FORTUNE — On Monday, a month before the start of the Sochi Olympics, Procter & Gamble, the company behind household brands like Tide, Pampers, Gillette, Duracell, and Bounty, released the latest commercial in its Thank You Mom campaign. It’s a two-minute spot that follows athletes from their childhood tumbles to their triumphs at the Games and ends with the tagline, “For teaching us that falling only makes us stronger. Thank you, Mom.”
By Tuesday morning, viewers had watched the ad about 1.3 million times on YouTube, and the reaction was nearly unanimous: It’s an emotional roller coaster. ”Tissues at the ready,” tweeted AdNews when it linked to the spot. Other tweets called the ad “touching” and a “guaranteed tearjerker.”
Yet a quick search on social media yielded no responses that indicated that it had moved someone to immediately run to the store and buy some Tide.
Everyone loves a warm-and-fuzzy now and then, but from a business perspective, does it pay to make your consumers teary-eyed?
In a word: definitely.
Ads that turn on the waterworks don’t translate directly to increased sales, but they create an emotional bond between a company and its customers, says Edward Russell, an advertising professor at Syracuse University. That bond encourages consumers to pay more for a company’s products. In P&G’s (PG) case, if the ad communicates that the company understands its consumers and what they’re going through, viewers are likely to conclude that the company’s products fit them better than others, Russell says.
Tugging at consumers’ heartstrings is also a way for companies with somewhat run-of-the-mill products to stand out. “Look at Hallmark,” Russell says. Its emotional ads “bring a bond to a particular brand that’s fairly generic in its category. It’s a friggin’ card,” Russell says. “But consumers feel that bond to that brand and are willing to pay more for it.” The same could be said for P&G and its stable of household products like laundry detergent, razors, and batteries.
P&G has estimated that its Thank You Mom campaign for the 2012 summer Olympics in London resulted in a $500 million sales lift. When asked about sales projections for the Sochi campaign, Jodi Allen, P&G vice president of North American Marketing and Brand Operations, told Fortune she wasn’t prepared to discuss the company’s goals.
P&G says that the Sochi ad was created to tell the story of all moms in their quest to teach their children resiliency and determination. The company is supplementing its P&G ads with individual brand ads that tell “authentic stories” consistent with “the equity of the brand,” like the Vicks ads featuring U.S. skier Ted Ligety, Allen says. “We have learned that consumers have a positive association when products are made by P&G,” Allen says.
Emotional ads are especially prevalent during the Olympics — an against-all-odds-themed television event that primes viewers for sentimental stories, even if they’re aimed at selling diapers and paper goods. Visa’s Go World campaign, Nike’s Find Your Greatness ad, and Bud Light’s 1984 Heartland commercial have all struck a similarly goose bump-inducing tone.
The Games, with athletes who often lack big sponsorship deals, have a “different magic” than sports with millionaire stars like the NBA, NFL, and NASCAR, says Rob Prazmark, founder of 21 Marketing, who was once under contract to find sponsors for the United States Olympic Committee and now consults with companies that want to advertise during the Games. When consumers go to buy the product of a company with ties to the Games, “they feel like they’re personally contributing to the Olympics or Olympic ideals,” he says.
Apart from the Olympics, the trend of sentimental ads comes and goes in waves, and tends to be more popular in tough times — during a war or recession, says Russell, a 25-year veteran of advertising. The P&G ad may gain extra traction now, he says, when the economic recovery is ongoing, and a large portion of the country has yet to feel its effects. “There are times when we just need to feel better about ourselves and [feel] closer to family,” Russell says.