Olympic ads pluck heartstrings for profit

Ben Popken

The stirring ads you see during the Olympics aren't just because the games bring out the best in humanity, advertisers included. Those heartstring plucks are worth big bucks, and savvy marketers know exactly how to play them.

"Feel good" is a good strategy for an event watched together as a family over a long period where there's time to build a story and a relationship, rather than the Big Game's single chance to break through the clutter. The quieter approach has its rewards. P&G, for one, is hoping the latest iteration of its "Thank You, Mom" campaign translates to a $166 million sales lift, Reuters reported.

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A P&G Olympic advertisement pulls at the heartstrings.
Source: P&G | YouTube

Their new Olympics spot, "Pick Them Back Up," shows quick clips of different children falling as they attempt various winter sports, and their moms helping them up again, soothing their boo-boos and offering words of reassurance and encouragement.

The children shown go from toddlers to adolescents to teens to Olympians, where they nail world-class performances as their moms cheer. In some of the clips, P&G products like Tide and Pampers peek out discreetly in the background.

"For teaching us that falling only makes us stronger. Thank you, Mom," reads the tag ending the spot. Then the logos for a series of P&G products flash by.

"If they win Mom's heart—and believe me, moms are crying when they see that ad—then moms in the grocery aisle are buying P&G products," said Allen Adamson, managing director of global branding firm Landor Associates.

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"Strategically it's brilliant," said James Ward, creative director at Saturday Brand Communications. "Almost every product segment P&G makes goes into the games, whether it's for training, or dining, or cleaning — and the person who usually buys those products is Mom.

Unlike the beers, babes and barrels o' laughs formula many Super Bowl ads try, Winter Games advertisers are rolling out a bevy of emotional and stirring commercials to sweep consumers off their feet.

"People watch the Super Bowl in packs," said Adamson. "Because you're trying to break through a social event you have to say, 'Hey, pay attention to me, don't pay attention to the potato chips,' so they need to scream louder and be more brazen."

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In contrast, the Olympics are viewed as a family, or by oneself. Furthermore, "It's not about beer and wings and a big TV," said Ward. "It's about country, diplomacy, and lifetimes of commitment not just by the athletes, but also by their loved ones."

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And instead of just a few hours of engagement, the entire contest unfolds over a series of weeks, with multiple opportunities for the audience to check in. That gives advertisers a chance to tell more of a slow-burning narrative that connects to the brand.

It's an approach other successful advertisers are employing during the Games as well. Just look at the titles of the advertisers with the most effective Winter Olympics ads, according to an analysis by analytics firm Ace Metrix: Smucker's, "Hardworking Olympians;" GE, "Childlike Imagination — What My Mom Does at GE;" Bounty, "Julie Chu: Has to Credit Her Mom;" and Jif, "Kids with the Olympic Dream." (For evoking good fuzzy feelings that can rub off on a brand, it appears moms can't be beat.)

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Even those ads that didn't win the gold for effectiveness have also targeted viewer's hearts. Chevy's ad was a stirring celebration of the American family in all its modern forms, including ones with same-sex parents. Likewise, Coke raised a bottle to a diverse America, also with a pair of gay dads with a young daughter among their numbers.

With a stirring voiceover recording of Amelia Earhart, Visa celebrated the ability of women to soar in the ski jump. And J.C. Penney gave a mom-friendly remix of the 1996 Blackstreet R&B hit "Go Diggity," changing the lyrics to "Go Ligety," — that would be 2006 gold medalist alpine skier Ted Ligety — to raise money for the U.S. Olympic Committee.

"Emotion can do a great job of bonding branded products to their consumers," said Syracuse University advertising professor Edward Russell.

Going for the gut can be an especially good play for a product that isn't necessarily exciting on its own. What's the great storyline in a box of batteries? Or a bottle of liquid detergent?

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For the answer, look no further than the razor sitting in its cup next to your sink. In all likelihood, the name on the handle is Gillette, another member of the P&G family.

"They had a campaign in the '80s, 'The Best a Man Can Get,' that was visually emotional — grown men holding babies, etc. — that shot Gillette to near monopoly status, 75 percent market share," said Russell. "And now look how much we're paying for razor blades."

By Ben Popken of NBC News