Most style guides are useless.
And, no, I’m not talking about visual style guides that specify fonts and logos and CMYK codes for brand colors.
I’m talking about style guides focused on Brand Voice — Copy Bibles, if you will. I’ve seen a few scores of them over the years, and 95% have been utterly worthless.
Because they mainly consist of Brand Voice descriptions along the lines of:
- “Widget Incorporated’s Brand Voice is mainly professional with a hint of humor.” Or
- “Our voice is human and quirky.” Or
- “ACME Corp is always respectful and honest in their communications.”
In other words, these documents are often nothing but an adjective word cloud put into guideline format.
There are no hard and fast rules (or even rules of thumb) in these so-called guidelines. Nor are there any practical directions around how the brand’s “humanity” (or whatever) will be communicated in a commercial, e-mail, or Web page.
And, no, grammar guidelines don’t count. Cutting and pasting various bromides from The Elements of Style into a Copy Bible won’t auto-magically produce a recognizable voice.
None of this stuff will let a professional copywriter (let alone your average employee) create copy that sounds “professional but quirky.” Or that has any kind of distinctive personality whatsoever.
The Road Runner’s Style Guide
Want to see a style guide done right? Here’s Chuck Jone’s style guide for The Road Runner Cartoons:
What’s great about this style guide?
- Notice that these aren’t guidelines; they’re freaking rules. Rules with words like “Never” and “Always” and “All” and “No.”
- Notice also that these rules are all astoundingly specfic.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these rules are aimed at establishing the internal logic of the Road Runner’s world.
Internal Logic, baby!
Because world building is what real writers worry about. And world building is all about establishing the internal logic, the limitations, and yes, the rules of a given world.
THIS is the stuff that creates a distinct voice and personality. This is the stuff that separates Star Trek from Star Wars from Dune. Different worlds, different internal logic, different ideas about what the characters can and can not do.
It’s why J.K. Rowling spent 5 years establishing the rules for Harry Potter before ever publishing the first book:
“The five years I spent on HP and the Philosopher’s Stone were spent constructing The Rules. I had to lay down all my parameters. The most important thing to decide when you’re creating a fantasy world is what the characters CAN’T do…you can tell with The Simpsons. It’s a work of genius. You can tell that they’ve structured it in such a way that they’re never at a loss for what their characters can and can’t do. That’s why they’re so believable — even though they’re little yellow people.”
If your Brand Voice guide or Style Guide doesn’t fit this profile — if it doesn’t build a world with internal logic and hard and fast rules — then you probably need to get yourself a new style guide, if not a new ad consultant altogether.
P.S. Hat tip to Suzanne Pope’s Ad Teachings blog for the image of Chuck Jones’ Road Runner rules.
P.P.S. After a bit more research, I found out that there were two more rules for The Road Runner:
- Rule 10. The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.
- Rule 11. The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner.
Ira’s third video on storytelling is by far the most popular.
So much so that it has been featured on numerous blogs and even been turned into an Kinetic Typography video. Take a look:
Basically, Ira Glass is describing the positive side of the Dunning-Krueger effect.
The Dunning-Krueger effect basically says that the perceptive abilities, sensitivity, and awareness necessary to know that you suck at something, are the same perceptive abilities, sensitivity and awareness necessary to (eventually) become skilled at that very thing.
So if you have good taste — the aforementioned perception, sensitivity and awareness — then you have the potential to become good, or even great, but you’re stuck making stuff that you know kind of sucks until your craft skills catch up with your taste and ambition.
Believe it or not, that’s the positive side of the Dunning-Krueger effect. The negative side is that the totally incompetent lack the ability to sense their own incompetence. They suck like a hoover, but think they’re great.
But the positive side is only positive if:
- You retain your ambition to be great and don’t settle for becoming a hack, and
- You work through that awful feeling of knowing you are consistently creating stuff that’s “not that great,” as Ira puts it.
And while this might have very self-evident relevance for creatives and craftspeople of all kinds, including copywriters and advertising professionals, this video’s relevance to advertisers and business owners might not be so evident.
So I’m going to give you my spin on it…
From an advertisers perspective, I think this video speaks to:
- Linear, no-threshold thinking,
- Minimum Effective Dose, and
- Cumulative Effect
Linear, No-Threshold Thinking
Linear, no-threshold thinking assumes that a function is predictably scalable. That if you do twice as much, or half as much, you’ll get double or half of the result.
But more often than not, there are thresholds and inflection points, and diminishing returns which make linear, no-threshold thinking dangerously misguided. If you buy a ticket halfway to Europe, you don’t end up with a half a European vacation; you just end up stranded at sea. 80% of the parts of an engine don’t get you 80% of the horsepower.
And to borrow an example from my partner, Roy H. Williams, if…
“Reliable data tells us exactly how many motorcycle riders have died trying to navigate an S-curve at 100 miles per hour. The straightforward logic of traditional accounting, with its linear, no-threshold thinking, predicts one-tenth as many deaths at 10 miles per hour.
But we know this is ridiculous. The number of riders that die at 10 or 20 miles per hour is likely to be zero. There is a threshold speed at which the curve becomes dangerous. Any extrapolation that crosses that threshold is certain to be inaccurate.”
These kinds of thresholds are inevitable when dealing with human response. Especially when it comes to advertising. There is a threshold of interest, relevance, and impact for ads: the threshold which moves an ad from background noise into conscious awareness. If any ad fails to reach that threshold, it becomes essentially invisible, and would require nigh-unto-infinite repetition to get results.
And assuming that you have given your ad writer something worth saying, then the factors which determine whether your ad crosses that threshold are what Ira Glass might call the taste, ambition, and honesty of your ad writer.
If your ad writer is a hack — if he accepts adspeak, hype, and advertising cliches, or tries to bluff with fluff on the production side — then your ads are never likely to cross the threshold of impact. And no matter how much frequency you load into your ad schedule, your ads won’t move the needle on sales.
If your ad writer aspires to be great and has a modicum of talent and craft skills, then your ads will likely cross the impact threshold. As Leo Burnett said, “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”
And of course, it’s not only a matter of impactful vs. not impactful. It’s also a matter of how impactful. The more impact your ad carries, the less repetition is required. LBJ’s “Daisy” ad is a classic example of an ad so powerful, it only required one airing to make an impact (pun intended):
And, this is where talent and craft really take over from taste and ambition. The more skilled and talented your ad writer, the more impact he (or she) can bake into your ads.
Minimum Effective Dose
What do you think will happen to your headeache if you take 20 mg of Ibuprofin?
Nothing, right? Because while Ibuprofin can be a godsend for getting rid of headaches, the minimum effective dose is 200mg, with most adults taking 400mg or more.
If you take significantly less than 200mg, you’ll recieve no benefit.
Simlarly, If you go the gym for a day or even a week and complain that it didn’t work, you simply didn’t meet the requirements of the minimum effective dose. You’ll see some benefits at the end of a month, but plan on 90 days for real changes that others will comment on.
And it’s no coincidence that Stephen King compares writing to weightlifting. Want to be a professional writer? Better be prepared to put the time in every day becoming a “stronger” writer. Just like Ira Glass says about doing great creative work.
The same thing applies to Advertising.
Most mass-media branding campaigns require enough frequency and duration—enough of a minimum effective dose—to really work their magic. You might get lucky and see some results in 90 or 180 days, but plan on a full year or longer at a high enough frequency of ads to get a minimum effective dose.
And just like with working out (or, in Ira’s case, with doing great creative), there’s a certain level of frustration and chickening out you just have to work through. Be prepared for this chickening out period, and take Ira’s advice: fight your way through it.
Cumulative Effect is the other side of the coin from Minimum Effective Dose. Assuming your ad passes the threshold for relevance and impact, and that you’ve scheduled enough frequency to give the audience a minimum effective dose, the persuasive power of your ad will build over time.
You might just be starting to see results at the end of a year, but those results will accumulate and build. You’re not starting over each year, you’re standing on the persuasive results you gained from the year before.
For Ira Glass, the cumulative effect of doing a lot of ambitious work and working through your frustration period is to breakthrough into the ability to speak in your real, authentic voice, and to do interesting and special creative work that matters.
For advertisers, the cumulative effect of your advertising is certainly about increasing your market share and moving the needle on sales. But it’s also about finding your advertising voice and hitting peak stride in your ads and campaigns.
Most TV shows, and especially most comedies, get better after a season or two. The Simpsons first season wasn’t as good as what was to come. It took a season or two to really hit its stride. Same thing with Seinfeild. And most advertising campaigns are like that. The results build with time, but so does the authenticity of the voice and the impact of individual ads.
And that folks, is what I took away from Ira’s third video on storytelling. If you saw something else in the video, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Those 4 words are the most opened e-mail subject line most people have ever tested: “You are not alone.”
And while that’s a nice Cliff Claven-esque CRO tip to throw out, it’s asking WHY that’s such a powerful subject line that’ll get you somewhere.
Or if that’s not quite explicit enough, perhaps this will be:
- What is your advertising doing to make the audience feel as if you get “the way it is” and “how they feel”?
- What are your ads doing to show how your company can sweep in and save the situation?
- How are your ads making a promise of future happiness?
Because if your ads aren’t doing any of those things, they’re probably not doing much of anything else, either.
What are the two biggest mistakes in advertising?
Depends on who you ask.
My partner, Roy Williams, has a list of The 12 Most Common Mistakes in Advertising that’s awfully hard to argue with. But they’re the most common mistakes, not “biggest.” Plus, they are 12 of them.
For me, the biggest mistake is creating great advertising for a lousy product. By putting the advertiser out of business that mistake will have the biggest negative repurcussions.
Once you take that off the table, though, then I’d list:
- Not saying anything that’s worth saying (let alone advertising), and
- Boring your audience with ignorable and forgetable ads
Ira Glass’s Two Biggest Mistakes in Advertising
But if you ask Ira Glass, he’d tell you the two biggest mistakes are:
- Using an inauthentic, over-hyped “voice” or presentation style, and
- Keeping the focus on yourself instead of the customer
Don’t believe me? Check him out:
In other words, respect your audience.
Respect them by talking to them like a friend, one sitting right next to you at the bar. And respect them by keeping the focus of the ad on them and what matters to them, rather than on yourself.
Use Real People Language. Talk Like a Friend
Here’s how all-time copywriting legend Bob Levensen says to do it:
“Start off with ‘Dear Charlie,’ then say ‘this is what I want to tell you about. Make believe that the person you’re talking to is a perfectly intelligent friend who knows less about the product than you do. Then, when you’ve finished writing the copy, just cross out ‘Dear Charlie’.“
This is the same guy who told us that most intelligent people ignore advertising because most advertising ignores intelligent people. And he was right.
So skip the hype, the pre-amble, the hemmin’-‘n-hawin’, and just say the thing.
Instead of wasting your creativity on witty, charming, and clever language, save it for figuring out how to be believable and credible and to best substantiate or dramatize your major claim.
Ditch Your We-We: Keep Your Focus on the Customer
Most advertisers try to stay credible by focusing on why they’re better than the competition. Not a bad thing to do.
Unfortunately, they forget to tie those differentiators back to benefits that the customer will actually care about. Instead they just thump their chests and make We-We claims:
- We’re the best at this,
- We’re number one at that,
- We’ve been in business since 1893.
We this, we that, and they we-we-we all the way home, and all over themselves in their ad copy.
Everyone’s Favorite Radio Station
Ditch the we-we and take up the you-you. Make the customer the hero and the focus of the ad. Remember your copywriting basics: always answer “What’s In It For Me?” for your customers.
WIIFM: everybody’s favorite radio statio, playing 24–7 in their heads.
The good news is that ditching the we-we, switching to you-you, and answering WIIFM makes it a lot easier to talk to your audience in a human voice.
And getting back to my list of mistakes, it’ll also ensure you have something worth saying, and keep you from boring your audience. Way to go, Ira. Thanks for your wonderful, wonderful radio show, and all the great storytelling (and advertising) advice.
Now all you have to do is make sure your product lives up to its advertising ; )
P.S. Yes, I skipped Part III. I’ll circle back to that later this week or early next week. Trust me, that lesson will work best coming last.
Imagine you’ve been hired to create a PSA for the local police. Too many people are speeding in residential areas, and the police want a PSA-style radio ad designed to get people to slow down.
What kind of ad do you create?
If you’re like most advertisers, you DON’T dig for the facts and the insights and the logic. You won’t research the issue, and that means it’ll be tough to put real substance behind your messaging.
Instead, you jump right to brainstorming ways to dramatize your safety message: How can we create the most shocking, dramatically powerful ad, built around a “Don’t speed or little johny will get hit by a car” premise.
And because you skipped that essential first step of digging for substance, you’ll never get the chance to create something as awesome as this:
“If you hit me at 40 mph there’s around an 80% chance I’ll die. Hit me at 30 and there’s around an 80% chance I’ll live.”
You wouldn’t create that because you (likely) didn’t stop to ask: why is the speed limit set at that speed to begin with?
In order to say something powerfully, you must start by having something powerful to say.
And that means you have to spend as much time looking for the “stuff” of your ads (or radio drama) as you do writing or producing them. Which is exactly what Ira Glass says in Part II of his video series on storytelling:
“The amount of time finding the decent story is more than the amount of time it takes to produce the story. And that as someone who wants to do creative work, you actually have to set aside just as much time for the looking for stories…
…I think that, like, not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.” — Ira Glass
I concur with Ira on this.
Stop choosing to work the heart with “emotional” ads and great production when what’s required is for you to dig harder for the right insight, fact, product differentiator, or benefit that’s actually worth advertising in the first place.
The key is to start with what Leo Burnett called the “inherent drama” of the product or service itself. THEN you can add in all that great writing and production.
When you don’t start with the inherent drama of the product itself, you get something like this:
No one believed those ads because no one drinks milk as a high-performance sports drink. The advertiser was trying to stick a false drama onto the product and the approach flopped.
Compare that to the “Got Milk” campaign. It started from the truth about — the inherent drama of — milk, as in when, and under what conditions, do real people actually crave milk and only milk? When eating a peanut butter sandwhich, or eating rich cookies. That’s when nothing but a cold glass of milk will do. An inherent drama that led to ads like this:
What about you? Are you setting aside as much time searching for great substance as you do for writing and producing your ads?
Or are you still trying to bluff with fluff?
P.S. I’d like to provide proper attribution and credit for the radio ad, but… I can’t seem to remember or re-find wherever it came from. My apologies to the ad group that created that PSA
When most people judge a Super Bowl Commercial, they typically judge it as:
- A piece of 30 or 60-second, feel-good theatre, first and foremost,
- A possible brand-awareness tool, second, and
- An actual ad, not at all—doesn’t even enter into the equation.
Basically, if the ad looked cool, made you laugh or gave you the feelies, and was somehow vaguely related to the brand, then it’s judged a good Super Bowl Ad.
The first thing an ad has to do is sell.
No, not every ad has to have a hard sell. I’m not advocating for a Super Bowl full of Billy Mays-style infomercials.
But, yes, every ad should be selling.
And by that standard, the real “best” ad of the Superbowl is actually a pretty crappy ad. There’s no emotional appeal and the “idea” behind the ad, if it could even be called that, is misguided at best.
Good drama it ain’t.
The Best Crappy Ad of the Superbowl
But the ad for Jublia is really the ONLY ad that actually had a snowball’s chance in hell of making a sale.* Watch it:
Again, it’s a genuinely crappy ad that makes no dramatic sense.
And yet it packs enough moments of clarity—enough informative, substantive messaging—to actually sell the product.
Even during the game, at a noisy party, I was able to pick-up on and remember these three things about Jublia:
- It’s a new FDA-approved drug to treat toenail fungus
- It’s topically applied (rather than a pill), and
- It’s capable of going under and through the toenail to actually get at the infection and kill it.
Hall of Fame Worthy stuff? Not hardly.
But enough of a value proposition to actually sell some product?
Yes. Yes, indeed.
I can say that because I have toenail fungus and the ad managed to sell me on giving Jublia a try.
More to the point, I bet you can’t name one other ad for a product (not counting movies and TV shows) that actually accomplished the same feat (pun intended) of making a compelling
USP sales proposition of any kind?
Go ahead, name one other ad that told you something new or compelling about the product or service. Something that would likely make you consider buying, if and when you are ever in the market for whatever was being sold. Name another ad that said something of substance.
The Budweiser “Brewed The Hard Way” ad came close.
I really liked the hard stance Bud took. Yeah, “punching down” ain’t the best brand strategy—if the so-called “King of Beers” is that threatened by pumkin ale, it’s probably time to relinquish the beechwood throne—but defining what you stand against always brings clarity to the brand, and that’s a good thing. Apparently Bud stands against decent beer. God bless ‘em. At least they know their target market.
And while the BMW i3 Ad got me intrigued by the new car, it didn’t actually sell me on it. Know what I mean?
So What Was The Worst Ad of the Super Bowl?
I’m not sure of the actual worst ad, but I’m willing to predict which ad represented the biggest wasted opportunity.
That would be the Loctite Commercial.
That ad cost Loctite their entire ad budget for the year. Seriously. The entire advertising budget for the freaking year.
And what did they get for a year’s worth of ad budget?
But here’s the real shame of it: Loctite actually makes an awesome product that most homeowners should have on hand and would likely buy, if only they knew about it.
And isn’t that where Super Bowl ads can do the most good: for great products with mass appeal but low awareness?
The product is called thread lock (though most people refer to it as Loctite, natch), and you apply it to screws and bolts that keep coming loose. Just put it on the threads and it keeps everything “locked tight,” effectively preventing screws and bolts from backing out, vibrating loose, or rusting shut, etc.
- Got a kid who wiggles in her seat and causes the bolts in her chair to work loose? Loctite ‘em.
- Does your lawnmower vibrate a tiny metal screw loose on the regular? You know what to do.
You get the idea: it’s a great must-have product that most people don’t know about—who wouldn’t want to advertise that on the Super Bowl? Plus, you’ve got the entire comedic world of “loose screws” and “stuck nuts” to mine… I mean, c’mon, people!
But instead of advertising that bit of greatness with a compelling ad capable of actually, you know, selling something, we had that harlem shake dance number and lame jokes built around Loctite’s me-too superglue product. Whoopee!
And that’s my curmedgeonly take on “Best Superbowl Commerical That Actually Sold A Product” along with my opinion on “Biggest Missed Opportunity.”
P.S. I am prepared, of course, to eat my words (along with some humble pie), if Loctite super glue starts selling like crazy following Sunday’s ad. If you get news of Loctite’s 2015 sales, send it to me and I’ll do a follow-up post.
P.P.S. Love to hear your thoughts on which ads kicked butt and which ones failed in the comments section.
*OK, the “Like a Girl” commercial was a brilliant piece of propaganda that “sold” it’s perspective. Kudos to it. But I believe PSA’s have a leg up on the old “relevance” department, making them an unfair, Apples to Oranges comparision when judging actual product ads. I think that’s at least one reason why we were OK with the domestic violence PSA and not at all OK with Nationwide’s downer of a “Make Safe Happen” commercial.