The holidays are meant to be a cheerful time, but all the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and other preparations has a way of sucking the joy right out of the season. Such gloomy sentiments can also lead to dismal returns at the cash register. To combat the stress among holiday shoppers, new research suggests that marketers should infuse their advertising with more positive emotions.

According to a new paper by Derek Rucker (Associate Professor of Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management) and Aparna Labroo (Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Chicago), advertisers who successfully discern consumers’ negative emotions can maximize their ad strategy by crafting messages to ease negative feelings and create a more positive mindset.

“Advertisers have the creative control to strengthen an ad’s emotional appeal. They can show particular ads to offset a television show’s demeanor, offering up happy or calming emotions to the viewer when watching a drama that evokes sadness or anxiety,” says Rucker. “Furthermore, marketing managers with flexible mediums, such as online and digital media, are able to tweak their messages to the mood of the population at large, even as the mood changes.”

Advertisers can show particular ads to offset a television show’s demeanor, offering up happy or calming emotions to the viewer when watching a drama that evokes sadness or anxiety.

Orientation is key
Rucker and Labroo hypothesized that matching negative emotions with specific positive messages can counteract consumers’ anxiety or stress. Consumer’s negative emotions, they thought, would best be addressed by positive emotions that match the consumer’s emotional orientation. Approach oriented emotions can include sadness, anger, or happiness while avoidance oriented emotions can include anxiety, embarrassment, or calmness. For example, negative emotions of sadness and anger, both approach-oriented emotions, are best quelled by happiness, which is also approach-oriented. In contrast, negative emotions of anxiety and embarrassment, both avoidance-oriented emotions, are best quelled by calmness.

To test this notion experimentally, participants recalled a past event that made them sad, angry, embarrassed or anxious. In turn, participants received an advertisement for a ski resort associated with calmness or happiness. Participants reported their evaluation of the vacation destination as well as their current mood. The experiment found sad or angry participants evaluated the destination as offering happiness—an approach orientation—more favorably than a destination offering calmness. Anxious or embarrassed participants, on the other hand, evaluated the destination as offering calmness—an avoidance orientation—more favorably than happiness. Overall, participants reported feeling better when receiving an advertisement containing a matching positive emotion.

“This research suggests marketing managers can enhance the persuasiveness of their advertising messages by associating their product with the appropriate emotions being experienced by consumers,” says Labroo. “In tough economic times, when anxiety tends to be more prevalent, it is better for brands to use their advertising to associate their product with positive emotions of calmness rather than happiness. This subtlety makes a difference. For those advertising during a depressing documentary, it would be better to consider advertising with an emphasis on happiness.”

This research adds to the existing literature on affect regulation. Consumers regulate their preferences in an emotion-specific way. When feeling angry versus anxious, consumers favor positive emotional experiences catering to the orientation of their negative emotion. By utilizing these strategies in the 2009 holiday season, marketers might be able to find additional attentive consumers.