I saw an Acura ad tonight that left me rivited.
Frankly, I’m not sure it’s all that great an ad in the bigger picture, but the editing and storytelling was genius.
Some may think I’m overstating my case on this, but no less a genius than Stanley Kubric claimed that the very best film editing was being done in commercials way back in a 1987 Rolling Stone interview. Check it out [italics are interviewer, normal font is Kubric, bolding is me]:
Books I’ve read on you seem to suggest that you consider editing the most important aspect of the filmmaker’s art.
There are three equal things: the writing, slogging through the actual shooting and the editing.
You’ve quoted Pudovkin to the effect that editing is the only original and unique art form in film.
I think so. Everything else comes from something else. Writing, of course, is writing, acting comes from the theater, and cinematography comes from photography. Editing is unique to film. You can see something from different points of view almost simuluneously, and it creates a new experience.
Pudovkin gives an example: You see a guy hanging a picture on the wall. Suddenly you see his feet slip; you see the chair move; you see his hand go down and the picture fall off the wall. In that split second, a guy falls off a chair, and you see it in a way that you could not see it any other way except through editing.
TV commercials have figured that out. Leave content out of it, and some of the most spectacular examples of film art are in the best TV commercials.
Give me an example.
The Michelob commercials. I’m a pro football fan, and I have videotapes of the games sent over to me, commercials and all. Last year Michelob did a series, just impressions of people having a good time –
The big city at night –
And the editing, the photography, was some of the most brilliant work I’ve ever seen. Forget what they’re doing — selling beer — and it’s visual poetry. Incredible eight-frame cuts. And you realize that in thirty seconds they’ve created an impression of something rather complex. If you could ever tell a story, something with some content, using that kind of visual poetry, you could handle vastly more complex and subtle material.
People spend millions of dollars and months’ worth of work on those thirty seconds.
So it’s a bit impractical. And I suppose there’s really nothing that would substitute for the great dramatic moment, fully played out. Still…
After reading this I tracked down those Michelob commercials to see for myself, and of course Kubric was right:
Kubric was right about the billiance of the editing, but also in the limitations of these commercials, as they are the epitomy of style without substance being used to sell style and fashion (i.e., products without substance). There is a hint of a storyline in these ads, but it’s left very intentionally vague, impressionistic, and, well, fashionable. And that’s OK for beer, I guess, but probably not what you want for cars, though I don’t think those ads did anything for Michelob sales, either.
What you need for more substantive products like cars is a style that keeps the “visual poetry,” but harnesses it to tell a “story with content.”
Which is precisely what is so brilliant about this Acura Ad:
Same visual poetry, but now it’s in the form of a cohent narrative that shows the passion behind the substantive efforts to make a substantive product: a performance-oriented luxury car.
Will this ad sell some freaking cars? I don’t know. But it should at least generate some interest. And maybe make you feel something for Acura you might not have ever felt before.
And that’s no small thing.
But forget about Acura, let’s talk about you!
Because I predict we’re going to be seeing more of this form of intense, rapid-fire visual poetry going forward. This Cirque Du Soleil-esque form of rapid distraction.
Sure, we’ll still pay attention to the well done, dramatic monologue. And sometimes it’s better to zig when others zag, like Dodge did a few Superbowl’s back.
But intelligently harnessing the power of rapid-distraction storytelling is becoming more and more common in mainstream advertising. And it’s not limited to just big national brands either. Frankly, I think the only thing stopping radio advertisisers from doing it is skill. Heck, it’s already been done once.
So what are you waiting for?
Do you know how to tell a story in rapdi-fire format?
Came across this DBB ad recently and was struck by how true everything in it remains. In fact, by how much more true it is today than on the day it first ran. Read it and see for yourself:
And frankly, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
Have you ever heard of Quora?
It’s a Q&A-style social media site. People ask questions and genuine no-kidding experts answer them. Then members vote the answers up or down. The Q&As you see in your newsfeed depend on who you follow, the interests you indicate, and (of course) the questions you pose.
My addiction to Quora flows from the quality of the answers: they’re almost always insightful, experienced-based, and often brilliant.
The List of Triggers I Snagged from Quora
At any rate, one of the first Q&As I read on Quara was this one on cognitive biases: “What are some good examples of biases being exploited in marketing?”
And this answer from Kevin William Lord Barry struck me as well worth reading, copying, and (eventually) posting and riffing on as a (series of) blog post(s) [bolding is mine]:
“I think exploitation is too strong a word. Humans communication in general is an emotional thing. In any case, here’s my master list:
1) Ethos (your perceived character) is the most important, as opposed to an appeal to pathos (emotions) or logos (logic).
2) People make judgments by comparison/anchoring.
3) People process information best from stories.
4) People are foremost interested in things that affect them.
5) Breaking patterns gets attention.
6) People look to other people’s decisions when making decisions.
7) People will believe things more easily that fit their pre-existent mindset. The converse is also true.
8) People handle one idea at a time best.
9) People want more choices, but are happier with fewer.
10) People decide first, then rationalize — If people are stuck with something, they will like it more over time.
11) Experience is memory, the last part of the experience is weighted heavily.”
I’ve got to admit, Kevin created a pretty good list — why esle would I have reprinted it here? — but…
- One, it’s hardly exhaustive. I bet most of you could think of a few principles and biases well worth adding, and I invite you to do so in the comments,
- and Two, there’s no commentary, just the bare list, even though each item begs for some elaboration.
So in future posts, I’ll discuss what I’d add to the list, and then move through Kevin’s list and offer a deep-dive on each item. But for now, I’m just kind of interested in your thoughts.
What psychological principles or levers would you readers add to or take away from this list?
P.S. I’m sure many of you Cialdini fans will recognized item #6 as an expression of Social Proof — which sort of begs one to add the other “Weapons of Influence” to this list of cognitive exploits. And if you’re not familiar with Ciadlini, you can get an excellent quick and dirty intro to his 6 Principles of Influence from this video that my colleague, Tim Miles, sent me:
“Balls Beat Brains, Balls Beat Budgets” — Andy Nulman
Advertising with heart kicks two ways:
1) Advertising with Values & Passion (heart = soul)
2) Courageous Advertising (heart = lion hearted)
And, as you can see, both ways intersect in the heart. The word “courage” even comes from the French word for heart, which is why you can not only be courageous, but can encourage others, helping them to “take heart.”
This isn’t just theory, either; it’s observable fact.
Every small business advertiser I’ve worked with who had the guts to take a strong stand in their advertising (and then to back their claims up when the time came) always found the source of their gutsy courage in deeply and passionately held beliefs and values. Values imparted through family traditions, defining moments, and relationships.
This is important because it’s the business owners capable of advertising with heart that experience the most impressive (and sustained) growth.
So let’s take a closer look at Andy Nulman’s quote:
Balls Beat Brains
Of course smarts matter and sound strategy is crucial. But when it comes to small business advertising, the obstacles to adopting and implementing a sound strategy is rarely a lack of smarts or the inability to come up with (or have a professional come up with) a great strategy. The obstacle is always a lack of courage to embrace that great strategy once it has been presented.
Because great strategies are always gutsy.
This isn’t to say they are risky, though. Often the riskiest thing is NOT to use a gutsy strategy.
Gutsy gets confused with risky simply because the identity of a privately owned company is inextricably tied to the self-image of the owner. So an owner of good taste and respectability can’t help but react to any necessarily outrageous (i.e. gutsy) advertising strategy by feeling as if it requires taking exceptional risks with her self image.
Here’s how that usually manifests:
1) “The risk of insult is the price of clarity”
To make an advertising claim powerful, you have to use surprising, vivid language, and your statements have to be made without the usual conditionals, exemptions, caveats, and contextual preambles that would render them perfectly defensible.
In other words, your words have to be dramatic. And to be dramatic you have to “cause a scene,” which is to say you have to exhibit the crass bad manners of drawing attention to yourself by leveraging other people’s attentional triggers.
Business owners with manners don’t want to “cause a scene,” so their natural tendency is to wimp on the messaging by filing off all the sharp edges from the ads. “We just can’t say that!”
It takes courage (or shamelessness in general) to look at sharp messaging strategy and commit to it without flinching.
2) Saying what you stand against means making enemies
This one’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? If you choose whom to lose and state what you stand against, you’re not only purposely excluding some people and drawing a line in the sand, you’re also calling out anyone who believes otherwise.
Most business owners don’t want to do that. They want everyone to like them (and give them their business), so pissing off anyone seems like a bad way to advertise. Unfortunately, no business can be all things to all people, and you can’t have insiders without outsiders. You have to be for someone in particular, not everyone in general, if you want your message to resonate.
So only those business owners with the emotional passion to take a stand and the courage to make enemies end up with loyal customers, real brand value, and advertising capable of attracting and building such.
3) Strong Offers Absent Fine Print Means Occassionally Taking It On the Chin
My partner, Roy Williams calls it “budgeting for the knucklehead factor,” and it comes down to this: when you make unconditional guarantees on something — the quality of your products, a no excuse delivery date, an offer of a free trial — you have to overcome the fear that people will take advantage of you.
Make no mistake, it’s not a baseless fear; a small percentage of people WILL take advantage of you. That small percentage will shamelessly return an obviously abused or past-the-service-life item and ask for a replacement. Or gluttonously thieve three or four free trials, rather than limiting themselves to one. And so on.
Those people are knuckleheads, and yes, you should anticipate and budget for their shenanigans, precisely so that you can take it on the chin and smilingly live up to your promise.
Yet the real fear that business owners face isn’t the reasonably assessed risk that a small percentage of people will take advantage of them; it’s the nightmare scenario where 30% to 100% of them do. Fortunately, that scenario only exists in nightmares. Any business owner with the heart and the courage to face that fear down inevitably finds that the knuckleheads make an exceedingly small percentage of the population.
Believe it or not, the vast majority of people will treat you fairly, the vast majority of the time. Just ask companies like Walmart and LL Bean and Nordstroms — companies that make unconditional guarantees and suffer the knuckleheads in order to enjoy the business and loyalty (and profits) from the rest of us.
So for small businesses, this kind of advertising requires a double dose of courage: one to look past the irrational fear and make the strong promise or guarantee, and another to take it on the chin when the inevitable knucklehead forces the issue.
4) Telling Your Genesis Story Requires Real Vulnerability
Telling an audience about your life-defining moment takes guts because you are openly exposing your soul. But it’s also one of the only ways we’ll ever believe in your mission and your irrational commitment to it. As I wrote earlier, if you want us to believe in your superpowers, you’ve got to tell us about your genesis story.
And because telling a genesis story requires vulnerability, including one in your advertising takes guts. It takes heart in both senses of the word. Some business owners have it. Most don’t. Just ask yourself, would you be willing to expose something like this:
“When I was seven years old, I held my father’s head in my hands as he took his last breath and died. A thing like that stays with you. It helps you understand that relationships – people – are what life’s all about.You gotta tell’em you love’em.
This is J.R. Dunn. So now you know why I became a jeweler. Fine jewelry is one of the ways we tell people we love ’em. When I got older and fell head-over-heals for Ann Marie, the love of my life, I didn’t have enough money to buy her an engagement ring. She married me anyway. Go figure.
But I can promise you this: If you’re thinking of getting engaged to the love of your life, come to J.R. Dunn Jewelers in Lighthouse Point. No one in Florida, no one in America, is going to give you a better engagement ring for your money than me. One of the great joys of my life is to make it possible for guys to give the woman they love the diamond she deserves.
There was nobody there for me when I needed an engagement ring. But I promise I’ll be there for you.”
That’s J.R. Dunn’s Genesis story. And it took real heart to broadcast it to the world in a radio ad. Would you have the courage to do the same?
Balls Beat Budgets
The formula is quite simple:
Salience * Repetition = Long Term Memory Storage
Salience is just another word for emotional importance (aka relevance). The more emotionally important something is, the less repetition it takes to lodge in your long term memory.
You can probably remember how and when you proposed to your wife, even though you only proposed once (and if you had to propose more than once, that definitely got permantly chiseled into your consciousness). You can also likely recall exactly where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news about 9–11.
And as a former high school teacher, I can also tell you that the opposite is true: as emotional importance falls to zero, the number of repetitions required to make something stick approaches infinity.
Courageous Advertising amps up the emotional importance — the surprise and the audacity — of the ads in order to boost the salience of the message. Assuming, of course, that the message had any relevance to the customer to begin with. Commiting to a relevant message to begin with requires courage, and then accepting gutsy wording/copy requires additional courage from the business owner.
The upshot is that courageous ads require significantly less repetition. And in advertiging, repetition = money. That’s how small budgets beat big budgets, or in Andy’s terms, how Balls Beat Budgets.
Better yet, audacious advertising gets it’s own free press and attention — on an order way beyond what even most big budgets can buy. Just ask the creators of the Poo Pourri video below how much free news coverage and viral sharing their video received. It’s on the order of hundreds of millions. And it was made for just a few thousand dollars.
Of course, it takes some audacity to make an ad like that, but that’s the point, isn’t it?
And it’s not just about videos. This applies to publicity stunts, signage, store decoration, direct mail packages — everything. Audacity gets noticed, remarked on, and spread by word of mouth, social media, news, etc. This is another way that balls beat budget.
Of course, audacity is one thing, but audacity that reflects your values and deeply held beliefs is even better. Remember, it’s best to combine both meanings of courage — heart and balls.
That’s why effective advertising is almost always courageous advertising.
I recently came across this post on Joss Whedon’s 10 Tips for Writers and thought that the tips applied equally well to advertisers and ad writers.
If you’re asking yourself “Joss who?” — you’re missing out! Joss Whedon is the script doctor that worked his magic on Toy Story when the whole movie was in jeapardy of failing. He’s also the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Serenity. But if none of that really strikes a bell, then you probably will recognize him as the director of the blockbuster Avengers movie.
At any rate, I found his writing tips to be thoughtfully on-target, so here’s my advertising-centric translation of Whedon’s 10 Tips:
1. FINISH IT
In business/entrepreneurship this means “Ship,” as Seth Godin would say. But to stretch it past that a bit and into the realm of advertising, I’d paraphrase David Ogilvy and say, Don’t buy a ticket half-way to Europe — finish the journey.
From a branding perspective that means don’t mess around with 12 different platforms, campaigns, and media; commit to one campaign, one primary media and buy enough repetition for a long enough time to finish the job you started.
From a direct mail perspective, actually mail out the letter — finish that job, for sure — but also commit to a series of mailings, or a mailing followed up by a sales call, rather than a one-off postcard.
To quote from Joss Whedon’s original advice: “Structure means knowing where you’re going; making sure you don’t meander about.” In small business that means having a grip on your business model and your goals and not falling prey to bright shiny object syndrome.
From an advertising perspective it means work in campaigns. Don’t move and meander from one unrelated ad to another unrelated ad; have a campaign and an over-arching messaging and brand position that you stick with. Know where you’re going and have the discipline to get there. Note that advertising one sale after another automatically condemns you to meandering without structure.
3. HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY
Again, to quote from Joss Whedon “This really should be number one.” If you’re paying to be on the air with radio or TV, or you’re paying to mail a message to someone, you really need to have something substantive to say. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a Unique Selling Proposition (USP), but you should have:
- an offer to make,
- a value that you stand for (or something you stand against),
- and an advocated position around your business/industry that you’ll stand behind.
And, really, just like in writing, having something to say IS the #1 thing about advertising.
4. EVERYBODY HAS A REASON TO LIVE [And It’s Not About You!]
I don’t care if you’re the branding equivalent of Apple, Harley Davidson, and Jack Daniels all rolled into one: your role in the lives of your customers is at the far periphery. Your relevance and interest is extremely limited. Keep that in mind and figure out those contexts in which you are relevant to customers. Tie your product or service back to the things that really do exist at the center of customer’s lives. Don’t let your advertising presume that your business is important to people outside of those narrow contexts in which you can help them with an immediate problem or concern.
As a corollary to this, realize that for most products and services, advertising through mass media means that 98% of the people seeing (or hearing) your ad are NOT currently in the market for what you sell.
Some people see this as a bad thing, but the truth is that speaking to people who aren’t (yet) in the market for what you sell is really one of the best things about broadcast media.
Because the best time to convince people of how wonderful you are is BEFORE they need you. The idea is to have these people enter into the market — to start their use-case scenario — already biased in your favor. You don’t want them typing your business category into Google and making a decision based on search results. You want them typing your business NAME into Google, having already (largely) made their buying decision.
But if you take this approach, you must realize that you’re talking to people who aren’t inherently interested in your product precisely because they are not yet in the market for it. That means you must give these listeners a reason to pay attention anyway.
In other words, you have to seduce and entertain people into paying attention. Make your ads more interesting and entertaining than the thoughts currently running through the minds’ of your audience. And do it in a way that strengthens rather than obscures your sales message.
Being both entertaining and on-brand and persuasive is tough, but it’s what separates the pros from the amateurs in the advertising game.
5. CUT WHAT YOU LOVE
Clients will often be so enamored with things they love and that they feel the prospective customer should care about, that they’ll insist that you put it into the ad. Sometimes the customer does (or can be made to) care about it too. Then you’re in luck.
Unfotunately, it’s more likely that the customer will remain totally apathetic about your client’s pet obsession no matter how much he “ought to” care about it. And that’s when the business owner (aka your advertising client) has to follow the advice to “cut what you love” and focus on what’ll actually move the needle.
And of course, as a copywriter, you often have to “kill your darlings” (aka cut some of your best lines) in order to strengthen the overall ad copy — especially when you’re running short on time for that 30 or 60 second script!
If the idea is to talk to the dog, in the language of the dog, about what’s in the heart of the dog, then that means you’ve got to:
- Understand what’s in the heart of the dog — what the prospective customer really cares about, and
- Have a sense of the language of the dog — what kind of words, attitudes, phrases, etc. your customers really use when talking about their desires and frustrations and needs.
You can’t know or do any of that without listening to the customer. And these days, a lot of listening is done through your eyes by searching through reviews, forums, and social media comments. Listen to how people talk and what they talk about so that you can talk to them in your ads about the same things they care about, using the same language they use.
7. TRACK THE AUDIENCE MOOD
This one goes along with “Listen.” You’re goal is to emotionally connect with your audience. You want your ads to cause them to think of you first and feel the best about you when they DO finally need what you sell. That way they come to you as a preferred provider and recognized expert — someone worthy of premium pricing. In order to do that you have to separate out the effect you intended your ads to have from the effect they actually have.
Sometimes the feature or benefit or the line of copy or brandable chunk that you think will really connect with people doesn’t, while some seemingly “throw-away” phrase or line resonates in a way you never anticipated. If you’re tracking the audience mood, you’ll be able to do more of what resonates and less of what falls flat.
8. WRITE LIKE A MOVIE
This means write cinematically and visually. This is easy to understand for TV, but it applies equally well to radio. It always amazes me the amount of people in radio who talk about “Theatre of the mind” but don’t really understand what the phrase means or never write ads that create that kind of cinematic response in listeners’ imaginations.
So regardless of whether you are creating TV Ads or Radio Ads, write your ads like a movie rather than an ad. Don’t just talk about your product or services benefits, dramatize them. Sear the mental image of that benefit onto the imaginations of your audience.
9. DON’T LISTEN
Yes, I know: this contradicts Tip #6. Stick with me a moment and it’ll all make sense.
When your ad has impact and can’t be ignored, and especially when such an ad is aired with the proper frequency to make a difference, you’ll get complaints. An ad’s ability to attract is inextricably linked to it’s ability to repel; if nobody hates it, nobody will love it either.
So when you’ve got an emotionally powerful, un-ignorable ad on your hands, prepare yourself (and/or your client) to get complaints. Expect the complaints to come, and then don’t listen to them. Apple’s “I’m a Mac” campaign got a TON of complaints, from all kinds of people who thought the campaign was mean spirited or smug or whatever. Good thing Apple decided not to listen, huh?
10. DON’T SELL OUT
The reality of the customer experience has to match the promises made in the ad. This has ramifications for both ad writers and small businesses. For ad writers, it means don’t sell out by taking on clients who run bad businesses and who can’t deliver on what your ads promise.
For businesses, it means to guard against letting the customer experience slip as you grow. Instead do the opposite: reinvest in making the customer experience better and more closely aligned with the brand.
This also means occasionally allowing yourself to get “called out” on your brand promises, often in unreasonable ways. If you’ve got the guts to plant a flag and make a stand, someone will test you on it sooner or later. And you can bet that that “someone” will more than likely be unreasonable about it.
For example, someone will likley abuse your lifetime guarantee, or your “no surprises” guarantee. Then you can be like LL Bean and write off the abuse as a cost of keeping your guarantee, or you can refuse the unreasonable request, quibble over your guarantee, and add fine print to your promises. If you quibble, you sell out. And then word will get out. If you stand and deliver (even in spite of the knucklehead’s unreasonableness), word will get out on that, too. And the reward for that will exceed the cost by a factor of 10X, at least.
And there you have it. Ain’t Joss Whedon great?
Creativity in ads is great — and usually incredibly necessary as well.
But there’s a distinct difference between creativity that helps to emotionally communicate the advertising message and creativity for the sake of creativity. And the difference isn’t always so black and white. Take, for example, these two ads:
The ads DO make a point and they ARE creative. But to what extent is the creativity helping to sharpen the point of the message, and to what degree is the creativity getting in the way?
First, I’ll say that the CLR ad is the best use of potty-mouth in an ad that I’ve seen in a long time. Much better than K-mart’s “Ship Your Pants” or “Big Gas Savings.”
Because CLR used the swearing to communicate the authenticity of customer’s surprise at just how well CLR cleans — a strategy based in some sound neuroscience. The Kmart ads, on the other hand, just used the potty mouth gag as, well, just that: a gag that was totally gratuitous and unconnected with the messaging itself.
So the swearing was relevant to the messaging, and the messaging was based on a true reality about the product itself. Nice.
But while watching that CLR ad, I couldn’t help think that a little OxyClean and Billy Mays-style demo would have dramatically boosted the credibility and effectiveness of the ad. Would Billy Mays have pitched you the cleaning powers of OxyClean without SHOWING you just how amazing it was? Heck, no! He insisted on demonstrability for his products and actual demonstrations in his ads.
And contrary to popular belief, the two approaches of clever creative and straight-up demo can easily co-exist. It wouldn’t have taken more than 3 or 4 seconds at the end of the CLR ad to SHOW the product in action, instantly removing lime/soap scum, stainless steel stove stains, etc.
All of which brings us to the second ad for the Samsung vacuum cleaner, because the problem with that ad, as I see it, boils down to not enough demo. Yes the baby chase concept was cute and creative, but how much time did it waste in NOT showing the unique feature of the product that the ad was presumably showcasing?
If that ad had cut about 50% of the cute-baby-imitating-cop crap and substituted in more demonstration of product it would have ended up a much stronger ad.
As the saying goes: “if you’ve got it, flaunt it.” If your product can be demonstrated to amazing effect, why in the world wouldn’t you want to demo it in your ads? Case in point, this ad for the Dyson ball:
Or take a gander at this very creative but almost purely demo spot for Samsonite’s Spinner luggage:
As I said, creative is great — and necessary, as an ad absolutely needs to capture and hold people’s attention. But, really, there is just as much advertising craft and creativity in the last two demo-heavy spots as there is in the CLR and Samsung spots, and the demo-heavy spots managed to get the sales message across far more clearly.
Bottom Line: If you can make a TV ad into a demo, you probably ought to give serious thought into doing so, regardless of whether or not it “feels” creative.