Just finished watching “Young Adult” with Charlize Theron. The good news: great performance, solid directing. The bad news: it was free on Amazon Prime, barely 12 months after release. And therein hangs a story….
This movie is a downer. A ghost writer of “young adult” fiction gets a birth announcement for the baby of her old boyfriend. On a whim she decides to return to her small hometown and win back the old beau and in the process gets tangled up with a former classmate who was or was not gay but in any case was maimed by jocks who thought he was gay and now is as physically crippled as she is mentally. Are you laughing yet?
I wanted to see this movie when it first came out based on some trailers showing Theron trying to hide her dog checking into a motel and other deadpan moves. So did 8 or 9 other people but it didn’t work. The plot is incredibly depressing and you do not leave the film with an uplifted morale. So nobody wanted to see it except a very few who told their friends to stay away.
Moral for us copywriters is, nobody’s going to read something that makes them feel bad. Okay to turn on the spigots of negativity, but be sure to transition to that golden shower of redemption before you’re done… AND you need to let them know at the outset that said redemption is in sight. Make sense?
We’re back as promised to that corridor of horrors where tyro copywriters go to die. But this time we’ll focus on the context in which your headline/outer teaser is read and include a couple of positive examples.
First, some badvertising from Bose on the back of a Sunday newspaper insert… about as broad a demographic as you can find. “If you think watching TV is exciting, wait until you really hear it.” There are two things wrong here. First, the copywriter assumes universal agreement that “watching TV is exciting”. If it’s not a head-nodder then the reader is lost. But do we all agree that “watching TV is exciting”? Not likely. Second, there’s an intellectual contortion required to stay with the writer’s train of thought. When you switch from one action mode to another (watching… to listening) that’s some heavy lifting for the reader to do in their mind’s eye. Not likely they will stay around for the body copy, and neither shall we.
Wall Street Journal “welcome back”
Now look at this envelope from the Wall Street Journal: “Welcome Back”. Apparently I renewed after a lapse but don’t remember doing so; naturally, I’m going to open the envelope to see what I agreed to. And when I get inside it turns out this is their standard “professional courtesy discount” offer; they WANT to say welcome back and maybe I will feel a little guilty about getting an offer that maybe I’m not entitled to so you can guess I’ll jump on that. The two simple words “Welcome Back” do a brilliant job of framing the conversation and getting me involved.
Coke Zero “don’t read” banner
Same thing with this Coke Zero banner that ran during the NCAA championship game: “Don’t read this banner. There’s basketball on.” Well, of course I’m going to read it because I can’t not do so. But in this chest-bumping environment I will give you huge points for the apparent cool factor. Yet it actually ties perfectly into their tag line, “enjoy everything”.
The copywriters on the WSJ and Coke Zero projects thought about the environment in which the prospect is viewing the ad, and meet them on their own turf. The Bose copywriter asked readers to switch from what they’re doing to what the writer wants them to think about. Which is better and more effective?
It’s been far too long since we’ve visited the Badvertising Hall of Shame… that corridor of horrors where unfortunate marketers teach us by example what NOT to do. Let’s begin with this outer envelope teaser from Fresh Air Fund.
This is a seasonal appeal I used to struggle with when doing work for Salvation Army… the “send an inner city kid to camp” fund. It seemed less urgent than putting food on the table or rescuing a child from the streets, and it was complicated because you’d have to create a word picture of why this was important before the reader got away. No missteps are permissible.
So look what Fresh Air Fund has chosen as its teaser: The buses are leaving soon… please hurry! What buses? Am I supposed to be on one? Why on earth does this not say instead, “The bus is about to leave for camp without me… please help!” (Singular better than plural because it’s more specific, and let’s mention the reason for the appeal for chrissake.) Also, while camps are universally recognized as a good thing buses are not. Seems like a terrible choice for the opening salvo in this appeal. Next.
Do you believe this?
From… I don’t know who because I never opened it… I have a blind outer with nothing but PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL printed above my name. Maybe I notice the “standard postage” indicia that spoils the illusion, but maybe I don’t; they’ve done a good job of designing something that looks like a real meter imprint.
But, look what’s above my name: PREPARED FOR: Okay, that’s too much and it’s also discordant with PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL which suggests a very individualized letter, maybe a collection notice, whereas PREPARED FOR suggests a mechanized process like maybe a refund. Either would have been good on its own, together they cancel each other out. The blind outer has lost its intrigue so out it goes.
When did the 72 hour sale begin anyway?
Finally we have this from Pella: OPEN IMMEDIATELY: 72-hour event ends soon. Well, is it 72 hours or isn’t it? If it is, it ends in 72 hours, not “soon”. The contradiction completely bursts the bubble of urgency and anticipation. Also, since this is clearly a piece of advertising mail, there needs to be more reader context, eg “Hurry! You’ve only got 72 hours to save” or “Open for your private invitation to our 72 hour preferred customer sale”.
That’s enough for today. Three examples in which the client or product manager is wondering why their mailing was not more successful, when in each case the fault lies with the copywriter who is probably making mischief on another campaign right now. I’ll have a couple more good ones in my next post.
I love the new commercial announcing the US Airways/American Air merger. It’s stirring, and poignant, and on-message. Who would have thought that a corporate merger could make your heart swell with pride? They did it with an emotional tug at the appeal of new beginnings… an empty airport becomes filled with promise and we remember that flying used to be romantic and exciting. Here’s the script, as narrated by John Hamm:
It’s time to make a change.
It’s time to become better versions of ourselves.
To be greater than you expected.
And more than you had hoped for.
So starting now, we begin a new chapter.
One written in passion, and skill, ambition, and sweat.
One where two companies take the best of themselves to create something better.
And when all is said and done, we will not only have become a bigger airline
But also something so much greater.
So let’s introduce ourselves to the world…
Not again, but for the very first time.
The new American is arriving.
What’s even better is that the spot was completed on February 12 (per the slate at the beginning), the day before the merger was announced, so it would seem to have been produced in record time. How did they do it? Perhaps it was in the can in anticipation of the event (which had been publicly discussed for several weeks), but I like to think they (McCann Worldwide) quickly threw it together using footage from the recent “Change is in the Air” campaign which debuted last month.
That campaign, by the way, fails for me in the same way this new spot succeeds. All the people stopping what they’re doing to look into the skies seems manipulative and unlikely, and also brings unfortunate echoes of 9/11, especially the peek at the tail of the plane disappearing over the top of the building. The evolution from that campaign to this one is to be applauded. I also like the fact I’ll finally be able to use my AAdvantage miles, since US Airways but not American flies to my local airport. Well done.
I was half-dozing through a Google Adwords tutorial the other day when something woke me up: the instructor’s advice that you can improve results by putting all the words in your ad, but especially your keywords, In Initial Caps Like This.
David Ogilvy must be spinning in his grave as if on a rotisserie. He railed against ALL CAPS in Ogilvy on Advertising because they deconstruct a word and turn it into a bunch of separate letters which the reader must look at one by one in order to make sense of it. Readers don’t do this. If there is any impediment to readability, they move on.
I have always assumed that Capitalizing The First Letter Of Each Word presents a similar problem, and I thought Ogilvy wrote about it, although I can’t find the source right now. But it’s the same issue of comprehension. Inappropriate use of initial caps means the reader sees individual words, not phrases, so it’s that much more trouble to seamlessly absorb the message. What’s more, overuse of initial caps gives your advertising a kind of stilted, affected, 19th century look. It’s certainly not what you want if you are selling a product or service which is closely attuned to the needs of 21st century consumers or businesses.
For these reasons I’ve always advised my clients against unnecessary initial caps, and often changed their copy if I get my hands on it. That’s why the Google “tip” is so demoralizing. Have people stopped reading copy completely, so they no longer have the mental acuity to focus on more than a single word or at most a keyword phrase?
Please, tell me it ain’t so. If you have testing experience with standard capitalization (what Microsoft Word calls “Sentence case”) vs initial caps, I’d love to hear the results. If initial caps are indeed the wave of the future, I’ll accept that. But I Won’t Like It.
Lincoln Ad. Click on the image to enlarge, then click again to read.
I am surely in the demo for the reimaged Lincoln, for the day after I saw the WSJ ad I ran across this in the New Yorker. It’s so dramatically superior to the “Hello. Again.” ad that the two could be compared as a copywriting clinic. Again, I’ve reproduced the actual ad since I can’t find the full text online and am too lazy to retype it. Let’s see what is better this time around.
1. There is a clear narrative. This is the story of Edsel Ford and how he had a dream, built great if eccentric cars, and now we are back presenting this new vehicle in his spirit. So much better than the “Hello. Again.” ad that darted back and forth between the past and the present, then swerved into the service commitment and ultimately made me carsick.
2. The proof points are big and dramatic. Instead of a sunroof, this new Lincoln has an entire “panoramic glass roof” that makes driving it like driving a convertible. And they have a hybrid model, getting an impressive 45 MPG, that costs not a penny more than the standard version.
One wonders how the copywriter for the other ad missed such clear differentiators and instead focused on the push button gearshift. Which makes an appearance here, by the way, but it’s tied to a benefit: “And what if we want to hold our spouse’s hand once in a while? Enter the push-button shift.” I do wish they’d chosen a more adventurous word such as “seat mate” or “companion” though… we Lincoln prospects are not totally moribund.
3. The voice of the copy is clear and consistent. There is a sure hand on the tiller this time, different from the preening narrator of “Hello. Again.” who kept distracting himself from self-important statements with news about the car. The story is told cleanly and well, up until a closing paragraph which is aspirational yet tight: “Call it luxury. Call it engineered humanity. [WTF?] We’re calling it the Lincoln Motor Company. A completely reinvented wheel, with you at the center.”
So why am I not now in my aging Packard or Escalade, headed for my Lincoln dealer (wherever that is)? Unfortunately, the “Hello. Again.” ad ran AFTER the Edsel ad per the marketing strategy, not before. If this Benjamin Button regression of copywriting smarts continues, pretty soon I will be test driving a Hupmobile. Or Maxwell, even.
Click on the image to see larger size then click again to read
As a technologically savvy consumer who’s not excited by the current crop of luxury cars, I should be the perfect target for the reimaged Lincoln. Yet the full page ad in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal had me scratching my head. (I haven’t been able to find the full text anywhere online so I’ll shoot it at hopefully high enough resolution that you can read it for yourself.)
As a copywriter, I love long copy ads that succeed and hate long copy ads that make skeptics say “long copy doesn’t work”. This ad, unfortunately, is in the latter camp. Let’s examine why:
1. Lincoln assumes a coziness which is not likely to exist between ad and reader. Sadly, today’s consumer is not enamored with our silken prose and is more likely to turn the page than to read the copy. Witness the headline which, out of all the infinite possibilities, says “Hello. Again.” And a first paragraph that says, “It takes a special type of ego to presume the world needs another luxury car. (In fact, it’s a bit like the kind that interrupts your otherwise meaningful pursuit of current events with a full-page ode to our intentions.)” Lincoln, we could care less about your ego.
2. The ad has a tin ear. Here’s an aspirational statement in the second paragraph: “True trailblazers follow their inner light. You’ve got to be pretty confident to create what has never been done before. It’s true in history, invention, art, you name it. Even automotive design.” Pretty high-minded and soul-stirring.
But here’s their proof point in the very next paragraph: “If the traditional gearshift consumes too much space between the front seats, you break the rules. You break new ground. You place a redesigned push-button shifter next to the steering wheel.” Not only is that a terrible letdown from the aspirational high, it’s not even new. I had such a shifter in my 1963 Rambler.
3. Lincoln steps on his own coat tails in attempting to be all things to all consumers. The brand wants to be “what has never been done” as noted above. But they also want to build on their heritage, as the ad progresses. Past Lincolns are presented as “different… truth be told, not everyone liked them” and the “selfless” (sic) ego of Edsel Ford is brought forward as the kind of pure design fire that burned brightly. (When people think “Edsel” they think of the car, of course, with all its quirks, not the man.)
If you are brand new, then you’ve broken away from any history you have. Instead they’ve chosen to bring up the history, then belittle it or suggest that Lincoln has been misunderstood. I don’t think you can have it both ways. And there is also the television advertising to deal with, presenting the Lincoln as the “car of presidents” (as in presidential limo) which makes it seem like a mainstream choice and not an eccentric outlier. More discontinuity.
Finally, at the end of the ad, we’re told what lies in store for us: “elevating our owner service to be on par with the world’s most exclusive concierges… we’ll treat you as a ‘client,’ not as a customer… simply, our goal is to be everything for a certain few.” Here I know what is happening because I did some work for Lexus in the early 90s, when they were eating Infiniti’s lunch. The two new luxury brands were launched at the same time. Infiniti then, like Lincoln today, came forth with dreamy high-minded metaphors and poetic-sounding prose. Lexus simply said, we’re going to pamper you like you’ve never been pampered before.
So Lincoln is going to be both Infiniti and Lexus in the same body. We’re dreamers and unabashed egoists, but when push comes to serve we’ll open the door for you and give you a free carwash with your oil change. Actually, according to Yahoo! News, the promotional plans include a “date night” in which consumers get a free dinner for two when they take a test drive. Now that might get my attention. As long is it’s not Olive Garden or TGIF Friday.
Dr. Robert Cialdini is a psychology professor at Arizona State University who has conducted some interesting research studies with the help of his students. In the “hotel towel test”, he changed the language on signs in hotel rooms urging guests to reuse their towels. Compared to no sign, adding a standard message about “have concern for the environment” increased reuse 30%. But when the wording was revised to “three-quarters of the guests staying in this hotel reuse their towels” reuse increased to 44%. And when it was revised to “three-quarters of the guests staying in this room reuse their towels” reuse increased to nearly 50%.
In an interview with the American Psychological Association, Cialdini attributed these results to social proof: “If this is what people around you have decided is a good choice, it’s a great shortcut for you to determine what’s a good choice.” He cites a study by a Beijing restaurant in which a restaurant put on the menu, “these are our most popular items” and the items immediately became 17-20% more popular.
I thought about these results while working on a project in a new field for me, making requests for donations from college alumni. For the typical school well under half the alumni make gifts, so it’s fair to assume the ones who do give were happy with their experience or at least felt it was worthwhile. Thus the formula is to generate a mental picture of those halcyon college years for the reader, then tell them they can make the same thing possible for someone through their gift. You and your classmates were fortunate, therefore you should allow a new or current student to be fortunate.
Cialdini has another study in which the results backfired from what was desired, while upholding the principle of social proof. He distributed bits of petrified wood in the Petrified Forest Natural Park and tested signs admonishing visitors not to remove them. In situations where there was no sign at all, 2.92% of the pieces disappeared.
When a sign was added with a picture of several visitors taking wood and the caption “many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest”, theft actually increased to 7.92%. As copywriters we know this flabby third-party syntax is unlikely to persuade anybody, but what it does is introduce the concept of stealing wood to somebody who had not previously thought about it. And the social proof is that “many” visitors do this, so you should too.
A third sign showed a single visitor with a “no” symbol over his hand and the caption “please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest”. This reduced theft modestly, to 1.67% vs 2.92% for the control with no sign at all. It’s a direct request and clearly shows what not to do, but it’s not really social proof but a one-to-one message. What if the sign had said, “97 out of 100 visitors enjoy the park without disturbing its beauty. Thank you for preserving the natural state of the Petrified Forest”?
Cialdini summed up in an interview on NPR: “When we are uncertain about whether to be altruistic or pro-social or environmentally conscious, we look around us for the answer. We don’t look inside ourselves. We are all swept by the power of the crowd.”
Ask me who I’m going to vote for in the Presidential election and you’ll get one data point, which might be a lie. Ask me who I think is going to win and you’ll get a far more reliable predictor. First, because I’m no longer on the spot for answering about my own vote. Second, because my answer will encompass my conversation with friends about how they’re voting, plus what I’ve heard and read and seen in the media and on people’s bumpers and in their yards. In essence, I’m speaking as a social network of one.
The above isn’t a hypothesis. The New York Times cites an academic paper by David Rothschild and Justin Wolfers that compares the predictive power of voters’ intentions (how they will vote) and their expectations (who they think will win). In the majority of presidential elections since 1952, expectations were the winner. According to Wolfers, a professor of economics at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, that’s because the expectations question taps into additional knowledge beyond the personal voting question, and of course “more information produces better results.”
In fact, the authors estimate that each expectation answer is equivalent to ten “how will you vote” answers, thus solving a problem that I didn’t realize existed: people today are much less responsive to polls. A few years ago, 40% of people polled would respond. Today it’s down to 10%, according to Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center. Think about the number of polling calls you’ve likely received during this election and you can guess why that is. We’re oversaturated with polls.
As a marketer, I’ve often used polls as an involvement device. You can gather valuable useful audience information and then offer the finished poll to participants as an incentive to answer. As copywriters, we would never ask personal questions that make readers uncomfortable; rather we’ll be looking for ways to make them interested and eager to respond. We’ll automatically go for the “expectation” vs “intention” question, in other words.
You can also use polls to get people thinking about the benefits of your product by asking questions that show it in the best possible light. For example, one of my favorite controls is a package I wrote for Intuit for a new tax preparation product that wasn’t quite ready for prime time. I asked people what they’d like to see in a tax prep product, with multiple-choice answers that touched on existing and planned product features. The involvement made them invested in the product’s development and they were more likely to buy it as a result; this package remained the control during the entire lifecycle of the product.
But back to presidential polling, you’re probably wondering who is picked to win next Tuesday according to the “expectation” method. Read the Times article for that answer. Then come back at midnight on November 6 to see if they were right.
Here’s a preview of the KISS panel we’re presenting at the Direct Marketing Association’s annual conference in Las Vegas. Come see us next Wednesday, October 17 at 9 am to get the full story!
When you’re selling complex products and services, that often have a high price tag, it’s easy to overcomplicate your marketing message. A copywriter might think, it’s hard to know which of the technical specs is most important so I better include all of them. Or, this buyer will need a lot of information in order to justify the cost. The problem is that ultimately you’re still selling to people. And we can only absorb so much information, especially when we may not have asked for that information in the first place.
The solution is to keep it simple—tell your complicated story in basic human terms that boil down to easily understood story lines and personal benefits. Because even if we’re the chief technology office of a large company, we’re also a human being and we will evaluate rationally but ultimately make an emotional decision.
For example, here are the “Six Universal Buying Motives” as described by Roy Chitwood at Max Sacks International. A powerful appeal may speak to more than one of these emotions. And if you are appealing to none of them you’re going to have a lot harder time making the sale.
1. Desire for gain (usually financial)
2. Fear of loss (again, usually financial)
3. Comfort and convenience
4. Security and protection
5. Pride of ownership
6. Satisfaction of emotion
Now, let’s look at how these might translate into a technology workplace environment:
1. Desire for gain (usually financial)
=career advancement, better performance reviews.
2. Fear of loss (again, usually financial)
=job security, avoidance of unpleasant surprises.
3. Comfort and convenience
=less late hours, fewer angry users/bosses.
4. Security and protection
=systems work as they are supposed to do.
5. Pride of ownership
=taking credit for a new and better solution.
6. Satisfaction of emotion
=elegant systems that make the enterprise work better
The moral: people are still people, even when they’re on the job and deciding which technical products to buy. At the end of the day they want to be praised for their good work, have a comfortable lifestyle because they’ve been promoted, and go home at a reasonable hour instead of having to solve headaches. And you can tell them how your product helps them do this.
There’s lots more KISS (keep it simple) creative on tap from Dawn Wolf, Philip Reynolds and me. Come see us at 9 am on Wednesday, October 17 at the DMA in Las Vegas!