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Emotional Contagion – The Science Behind Viral Emotions (+ 5 Best-in-Class Examples)

emotional contagion

Remember that commercial that had you reaching for the tissues? 

Or that ad so funny you forwarded it to your entire contact list? 

That’s the magic of emotional contagion.  

Reality is, those campaigns didn’t just make you laugh or cry.   

They sparked something within you – 

A feeling so intense you desperately needed to share it.

And you can – and should – use the science behind it to fuel your marketing. 

Now, let’s crack open this secret world of emotional contagion. 

Better yet, let’s see how you can use it to beef up your own digital marketing strategy.

emotional contagion and purchase

The science of emotional contagion

How do you define emotional contagion

Essentially, it’s a powerful psychological phenomenon where emotions spread from person to person.

Just like a yawn can spread through a room, emotions can too. 

Seeing someone happy can make you feel happy yourself.

Or witnessing someone stressed might make you feel a little on edge. 

By seeing someone else experience an emotion, we can start to feel it ourselves.

We’re just wired to connect with each other that way.

And there’s actual science behind why this happens. 

The mirror neuron system – our built-in empathy machine

Our brains are like tiny copycats.

Scientists have found special brain cells called “mirror neurons” that light up when we do something – 

And when we see someone else doing it.

When you see someone smile, those mirror neurons fire up almost like you’re smiling too. 

This internal wiring can also make you feel similar emotions as the person you’re watching.  

It’s basically a built-in empathy machine. 

It helps us connect with others and understand how they’re feeling.

The power of mimicry – we feel what we see (without even knowing)

The really cool thing about emotional contagion is that it works without us even realising it.

We might not even notice we’re copying the emotions we see in others.

Ever catch yourself unconsciously crossing your arms if the person you’re talking to looks chilly?

This subtle mimicry can actually influence buying intent, even in face-to-face situations

If an ad shows us happy people using the product, it rubs off on us.

Suddenly, we start to associate that product with those positive feelings.

Emotional marketing – why ads make us cry, laugh, and buy

Emotional contagion isn’t just about sending tearjerkers to a group chat.

You watch a motivational video and you get all fired up. 

Suddenly, you want to conquer the world.

Or maybe you listen to a sad song and, yes, it brings you down a bit.

But there’s also a strange sense of comfort in it.

Marketers are tapping into this science to create campaigns that resonate deeply (and researchers agree).  

They use this knowledge to create ads that don’t just grab your attention for a second…

but to actually make you feel something.

So, instead of feeling “blah” after seeing an ad (or whatever part you saw of it before you hit that Skip button)…

You actually feel almost friendly with the brand – and you actually end up forking over your cash. 

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Emotions & sharing – the fuel for viral campaigns

Emotional contagion goes way beyond just catching feels.  

Think about it. 

Are you more likely to share a hilarious video that had you spitting out your coffee laughing? 

Or a super informative but kinda snooze-worthy article?

The funny video wins every time, right?

Here’s the key: Strong emotions (whether they’re happy, sad, angry, or anything else intense) make us want to share them with others.

It’s like a built-in human urge to connect and spread the feels.

So, the next time you’re working on your marketing, try to craft materials that evoke an intense emotional response.

Content that make us feel something is content that’s more likely to go viral. 

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From WTF to OMG – choosing the right emotions

Not all feelings are the same. 

Different emotions can create very different effects on how people perceive your brand. 

While some emotions might make people laugh and share, others might leave them feeling confused or even annoyed. 

The key is to choose the right emotional “ingredient” for your marketing message.

Positive emotions rule the web

Generally, positive emotions like joy, hope, and inspiration are the go-to for viral emotional marketing.

Why? Because positive emotions are like social glue. 

They make us feel good and connected to others, which is why we’re more likely to share them.

Studies also suggest that positive emotions activate parts of the brain associated with reward and motivation

When we experience these positive feelings, we subconsciously want to share them with others – 

Kind of like our own way of spreading the good vibes. 

Nostalgia make brands the new classic

That warm fuzzy feeling when you see a childhood toy or hear an old song?

That’s the power of nostalgia at work.

You can use this by throwing in some blasts from the past – familiar images or references – to connect with your audience on a deeper level. 

Seeing or hearing something familiar can trigger happy memories. 

This, then, makes people feel good, and connects them with the brand.

And turns out, evoking this emotion with the right bits of nostalgic marketing is a hit among millennials. 

No wonder Pokemon Go exploded when it came out.

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Turns out, all it takes is a sprinkle of nostalgia mixed with augmented reality to make this generation say, “Pikachu (and Niantic), I choose you!”

Humour clowns your competitors

Humour is another powerful way to spread emotions and connect with people. 

A funny ad can grab attention in a flash, break the awkwardness, and make people remember your brand. 

But remember: humour needs a game plan. 

Jokes can bomb.

What one person finds hilarious might leave another feeling icky. 

So make sure you know your marketing persona and stick to the kind of humour they’ll appreciate. 

Empathy builds brand loyalty

Sometimes, you can evoke the most powerful emotion simply by showing you care. 

Acknowledging the things people struggle with and listen to what they need.

People are naturally drawn to brands that “get them”. 

When your marketing shows your audience that you genuinely care about their problems, it makes them trust you more. 

And when they do, research shows that they’ll stick with you.

So you got to show them that you truly want to help, not just sell them something.

How to use emotional contagion in your marketing

We’ve covered which emotions will light a fire in your audience.

Now, here are some tips you can use to create marketing that people just can’t stop sharing:

Pick the perfect feels

First things first, you need to understand your audience. 

Just like the funniest joke can annoy the wrong crowd, emotions can, too.

The key is to understand what makes your target audience tick. 

By figuring out the emotions that connect them, you can create marketing that truly speaks to them – and gets shared far and wide.

Tell powerful stories

Stories have a magical way of pulling us in, making us laugh, cry, and cheer along.

So use your unique brand story to evoke the right emotions. 

A well-crafted story lets you connect with your audience on a human level. 

It’s a way to highlight the challenges they face, 

The the solutions your product offers, 

and the happy ending they all want.

Show, don’t tell

Our brains are wired to focus on images first (around 60,000 times faster, to be exact).

That’s why a well-chosen visual can grab attention and trigger emotions quicker than a bunch of text.

Emotions and colours in pictures and videos are pretty universal. 

They don’t need translating, unlike words.

This means you can effectively use them to connect with a wider audience.

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Check out how ikea broke their products, the rule book, and the internet in their recent campaign.

Set the mood with music

A catchy tune can get stuck in your head (the Dumb Ways to Die song is still all over Tiktok ‘til today).

And the right music can set the mood and evoke powerful emotions in your audience. 

So choose the tunes that trigger the feelings you want to evoke.

This creates a more immersive and impactful marketing that will move people towards your brand.

5 Real-World Examples of Emotional Contagion in Action

We’ve talked about how emotions can spread like wildfire.

But how does this actually work in the real world? 

Here are some examples of how brands have used emotional contagion for campaigns that are catchy and sure to make you smile (or maybe even shed a tear).

Dove’s “Real Beauty” Campaign

Instead of showing airbrushed models, Dove featured real women of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. 

It was all about celebrating “normal” beauty – the kind you see every day. 

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This made a lot of women (and even guys!) feel good about themselves, sparking conversations around the world. 

It’s a perfect example of how emotions can spread – 

Dove made people feel good, and that positive feeling stuck with them.

And guess what? This feel-good feeling translated to real success for the brand. 

Their sales went up a whopping 10% when it was released in 2004. 

And even nearly 20 years after its first launch, the campaign is still going strong.

John Lewis’ “Man on the Moon” Campaign

Timing played a big role in the success of this piece of emotional marketing. 

This Christmas ad showed a lonely guy all by himself on the moon, feeling left out during the holidays.  

It made people feel all warm and fuzzy inside by highlighting the importance of connecting with others, especially at Christmas. 

John Lewis became known for being a brand that cares about kindness and spending time with loved ones.

And on top of that, this sweet story got everyone talking and sharing the ad online. 

We’re talking 22 million views in its first week (no surprise their sales topped £100 million that season).

If that’s not a great holiday gift, I don’t know what is. 

The ALS’ “Ice Bucket Challenge

This campaign gave everyone the chills in the summer of 2014. 

People (even big celebrities) filmed themselves getting soaked with ice water, then dared their friends to do it too. 

What ensued was a snowball effect of FOMO and emotional contagion at its finest. 

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All this silly and funny splashing around was for a great cause: raising awareness and money for ALS.

But beyond getting eyeballs, it effectively built a sense of community, and made people feel good about helping others. 

It spread like wildfire online, raised millions for research, and proved that emotional marketing can do amazing things, especially when it’s for a good cause.

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The UK Government’s “Look Them in the Eye” Campaign

This powerful campaign ran during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic (too soon to talk about it?). 

Using pictures of real people looking right at you, the campaign reminded everyone to keep their distance and follow the rules. 

Short, catchy slogans like “Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.” made the message clear.

But the star of the materials are the visuals. 

I mean, just look at them.

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Even people who had gotten sick with COVID-19 shared their stories, making the campaign even more real – and more emotional.

In that sense, it was a success. 

However, some people thought the campaign might be too scary, especially for those already following the rules. 

Just goes to show that using strong emotions (especially scary or sad ones) can be a good tactic, but only if you understand who you’re trying to reach

Google’s “Year in Search” Campaign

If you want to talk about emotions, look no further than this campaign. 

I mean, they basically cover all of them in a single material, every single year. 

Check out how they did it last year, as a celebration of their 25th anniversary.

Breadth and depth… This campaign has it both. 

Using big data to see what people searched for, Google uncovered the deep feelings that we shared in 2023: hopeful, curious, and ready to bounce back.

Feelings — still the future of marketing? 

Using emotional contagion in marketing isn’t some new fad. 

It’s a tried-and-tested tactic brands have used for years.

They’re all leveraging the power of emotions to connect with their audience. 

And you can do the same. 

Remember though, today’s audience craves realness. 

So, forget the gimmicks. 

Stick to genuine stories that will create an equally genuine connection with your brand.

As we’ve seen, emotional contagion is powerful. 

If you’re going to use it, do so responsibly.

When you create marketing that makes them feel happy, inspired, or understood, it becomes more than just an ad. 

It becomes something they care about.

So create marketing that’s catchy and meaningful – and build brands that go viral for something good.

Josiah is a multi-award-winning digital marketing consultant and former journalist for the Australia Times. He now helps 6-7-figure brands as a Fractional CMO to generate predictable leads and sales growth.​

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