empathy in 15 seconds

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel”?

If it doesn’t immediately make you think of sad-eyed puppies, you’re in a very select group of people who haven’t been emotionally traumatised by this advertisement.

This ad was probably the first experience that most people had with “Sadvertising” — advertising designed to crack you open emotionally, then financially. Hit em’ in the feels and watch the results pour in. These sadvertisements have only gotten more complex; featuring plot development, twists, and multiple characters. Do a quick search for “Thai Insurance Ad” and you’ll see what I mean.

These ads are all amazing at creating empathy and building an emotional connection with the audience, but think about the advertising and media landscape as it stands now; fewer people are watching TV, attention spans are getting shorter, and as an advertiser you’ve really only got about 15 seconds to work with if you’re running video ads online. How are you supposed to create an emotional reaction in 15 seconds?

Tip 1. Keep It Familiar

You’re don’t have much time to waste, so you need to make sure that your message comes across clearly since your audience might not have the time (or attention span) to interpret your deep and meaningful message.

So what exactly do I mean by keeping it familiar? I‘m talking about using formats that people are familiar with and can digest quickly. Think about your average meme “format” — the templates are easy to follow, and if you’re riding on the coattails of a trending meme your audience is already primed to expect a certain type of payoff (failing to deliver that expected payoff is what leads to horrible “corporate” memes).

Familiarity isn’t limited to the creative format you use; consider how the story you’re trying to tell resonates with the lived experiences of your audience. The your narrative is able to tap into a shared experience with the audience, the more likely they are to connect with your message.

Tip 2. Or Don’t

Familiarity breeds contempt, or so the saying goes. So go to the complete opposite end of the spectrum and shock your audience with something unexpected.

Humans are creatures of habit. If your audience is scrolling through a feed, chances are they’re doing it on auto-pilot, rather than actively searching or engaging. It’s just like how people sometimes find themselves accidentally driving towards work when they leave the house, or feel like they’ve suddenly arrived at home without having “actively” driven. The brain is just falling into the usual pattern that it’s been trained to do. To grab their attention, you need something to force their brain to switch on — a pattern interrupt. Look at this ad by John West for example.

 You start off with serenity, but then the lone fisherman comes screaming out of the woods. You’re paying attention, because this is something new. The interrupt in itself isn’t the key; it’s the switch to conscious thought that gives your audience the opportunity to engage with your message.

The pattern interrupt isn’t restricted to video; look at Greenpeace’s campaign from 2018 against single use plastics. It’s unexpected, confronting, and so powerful.

Tip 3. Get Personal

It’s very easy to get caught up in the facts and figures when you want to give your message some weight. Here are just a few to throw your way.

So far this year, we’ve

  • Mined over 2 billion tonnes of coal
  • Wasted over 192 million tonnes of food
  • Used almost 3.5 billion kilometres of toilet paper

Or a little closer to home,

  • 1 in 5 women in Australia have experienced some form of sexual violence from ages 15 and above
  • A study published in April 2018 reported that of 93% of the Great Barrier Reef had been affected by coral bleaching
  • The wealthiest 10% of Australians control approximately 48% of our total wealth, whilst the poorest 50% control only around 3.7%

All of these numbers are definitely alarming, but none of them really talk to the audience on a personal level. “1 in 5 of your female friends is likely to have experienced some form of sexual violence” or “Your household wastes approximately $3,800 worth of groceries a year”. Suddenly these numbers have weight, because they affect the audience directly. Take a look at how the “Towards Zero” campaign in Victoria handles this. (Yes, I know they take a lot longer than 15 seconds to get to their point).

This list could go on…

There’s so much more that we can discuss about working within such a restrictive time-frame; should I bother with a video or use a high impact image? What colours should I use? How do I write my headline? Do I bother with music if I know that most video content on social media is consumed without sound? It really is a lot to consider for a piece of media that will appear briefly on a glass rectangle.

Still, if you consider the 3 tips above, you’ll be on the right track. Just remember to make your message easily digestible, engaging and personal.


Sam is the Marketing Strategist at Hedgehog Agency

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