How Ad Agencies Are Making Bank From Your Tears

How Ad Agencies Are Making Bank From Your Tears

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu


Because it turns out that sadness sells.

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

It’s a quiet night in Bangkok, and 23-year-old fashion blogger Pemika Thiravanitkul could use a good cry. So she turns to her computer for a tried-and-true tearjerker, alighting on one that depicts a homeless man’s valor and a callous shopkeeper’s inability to see it. It’s even got those classic Hollywood teardrops, the kind that fall dramatically to the floor.  Violin music swells to mark an untimely death; cue the shopkeeper’s painful regret. Through tears, Thiravanitkul confesses: “I never saw it coming.”

By which she means the final frame in the five-minute commercial — a logo for Vizer security cameras. Talk about a plot twist. 

Thailand might be the “Land of Smiles,” known for its sunny beaches, but its consumers apparently enjoy having their souls crushed while being cajoled into buying stuff. Noodles, insurance, detergents and everything in between are all prime material for the grief-inducing promos, which last just long enough to make their viewers break down in tears. Meet a twentysomething down on his luck and a penniless albeit devoted father who endures backbreaking labor to open up their noodle shop, all with a theatrical flair akin to a telenovela. Or imagine a woman disguised as a male taxi driver who gets beaten and robbed, just to put food on the table for her son. You won’t realize it’s a plug for Tesco Lotus, a superstore franchise, until the final seconds. “Thais have passion for the dramatic,” says Punnee Chaiyakul, the chairman for advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather in Bangkok. It’s not simply advertising, she argues, but a tool for sparking “thought-provoking conversations and questions in society.”


Sounds like good marketing speak. But that’s the point — tug at the heartstrings to get to the purse strings. Thailand’s “sadvertising” industry, which Advertising Age dubs “the modern-day equivalent of a Charles Dickens novel,” is a growing genre of emotionally charged marketing underpinned by the belief that sadness can be leveraged to make people associate with brands on a deeper level, says Dan Hill, author of About Face: The Secrets of Emotionally Effective Advertising. Companies and their agencies far too often play in a “small sandbox” that opts for happiness and hope “over and over and over,” he says. “But great painters don’t just paint with one color.” So, through ads that feel more like full-on films, companies like TrueMove, a phone network, and Thai Life, an insurance provider, can cash in on crocodile tears and heavy heartache with surprise twists, sentimental soundtracks and touching plots. The commercials have even spawned a cottage industry of vloggers who webcast their reactions to the work. 

Of course, sadvertising is but a small segment of Thailand’s booming digital ad industry, which PricewaterhouseCoopers says pulled in $32 million in 2015, up from $14 million in 2011. But the new tragically sad ads garner more attention and are made to go viral in Thailand, a country obsessed with Line, Facebook and YouTube. Social-media users spend an average of 2.69 hours everyday on social networks, compared to just 1.67 hours in the United States. But marketers insist that sadvertising is more than a gimmick or a bid for virality. It translates into sales. Sadness can slow us down and make us reflective in a world that moves so fast, “which might boost recall,” Hill adds. 

The sorrow trend is part of a broader reorientation of media and entertainment toward more meaningful content in Thailand and elsewhere. There’s a growing sociocultural thirst for material that speaks to more than just listicles, cat videos and other web clutter, argues Debbie MacInnis, a marketing professor at the University of Southern California: “These [emotions] are speaking to our deepest values of life, and they’re doing so by allowing the viewers to picture themselves inside a story, which you can’t typically do in a traditional 30-second advertisement.” So don’t expect famous celeb faces or transparently corny clichés. These ads aim at an “authentic” humanity that we can all relate to, or at least aspire to, says MacInnis: adversity and sorrow and then triumph against all odds.

Yet as advertisers compete for the attention of increasingly Internet-savvy, ad-blocking consumers, there’s a more expensive price tag to pay as well. With a higher production value that drives up costs and strains budgets, these commercials can cost millions to make, says Chaiyakul. Besides that, playing the sad card one too many times could spark a public backlash against sadvertising — believe us, no one wants to endure another saccharine Sarah McLachlan dog commercial anymore. You don’t want to inundate people, says MacInnis: “It could be overkill” and might no longer serve as a differentiator if everyone’s doing the same sad shtick. 

Even so, the critics have responded — and it appears they have a soft spot for these sappy Thai commercials. From 2013 to 2014, Thai ad agencies nabbed a total of 25 Cannes awards, including four Gold Lions. Even within the first few days, Thailand’s made-for-YouTube commercials typically rack up tens of millions of views — just look to Unsung Hero for some heart-to-heart inspiration on life and longing. Although the company declined to discuss revenue, the commercial for Thai Life Insurance has received more than 28 million views on YouTube so far. Certainly, that can’t hurt.

But we’ll let you be the judge. Fair warning: Don’t forget the wad of tissues — and feel free to assume the fetal position.