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?
I pass this billboard frequently on a busy highway in upstate New York. It has multiple inspirational headlines stacked like cordwood: Driven/ Innovation/ Pass It On/ Values.com. To the left, a photo of Henry Ford (we know it’s him because there is a caption that says Henry Ford), driving (not being driven in) an early horseless carriage. The net effect is too much of a good thing, and I see it all the time, so I finally had to write about it.
Part of the problem is that the placement is a stone’s throw from Troy, NY, birthplace of the Arrow shirt, the cast iron stove, Uncle Sam and The Night Before Christmas among innovations. It sticks in our craw that they chose a non-local for their innovator. But the bigger issue is the multiple inspirational sayings when just one or two would do. It’s like too much candy on Halloween.
I headed over to Values.com to learn more about exactly what inspires them to inspire. It’s an interesting website. You can’t join them or give them money or get money from them; they’re doing this because “We believe that people are basically good and often benefit from a simple reminder.” Fair enough, and a good reason they deserve a little gentle nudging to make sure those reminders are effective.
There’s a section on the website called “Billboards” and on it you can create your own values billboard and look at it online, or look at billboards others have created. Each has one photo, one headline and one value and works a lot better than Values.com’s “Driven” effort. Give it a try. (But be sure your inspiration is not something naughty like “beer” or you’ll get a server error.)
By the way, what the website does not say is that Values.com is apparently funded by evangelical Christian Phillip Anschutz, who according to Wikipedia has also funded a think tank that criticizes evolution and a ballot initiative designed to overturn local and state laws that prohibit discrimination against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation. If I were Mr. Anschutz, I would identify myself and make my case on the website rather than leaving it to the curious visitor to go googling and draw their own conclusions.
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.
Infographics seem to be the newest arrow in the art director’s quiver. Why say it with words when you can throw in a clever graphic? I’m fine with this as long as it enhances the communication, but recently I’ve seen some examples in which the visuals actually got in the way.
Here’s a simple infographic from Rovi (they’re my client, but I wasn’t involved in this) which demonstrates several best practices. The stat is about the effective life of different categories of device and it turns out the bigger the screen, the longer it tends to stay around. So the designer created a graph in which time is expressed by the size of the screen and is reinforced by the more precise timeline at the top. It’s memorable and instantly understandable. It pulls one fact out of a longer article which is particularly appropriate for visual expression.
Less good are infographics in which a legend is required to understand what the visual is communicating—in other words, there are design objects that symbolize something and then off to the side there’s a caption that says what they mean. This is a necessary feature with complex charts but an infographic is not supposed to be complex. If you need a legend to make your point, start over.
Still less good are infographics in which numbers are just translated into graphics with color and clever type treatments. This seems to be the most common type of faux infographic. Our friends at eConsultancy shared this classic from Google+ in “How Not to Make an Infographic: Four Examples to Avoid”. (Sorry it’s tiny; click through to the jpg then click on the magnifying glass to blow it up.) There’s nothing in these numbers that could not have been said just as effectively with simple words. The graphics don’t add anything; they’re arbitrary and don’t add the visual revelation we saw in the Rovi example.
Finally, at the bottom of the barrel, we find infographics that are actually incomprehensible. This is the kind of work I’ve seen from a couple of would-be infographics designers who pull out words or numbers that look important, then turn them into graphics and assume they will support the text. But it doesn’t work like that. An infographic has to work on its own as an element of the message.
None of this is news, of course. Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, first published in 1983, has great examples of infographics dating back to the time of Napoleon. I wish some of today’s would-be infographers would read it.
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.
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!