by Alexandra Crăciun
University of Bucharest

The era of storytelling is now gone.

In the age of post-truth, communication managers are no longer just ‘multiplicators’ (1) of knowledge about the brand, but rather ‘multiplicators’ of consumer’s stories and emotions.

As the authors of the book ‘Communication Excellence How to Develop, Manage and Lead Exceptional Communications’ (Ralph Tench et. All, 2017) were putting forth: ‘Paradoxes are a key characteristic of the global hypermodern culture of today. (…) Paradoxes will also be central to communication.’ (2)

And, for sure, one of the most interesting paradoxes of the corporate communication today, was the emergence of the so called ‘sadvertising’, a borderline marcom strategy connecting marketing and public relations.

Nowadays, Google is coming out with 1,290,000,000 results for ‘joy’ and 731,000,000 for ‘happiness’ while only ‘122,000,000 entries are provided for “sadness’. Therefore, ‘sadvertising’ is bringing forth an unusual focus.

Under the title: ‘The Rise of Sadvertising. Why Brands Are Determined to Make You Cry’, The Fast Company was underlying in 2014, the emergence of this interesting trend, leading to a new definition for advertising. Loss, guilt, incompleteness, lack success, pain, displeasure, fears or discontent, were becoming common territories for brand communication, urging the consumers to share their feelings and to react. Advertising, previously defined as realm of positive emotions by Gilles Lipovetsky or Bernard Cathelat, became, out of a sudden, a stage displaying negative affections.

There was a time in the not so distant past when funny ruled advertising. Whether absurd and awkward, sharp and wry, or broad and ball-busting, comedy in all its forms was the dominant language in marketing. Then something changed. Quietly at first, then things began to escalate. Ad-induced tears flowed across the land, and even diehard cynics started admitting to welling up over commercials. And these weren’t just your public service announcements, carefully crafted to emotionally manipulate you into action on issues that were already emotional powder kegs. These were spots for shampoos, for Internet services, for banks, for soft drinks, for retailers, for peanut butter, for beer! They were contemplative, moving, and all scored with the Piano Chord of Emotion. Even Super Bowl viewers were no longer safe from baldfaced lunges at the cockles. Pretty soon the promise of a good cry became an engine of social sharing.’ (3)

In June 2014, The Guardian published the article entitled: ‘The rise of ‘sadvertising’: Why social good marketing works’, pointing to the most successful campaigns of the year.  Effective communications strategies used in ‘Like a Girl’ by Always (37m views on YouTube), Innocent’s ‘Chain for Good’, Nike’s ‘Find Your Greatness’ and, of course, Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ series (64m hits) were proving the shift to ‘tear-jerking or heartwarming storytelling’ (4). This turn reflects – according to the article published in The Guardian – the impact of the new technologies that are able now to allow bigger formats exceeding the classical 30” TVC, but, even more important, a sort of a change of the social mood:

‘Two other factors play into the shift towards meaningful marketing, or ‘sadvertising’ as it’s sometimes called. First is technology. In a 30 second TV advert, the quick gag dominates. Touching deeper emotional levels requires a longer format, which the internet caters for perfectly. Second is a change in the public mood. Attitudes towards business are transforming, says Trish Wheaton, president of Inspire, a new New York-based advertising agency owned by ad giant Young & Rubicam. Millennials expect their favorite brands to make a difference in the world. And everyone else increasingly agrees. At a more general level, the Western world is undergoing a values revolution, says Wheaton.’ (5)

The tipping point of this switch in the social mood was announced already in 2013, by the Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ series – a campaign that was becoming ‘mega viral’ (6) after it was released on April 14. More than 50M people viewed the ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ video within 12 days.  In 2013 and 2014, Dove’s campaign won the all the important communication awards on a global scale, proving that negative emotions are able to burst and feed conversations.

The idea was not new. Benetton was using it by hiring Oliviero Toscani as the brand art director. Oliviero Toscani has produced for Benetton some of the most controversial ads in the history of corporate communication. A priest and a nun kissing, a blood-soaked uniform of a soldier killed in the Bosnian war, a newborn baby still attached to an umbilical cord, a man with AIDS lying on his deathbed, surrounded by his family, three ‘human’ hearts, labelled ‘White’, ‘Black’ and ‘Yellow’, all of them were designed to generate negative emotions. Toscani’s goal was to create ‘echo chambers’, using violent images able to burst out conversations.  Disruptive messages, bringing forward strong emotions on a negative scale were urging the people to get involved.

Both Benetton and Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ are proving that conversations generated by ‘sadvertising’’s are based on a sort of a cathartic effect.

The Greek term of katharsis (κάθαρσις), meaning ‘cleansing’, ‘purgation’, ‘purification’, was used by Aristotle in the sixth book of his Poetics. Aristotle states that the goal of tragedy is ‘through pity and fear’ to effect ‘the proper purgation of these emotions’. As a result, the conversion of negative feelings into positive emotions, is, in the end, a mechanism enhancing the consumers’ self-esteem.

So, paradoxically, ‘sadvertising’, as well as the rise of the ‘meaningful marketing’ has to be understood under a broader idea of happiness’ pursuit, integrating concepts of social relevancy and shared emotions.

This less intrusive corporate communication, becomes thus, part of a new paradigm in marcom where the kathartic use of negative feelings converts into the joy of a generalized conversation, and advertising turns into public relations, staging the consumers’ self-esteem.


[1] Volk, S. C., Berger, K., Zerfass, A., Bisswanger, L., Fetzer, M., Köhler, K. (2017). “How to play the game. Strategic tools for managing corporate communications and creating value for your organization”, Communication Insights, Issue 3, Leipzig.

[2] Tench, R., Vercic, D., Zerfass A., Moreno A., Verhoven P. (2017), Communication Excellence. How to develop, Manage and Lead Exceptional Communications, Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2017, p. 195.


[4] Oliver Balch, O. (2014), ‘The rise of ‘sadvertising’: Why social good marketing works’, The Guardian, online edition, June14, 2014,, retrieved 22.03.2019;

[5] Idem;

[6] ‘The Story Behind Dove’s Mega Viral “Real Beauty Sketches” Campaign’, retrieved 20.03.2019.