It begins, like many ads that once had you inexplicably blubbering at your desk, with an adorable young child. Marketers all know cute kids are the shortcut to anyone’s bleeding heart and/or tear ducts. We then meet a baby infected with HIV, who is abandoned by his family, to be raised by a family friend. Super sad premise? Check.
We see the boy’s new mother deal with a variety of stigma, as she yearns for her adopted son to simply enjoy the life of a child without an illness, feelings that grow more acute as the baby grows into a toddler and he’s aware of being shunned for reasons he can’t understand. The story is heartwarming. It’s emotional. It’s . . . an ad for Vicks VapoRub?
I mean, what are you trying to do to us, P&G? Created by Publicis Singapore, this is grade A emotional manipulation. It’s also a throwback to the heyday of “sadvertising,” a magical five-year time between, oh, say, 2011 and 2016, in which it seemed as if advertisers were locked in a winner-takes-all fight for our tear ducts and heartstrings.
Bar none, the masters of this genre were Ogilvy & Mather Bangkok and its work for Thai Insurance. Whether it was a little boy who creates an unlikely superhero for a school assignment, or a man who makes a series of small but generous daily choices, they would spark an epidemic of dusty office cubicles around the globe.
The phenomenon obviously wasn’t limited to Asia. Back in 2011 Google was able to get us weepy with an email address, and the following year Wieden+Kennedy helped P&G give an emotional thanks to Olympic moms.
It got to the point where brands really were aiming right for the cryballs. As Barton F. Graf chief creative and founder Gerry Graf told Fast Company in 2014, “I literally had a client say to me, ‘I want to do ads that make people cry.'”
But as with all trends, it appeared to run its course by 2017, as the public caught on to the more obvious emo-manipulators. Even John Lewis, the U.K. retailer that invented the British Christmas season adstravaganza, abandoned the blatant holiday feels that made it famous–like “The Long Wait” and Monty the Penguin for an Elton John biopic–in 2018.
So is sadvertising back? Although the Vicks spot has gone viral, hopefully smart marketers will know that crying over a commercial only really works when it’s unexpected, and that as industry-wide trends go, the crying strategy is played out.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to 2014 to relive when German DIY retail brand Hornbach threw a piece of dust in my eye.