The Surprising Emotion At The Heart Of Great Ads

  • by , Featured Contributor, September 22, 2023
Picture this: you’re watching your fave detective show. Maybe it’s a “CSI,” or a “Law & Order.” You get to the end of the show. Mystery solved. One final scene shows the corpse on the medical examiner’s table. Zooms in on the face. Sees them open their eyes. “Wow, I sure didn’t see this coming,” the undead body says. “I didn’t even get to take out life insurance.”

That setup was exactly what ad agency Special executed for insurer Partners Life, working with New Zealand’s most popular murder mystery show, “Brokenwood Mysteries.” In June, the campaign won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Health & Wellness Lions for its creativity, as well as the Grand Prix in the Channel Pioneer category of the WARC awards for its effectiveness.

Entrepreneur and designer James Hurman pointed out that, while your chances of getting either award are vanishingly small, your odds of winning an effectiveness award are dramatically higher if you’ve won a creative award. In other words, campaigns must be creative in order to be effective.



I agree with him. But that’s not the answer to my click-bait headline. The thing that was so creative about the ad -- and the reason it was so effective -- is that it was surprising.

The surprising emotion at the heart of great ads is... surprise.

Surprise is what lets us notice the ad among the thousands of other ads clamoring for our attention. It’s the signal against the noise. We’re hard-wired for it: In order to survive, we’ve had to be attuned to the unexpected.

Surprise drives delight. It drives joy. A lack of surprise is a slow killer for sex lives, according to this TED talk by Esther Perel.

Our most intense emotions are almost always a surprise. They wash over us like massive waves, seemingly out of the blue.

We can be surprised by things we see coming a mile away. Our body’s surprise drives the tickle response, even as we’re watching it happen. The lack of surprise is the reason we can’t tickle ourselves. Fear is the anticipation of an unpleasant surprise, whether we’re expecting it or not.

All the greatest ads are surprising. They can be surprisingly dramatic. Surprisingly fun. Surprisingly touching.

Without the surprise, none of the other emotions land.

Surprise isn’t just about ads. Alex M H Smith, the author of ”No Bullsh*t Strategy,” says there are really only two effective business strategies: weirding the normal, or normalizing the weird. Both of these are about surprise.

Building surprise into our products can drive a powerful customer connection. When the iPhone first came out, my friend Phillip showed his off to me proudly. “Look at this,” he said. “When I scroll through my contacts and get to the end, it does a little bounce. How cool is that?!”

When the Tesla Model S came out, my stepbrother -- who has never been into cars -- showed his off to me proudly. “Look at this,” he said. “When I walk up to the car, it knows me and the handles pop out. How cool is that?!” A surprising attention to detail, a surprising moment of connection, a surprisingly beautiful customer experience: These are the things that drive superfans.

The enemy of surprise is best practice. Best practice is by definition how others do something. It is what you do when you want no surprises. I want my knee surgeon to follow best practice. I want my pilot to follow best practice. I do not want my creative agency to follow best practice.

Surprise at every turn. It is a secret ingredient, a superpower. It takes courage. But it’s absolutely worth it.

1 comment about "The Surprising Emotion At The Heart Of Great Ads".
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  1. George Parker from Parker Consultants, September 29, 2023 at 8 a.m.

    Kaila... Excellent piece that I agree with wholeheartedly. So much of the stuff out there these days is totally expected, jumping on the latest Tik Tok or whatever trend. I've recomended that my readers on AdScam  should enjoy your article.

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