Updated 20:14 PM PHT Tue, December 13, 2016
Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Everyone knows that no other holiday is as pervasive as Christmas. As the season is fast approaching, the red and green paraphernalia designed to evoke joy and cheer — whether effective or not — are sprouting everywhere, and it’s enough to make one overwhelmed or even nauseated almost, by the flash of light and colors, as if the Christmas traffic and the droves of people rushing for gifts aren’t bad enough. “Bah humbug,” as Scrooge says.
The holiday cheer does not leave anything untouched, not even the emotional corners of your brain — ‘tis the season for tear jerking Christmas commercials. It’s an annual tradition: big brands release a new campaign or ad about love, gifts, and giving, complete with an elaborate and #inspiring backstory — which is sometimes based on true events — designed to catch anyone off guard and bring her or him to tears. The video is then shared all over social media, as predicted by the psychology behind emotional advertising, and if the science is done right, the ad will become viral.
Right now, the videos are slowly trickling in. Uber has just released the first of its #FindYourWayHome ad series, designed to “tug at your heartstrings and make you long for home,” as the car service company claims. Its regional competitor, Grab, has launched #DeliveringHappyness, a touching video showing children from all over Asia speaking in soundbites about their ambitions. Jollibee’s latest commercial is about a girl who only sees her OFW father during Christmas, inspired by the true story of OFW parents everywhere. McDonald’s share is also a video portraying a true story, the one of Daniel Cabrera, the hard working child who regularly studied under the light of a McDonald’s outlet.
And in line with the premiere of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” in cinemas, Globe put out an online campaign called #CreateCourage, through a video depicting a girl with what appears to be a serious illness, which she hides under a Stormtrooper helmet that she wears to school. At the end of the clip, her classmates stage a warm gesture of acceptance, and as she takes off her helmet to reveal her glassy eyes, anyone watching the video would have no choice but to cry with her.
There will be more to come, and they will all force us to cry. Empathy is the easiest explanation behind this. As the recently released videos have shown, advertisers have well worked out the best combination to appeal to the audience’s empathy: child actors, a unique hook (in Globe’s case, the Star Wars angle), dramatic music, and familial elements, all held together by a relevant and poignant back story, highlighted with a twist or surprise at the end (which usually defines the tearjerking moment). The more relevant and heartbreaking (such as the OFW angle), the more the audience will be able to relate and empathize. Topping all these layers off are current events and political conflicts that further raise the country’s overall depression. Therefore, people cry, almost as if by magic. It’s a spell that not even Santa can break.
As for why these videos become viral, there is no precise explanation. The closest is the study of University of Pennsylvania professor Jonah Berger, who said that arousal is a key factor in the “social transmission of information.” The stronger the emotion aroused, the higher the chances of the information being shared, or spread on social media. But recent work from Jacopo Staiano of Sorbonne University and Marco Guerini of Trento Rise says that it’s not only high arousal that counts. Two other factors, valence and dominance, contribute to the virality of such content. Valence is the positivity or the negativity of the emotion, while dominance is the range by which people feel submissive emotions (such as fear) to emotions that make them feel like they’re in control (such as admiration). Combine all of these factors with the Chameleon effect, which is the phenomenon where we unconsciously imitate other people’s behavior to increase social likeability, and you have the incomplete psychological formula for virality.
These tearjerker ads are going viral not only because they have the ability to make those who watch them cry, but also because they evoke positive feelings of hope and inspiration.
Regardless of how these videos affect us, it’s the story behind them that matters the most. McDonald’s might be promoting themselves with their video, but at least, alongside it, they were able to share the touching story of a kid who never gave up, which may inspire other kids to do the same. Grab might be trying to attract more customers, but at least they have created a convenient way to donate educational tools to aspiring children to help them fulfill their dreams. These Christmas commercials may be manipulating our emotions, but at least they’re breaking the Scrooge in us. Much like the true spirit of the holidays, it all boils down to what it all means, and it all depends on what you do with them.