience emotional states, from a beginning negative state to an ending positive state. It is characterized by strong negative emotion ratings in the beginning of the execution, which then vanish abruptly and are replaced by strong positive emotions by the end of the ad. The point in the ad where the negative emotions flip over to positive emotions is called the “emotional pivot”. Problem/solution commercials are one genre of advertising that have this type of emotional structure. .

The Positive Transition

This structure also involves an abrupt or discontinuous change in emotion states, but this time from a low level positive state to a higher level positive state—like an energy jump in quantum mechanics. Thus, the flow graph for this type of execution looks like a step function. Executions that make use of a reveal technique where there is a moment of sudden realization that the ad is about something completely different that what one originally thought provide examples of this type of dramatic structure.

The Build

The third type of dramatic structure involves a smoothly increasing flow of positive audience feelings climaxing in an emotional high point at the end of the ad. Humorous commercials with a strong visual payoff produce examples of this type.

Sustained Emotion

The fourth structure represents commercials that simply make you feel good from beginning to end. The flow graph shows a high positive, but flat pattern, indicative of a high volume of emotion being pumped through the ad. Montage commercials with strong music tracks yield examples of this type.

It should be noted that lecture type ads will look like this last type of emotional ad in terms of the flow graph, with the main difference being hat the focus of audience attention in the ad is on rational information content rather than esthetic or emotional content. We should also mention that in a paper we published last year we were able to show that the only type of structure rewarded by traditional day after recall testing systems is the lecture type ad.

Each of these structures may be thought of as an elementary building block which in longer pieces of film may be combined in different ways to create more complex stories, though most thirty second commercials are short enough that they represent fairly pure examples of these types.

In analyzing an ad, we should also be careful to distinguish between emotional effects intended by the creative — the purposeful use of negative emotions in an emotional pivot — versus unintended effects which represent opportunities for polishing or improving the ad. Our extensive pretesting experience has often shown that suboptimal commercials (i.e., those that fail to meet or exceed hurdles or norms for Attention, Branding, Communication, and Motivation) don’t introduce the brand at the proper time so it can “take credit” for an emotional pivot, or, alternatively, use an unclear, disorganized or incompletely realized dramatic structure.

The Four Different Roles of the Brand

Notice that in two of the four dramatic structures the brand identifier is introduced in the middle of the commercial, as part of the action in the film, while in the other two structures the brand is a book-end, either at the beginning or the end of the ad. The timing of the introduction of brand identifiers—e.g., package, name, logo—is key to defining the role of the brand in the four different structures. A simple of way thinking about the differences is to think of the brand in terms of four different Hollywood types.

Brand as Star

The most obvious role for the brand is that of the star of the little movie that is a television commercial. In this first type of drama, the emotional pivot, the plot is quite simple: negative dramatic tension is created in the beginning of the ad, then the brand arrives on its white horse and makes the negative feelings go away, so that the audience leaves with a happy ending. If the brand arrives at just the right time in the story, which is at the boundary between the negative emotion state and the positive emotion state, then the brand receives the credit of being perceived as the cause of this change or resolution of emotional tension–the brand clearly becomes the hero of the spot. This is the role of the brand in our Thermasilk illustration.

Brand as Supporting Actor

In this second type of story, the positive transition, the brand is not the star but plays the role of supporting actor. It is the Sancho Panza to the consumer’s Don Quixote. The consumer, by projection, is given the starring role. The brand is part of the action, however, necessary to advance the scene and create twists in the plot. The role of the sporty car in some automotive advertising, for example, is to take ordinary life and elevate it to a higher plane of experience—which is in the end the promise the brand is making to the consumer as driver. Again, timing is a key point with this type of dramatic structure: the brand should arrive at the boundary between the low emotion state and the higher emotion state—so that the brand receives the credit as being perceived as the cause of the enhanced consumer experience.

Brand as Director

In this third type of story, the build, the brand is not an actor in the story but is only acknowledged in the credits at the end of the film. The brand is the director, unseen but an always present intelligence, building a story to give meaning or definition to the experience promised to the consumer. Many of the IBM blue letterbox commercials are of the director type.

Brand as Producer

The fourth type—the thrilling exciting hilarious celebration of amazing sights and sounds you’ve never seen before — brought to you by—presented to you by—the brand!

It’s the brand as the producer of sustained emotions, the rock concert promoter of good vibes , the P.T. Barnum of emotional end benefits. And it’s upfront about telling you so. No shyness here. (But remember, substitute rational selling propositions for emotions in this model and—presto — you suddenly have brand as lecturer. )


In conclusion, we have seen all four approaches to emotional advertising work effectively in the sense of scoring well on measures of performance. Yet these four types represent a considerable repertoire for deploying emotions in the service of building brands. This analysis is confirmation of the idea that advertising can work in more than one way, particularly on an emotional level. What this means from a practical perspective is that creatives should be empowered to depict and to attempt to evoke the full spectrum of human emotion from despondence to elation. It is also a reminder to students of advertising—and good storytelling–that structure and content are also important, regardless of the type of advertising we are talking about.


Fryer, B. “Storytelling that Moves People: A Conversation with Screenwriting Coach Robert McKee,” Harvard Business Review, June 2003, pp. 51-55.

Kastenholtz, J., and Young, C. E. “Why Day-After Recall Misses the Emotion in Advertising that Builds Brands.” Paper presented at the 49th Annual Conference of the Advertising Research Foundation, April 2003a.

Kastenholz, J., and Young, C. E. “A Film Director’s Guide to Ad Effectiveness,” Admap, September 2003b, pp. 16-18.

Kastenholz, J., Kerr, G., and Young, C. “Focus and Fit: A Look at Three Measures of TV Commercial Branding.” Paper presented at the Advertising Research Foundation Week of Workshops Conference on Marketing ROI, September 2003.

Wells, W. , “Lecture versus Drama. ” In P. Cafferata and A. Tybout (Eds.), Cognitive and Affective Responses to Advertising. Lexington, MA.: Lexington Books, 1989.

Young, Charles E., “Brain Waves, Picture Sorts® and Branding Moments,” Journal of Advertising Research, July/August 2002, Vol. 42, No. 4, 42-55.