Shop lights through a rain spattered car window
Shop lights through a rain spattered car window

Sorrow Sells: Exploring the Role of Melancholy in Modern Marketing

Paul Kiernan

Let’s explore the role of melancholy in modern marketing, examining why and how brands employ sadness to create powerful and memorable campaigns.

A lot is going on—in the world and my fetid brain. I am pondering a move to Antarctica to free myself from the political nightmare and shun warmth. I ponder well-worn themes: authenticity, emotion, and the old saw, “Write what you know.” If we listen to the Roman poet Terence, who said, “I am human, and nothing human is alien to me,” then we can all write about anything.

As I write blogs for ThoughtLab, I have noticed that there are things I am not “allowed” to write about. My boss, the CEO of ThoughtLab, has often said things like, " Stop writing about Lemures; they cannot shop online.” or, “Seriously, Paul, what is your obsession with stinky cheese?” And my favorite is “Words that sound dirty but aren’t really is getting close to the line.” He’s a nice guy, and he means well, but he just doesn’t understand the depth of love a person can have for cheese, especially a nice, stinky cheese.

This morning, as I sip coffee and attempt to assault the screen with words, here’s what I’m thinking: I’m old, and I miss my family, who have all passed away. Am I going anywhere in life, and why do the English hold the market on muffins?

I’m also living in the Pacific Northwest these days, and the rain—well, the rain reigns all the time. I am a little tired of rain. With all that’s running around in my poor, overtaxed brain, I am feeling a bit melancholy. Can I write about that? Would that sell branding or marketing? Would that move the product? Would that even move my bowels? Turns out melancholy is an emotion, and emotions are the friend of branding and marketing.

So, applying the old saw, I will write what I know now: melancholy. This piece will explore the power of this overlooked, often gothic emotion in today’s world of marketing and branding.

In we dive.

In a world where happiness and joy often dominate advertising, an intriguing trend has emerged: the use of melancholy in marketing. This trend leverages sorrow's emotional depth and relatability to connect with audiences on a profound level. While it might seem counterintuitive, sorrow sells. Let’s explore the role of melancholy in modern marketing, examining why and how brands employ sadness to create powerful and memorable campaigns.

train tracks bending off into the trees

The Power of Emotion in Marketing

Emotions are a cornerstone of effective marketing. They drive consumer behavior, influence decisions, and create lasting impressions. Traditionally, emotions like happiness, excitement, and love have been the focal points of advertising. However, marketers have begun to explore a broader emotional spectrum as consumers become more sophisticated and seek more profound connections with brands.

Melancholy, a complex and multifaceted emotion, offers a rich tapestry for marketers to weave their narratives. It encompasses feelings of sadness, nostalgia, longing, and reflection. These emotions resonate deeply with audiences because they are universal experiences. By tapping into melancholy, brands can create authentic connections that go beyond surface-level engagement.

The Appeal of Melancholy

Authenticity and Relatability

In an era where authenticity is highly valued, melancholy provides a genuine way to connect with consumers. Life is not always a series of happy moments; it is also filled with challenges, losses, and regrets. When brands acknowledge these aspects of the human experience, they demonstrate a deeper understanding of their audience's lives. This authenticity fosters trust and loyalty.

Emotional Depth

Melancholy adds emotional depth to marketing campaigns. While happiness can be fleeting, sadness often lingers, prompting reflection and introspection. Advertisements that evoke melancholy can leave a lasting impact, making them more memorable. They encourage viewers to pause, think, and engage with the content on a deeper level.


Sadness is a powerful storytelling tool. It can create compelling narratives that captivate audiences. Stories of struggle, loss, and redemption are timeless and resonate across cultures. By incorporating melancholy into their storytelling, brands can craft emotionally rich narratives and resonate with a broader audience.


Nostalgia is a potent form of melancholy. It combines longing for the past with a sense of loss for what once was. Marketers often use nostalgia to evoke positive memories and emotions associated with a bygone era. This technique is particularly effective with older demographics who yearn for simpler times. Nostalgia-driven campaigns can create a sense of comfort and familiarity, strengthening brand loyalty.

Examples of Melancholy in Marketing

John Lewis Christmas Advertisements

John Lewis, a British department store, is renowned for its Christmas advertisements that often feature melancholic themes. These ads tell touching stories that evoke feelings of nostalgia, love, and loss. For example, the 2011 ad "The Long Wait" depicts a young boy eagerly waiting for Christmas, only to reveal that he is more excited about giving a gift than receiving one. The ad's melancholic tone and emotional narrative resonate deeply with viewers, making it one of the most memorable Christmas ads.

Thai Life Insurance

Thai Life Insurance has mastered the art of using melancholy to convey powerful messages. Their advertisements often feature heart-wrenching stories that highlight the importance of compassion, love, and sacrifice. One notable example is the ad "Unsung Hero," which tells the story of a man who performs small acts of kindness without expecting anything in return. The ad's poignant narrative and emotional depth leave a lasting impression on viewers.

Nike's "Dream Crazy" Campaign

Nike's "Dream Crazy" campaign, featuring Colin Kaepernick, employs melancholy to address social issues and inspire change. The ad highlights the struggles and sacrifices made by athletes who dare to dream big and stand up for their beliefs. By acknowledging the pain and challenges faced by these individuals, Nike connects with consumers on an emotional level, reinforcing its brand values of courage and perseverance.

The Psychological Mechanisms Behind Melancholy in Marketing

Understanding the psychological mechanisms that make melancholy effective in marketing requires delving into human emotion and cognition. Several key factors contribute to the success of melancholic advertising:


Melancholy evokes empathy, a powerful emotional response that fosters a connection between the viewer and the subject of the advertisement. When viewers see someone experiencing sadness or struggle, they are more likely to put themselves in that person's shoes and feel a sense of compassion. This empathetic response can create a bond between the consumer and the brand.

Cognitive Reflection

Melancholic advertisements often prompt cognitive reflection. When viewers encounter sad or thought-provoking content, they are more likely to pause and think deeply about the message being conveyed. This reflection can lead to a more profound understanding of the brand's values and mission, enhancing the campaign's overall impact.

Trees in fog

Emotional Contrast

Sadness can create a powerful emotional contrast when juxtaposed with other emotions. For example, an advertisement that begins with a melancholic tone but ends on a hopeful or uplifting note can amplify the positive emotions experienced by the viewer. This contrast makes the overall message more impactful and memorable.

Emotional Resilience

Experiencing and overcoming sadness can lead to emotional resilience. When viewers see stories of individuals who persevere through difficult times, it can inspire them to face their own challenges with courage and determination. Brands that convey messages of resilience and hope through melancholic narratives can foster a sense of empowerment and positivity among their audience.

The Ethical Considerations

While using melancholy in marketing can be highly effective, it also raises ethical considerations. Brands must be mindful of the potential impact of their advertisements on vulnerable audiences. Exploiting sadness for profit can be seen as manipulative and insensitive if not handled with care and respect.

Authenticity and Intent

The authenticity of the narrative and the intent behind the campaign are crucial. Brands should ensure that their use of melancholy aligns with their values and mission. If the sadness portrayed in the advertisement feels forced or insincere, it can backfire and lead to negative perceptions of the brand.

Sensitivity to Vulnerable Audiences

Advertisers must consider the potential emotional impact on vulnerable audiences, such as individuals experiencing grief or depression. Content that is overly distressing or triggering can harm viewers' mental well-being. Brands should strive to strike a balance between evoking emotion and maintaining sensitivity.

Positive Resolution

Providing a positive resolution or message of hope at the end of a melancholic advertisement can mitigate potential negative effects. This approach acknowledges the reality of sadness while offering a sense of optimism and encouragement.

Comparative Analysis

While melancholy can be a powerful tool, it's essential to compare its effectiveness with other emotional appeals in marketing. Joy, humor, and excitement are commonly used emotions that have their own strengths. For instance, ads that evoke happiness or humor tend to be more shareable on social media, leading to broader reach and engagement.

However, melancholic ads have a unique advantage in creating deeper emotional connections. While a humorous ad might be quickly forgotten, a melancholic ad can linger in the minds of consumers, fostering long-term brand loyalty. Moreover, melancholy can be particularly effective for brands and products that deal with serious or sentimental subjects, such as insurance, healthcare, and charity organizations.

Summing Up

With its emotional depth and authenticity, Melancholy has become a powerful tool in modern marketing. By tapping into the universal experience of sadness, brands can create profound connections with their audiences, foster empathy, and craft memorable narratives. However, the use of melancholy must be approached with care, ensuring that it aligns with the brand's values and is handled with sensitivity.

As consumers continue to seek authentic and meaningful connections with brands, the role of melancholy in marketing is likely to grow. By embracing the complexity of human emotions, marketers can create campaigns that resonate on a deeper level, ultimately proving that sorrow, indeed, sells.