gert-280-75Would you trade your wedding ring for an exact replica?

It’s a question I sometimes ask audiences.  Not surprisingly, hardly anyone admits to indifference in the matter.

More commonly, the emotional attachment measures in the thousands of dollars, which is what most people say they’d need to be paid before swapping the ring they were married in for a perfect replica.

Dismiss this as mere sentimentality at your own peril.

The man (or woman) who admits to NOT valuing his original wedding ring over a replica gets shunned. The same thing happens to the man who would willingly wear the clothing of a serial killer. Most of us would refuse to don Jeffrey Dahmers cap, even if it had been previously washed and sanitized. No matter how unscientific, arational, and even “silly” our repulsion is – regardless of how much it represents “Magical Thinking”  –  you’ll still find that:

  • The vast majority of people won’t willingly wear a piece of clothing worn by an evil man, and
  • Those who WOULD wear Dahmer’s clothing deeply offend our sensibilities and provoke our immediate distrust.  They creep us out.

What does all that tell you?

Shared values run deeper than rationality. Way deeper. As Richard Weaver writes, “…logic depends upon the dream, and not the dream upon it.  We must admit this when we realize that logical processes rest ultimately upon classification, that classification is by identification, and identification is intuitive.”

We identify objects as tainted or sacred at an intuitive, emotional level. At a place were our reasoning is powerless to touch.  A place where the principles of magical thinking reign supreme over the laws of science. At the very place where we make our buying decisions.

And for marketers, that means 2 things:

  1. You can’t expect a rational explanation to communicate a shared value that’s held at that intuitive, emotional level.
  2. You’d better understand the rule sets behind the “magical thinking” that our emotional and lizard brains engage in if you hope to move beyond mere rational explanations in your advertising

Case In Point: Columbia Sportswear’s Tough Mother

First, some background on Columbia Sportswear’s former CEO and now Chairman of the Board, as taken from the inside flap of her book:

“When a heart attack claimed Gert Boyle’s husband in 1970, the forty-six-year-old housewife and mother of three found herself at the helm of Columbia Sportswear, a small outerwear manufacturer in Portland, Oregon, that was struggling financially. With no business experience whatsoever, Boyle was faced with the challenge of running Columbia, which had been founded in 1937 by her father — a Jewish immigrant who had fled Hitler’s Germany. Boyle and her son Tim persevered, turning a company that in 1970 had forty employees and less than $800,000 in annual sales into the leading seller of skiwear in the United States, with more than 2000 employees and over a billion in annual sales…”

One of the turning points on this incredible success story was (surprise!) a change in advertising messaging.

Prior to the Borders Perrin & Norrander marketing campaign that billed Columbia’s CEO, Gert Boyle, as “one tough mother,” Columbia’s ads emphasized how their sportswear wasn’t just designed, it was “engineered.”


A perfectly rational approach to building value for the product that failed in the marketplace.  Customers may rationally compare spec sheets and engineering functionality, but they identify quality and an affinity for an object at a much deeper, emotional level. And they buy at these deeper, emotional – and, yes, magical – elements.

What Columbia needed was to convey their passion for no-nonsense product design in a way that “worked,” and to convey that message through the laws of magical thinking.  They needed messaging that took advantage of our notions that blood is thicker than water, that essences really exist, that shared values take place at more profound level than “good business practices” and engineering labs.

Fortunately for Columbia, their next, legendary ad campaign did exactly that by focusing on Gert Boyle’s “Tough Mother” approach to product design, and by expressing that approach through the mother-son relationship that existed between Columbia’s CEO and its President.  Here’s how that looked:




2010-05-26_1142People saw those ads and believed.  They believed that Gert really cared, fervently and violently, about the products her company manufactured. They believed her interest in building clothing that protected the wearer went way deeper than just normal, rational business desires to “engineer” a better product.

As Ma Boyle puts it:

“The impact of the ads was almost instantaneous. Sales quickly increased and I was surprised when strangers came up to me on the street and asked if I was the ‘tough mother.’ Better yet, the image created by the advertisements took hold.  Instead of seeing us as just another outerwear company, our customers thought of us as the company where the cranky and crotchety old broad made sure that they were getting a good product at a fair price.  The bottom line was that what we were really expressing was that we were human… People relate to us because they believe there is a person at Columbia who really cares.  And the best thing about our ads is that they are true. I do care.”

After seeing the commercials, customers liked Columbia better.  Their affinity for Gert rubbed off (the phrase is telling, is it not?) onto the products.  And sales soared, leading to one of the clearest success stories from a national “image-based” campaign since the Marlboro Man.

What about you?

What are you irrationally committed to?  What values do you cling to even when it costs you – even when it makes no business sense at all?

Does your advertising even mention them?

And are you communicating those values rationally or magically?

P.S. If you really want to be inspired, check out some of Columbia’s old TV Ads.  I’ve always liked the one with the zamboni, myself ; )

The ThinkerLook at the photo to the left. Yeah, it’s Rodin’s The Thinker and you’ve already seen it before – take another good, hard look anyway. In fact, study the thing for a minute. I’ll wait.

OK, having just “experienced” the picture for yourself, read Rodin’s description of his statue:

“What makes my thinker think is that he thinks not only with the brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils, and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs; with his clenched fist and gripping toes.”*

Now go back and take another look at the pic. Did you notice new things? Did you find yourself noticing new details on the statue’s nostrils, lips, back, and toes, while giving silent affirmation to Rodin’s words?

That is the mark of great product description: using words to guide the senses and shape the experience.

And the more you sell premium products and experiences – the more you sell the distillation of passion – the more you had better tap into the power of copy to direct the imagination of the reader.

The Science and Art of Great Product Description

Lest you think the Rodin example was nothing but a parlor trick, I thought I’d cite some hard science and proven psychology behind this technique, while also giving some helpful how-to hints:

1) Vividly imagining the future reduces impulsive choices

And the reader’s imagination will trend towards the future – unless YOU direct the imagination of the buyer! I may be tempted to buy your product, but the more I imagine the future rewards and pleasures of sticking to my diet, sticking to my budget, and so on, the less likely I am to buy.

But if the copy directs my senses to vividly imagine the pleasures and benefits of ownership/consumption, I’ll be moved to buy rather than abstain.  Great copy recreates the enthusiast’s experience in the mind of the prospect.  Mediocre copy just describes the product.

2) Translating a product into an experience de-comodifies your product

“If it wasn’t hard, everybody would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.”  Tom Hank’s character said that about baseball, but it applies just as well to premium products and services.  Making a significantly better product requires extra effort and passion.  Often in the service of squeezing out an extra 10% refinement in 10-20 different areas.  And that’s the problem… at least from a copywriter’s standpoint

See, small refinements in a lot of areas don’t translate well in a spec-sheet head-to-head comparison, where the cheaper alternative ends up looking like a 90% as good for half the price alternative.  And that’s why good copywriters lean so heavily on “creation” stories, which project the manufacturers passion onto the reader, and make those relatively fine distinctions seem like all-important differences. Gary Weeks gives a first class example of this in the copy he created for his Weeks Rocker.  There’s a reason the man’s able to sell $1600 rocking chairs over the internet.

3) Curiosity and Education are every bit as powerful as a great deal

When you describe an experience that’s foreign to the reader, you create curiosity – a desire in the reader to “see” for herself. To taste the nuances of flavor in a well crafted wine, or to feel the texture and feedback that only the combination of first-class drawing paper and high-quality charcoal can provide.  Or even to “see” their PPC campaign with new eyes – eyes capable of sifting out the hidden motivations of prospects/searchers and the flawed messaging in the ads.

For many, learning, discovering new experiences, and expanding one’s scope of competency are as seductive a prospect as any straightforward value proposition. Gary Vaynerchuk rode this wave to fame and fortune. And two Maine Lobsterman have taken this kind of value-added offering to a new level, and made themselves into millionaires in the process!  You can too.

4) The Joshua Bell Effect

Asking people to recognize true merit and quality on its own, deprived of any cues or prompts, is simply asking too much from your customers and prospects.  Kind of like asking you to have recognized all those details about Rodin’s The Thinker without his quote as a prompt.

Perhaps the most striking modern-day example of this was an experiment done by the Washington Post wherein Musical Prodigy Joshua Bell played his stradivarius in the subway to see how many would recognize his musical excellence, absent the concert hall cues and media fanfare normally surrounding his performances.  The result: he was ignored by everyone but children. Even music snobs need cues to recognize talented, virtuoso performance.

As a copywriter you’re job is to set the stage for your virtuoso product/service and to provide prospects with the cues they so desperately need to recognize real quality when they see it.  When you tell prospects where to look, how to look, and what to expect, you’re not only enticing their imaginations, but helping those soon-to-be customers to fully recognize the differentiators your client has already baked into the product. Which both sells more product on the front end AND improves customer satisfaction on the back end, too.

Does your product copy merely describe the product?

Or does your copy predict the prospect’s experience of the product, helping them to see with their ears and anticipate all the pleasure and benefits that are sure to come with ownership?

2010-05-03_1347People don’t change their minds – they simply make new decisions based on new information.

If you don’t provide them with new information, they won’t make any new decisions.

That’s Roy Williams’ take on the subject of changing minds, and I tend to agree, depending on how broadly one interprets “information.”  It’s possible to give people no new information in the narrow sense of the word, but to cause them to feel differently about what they already knew.

In other words, you can spark a new decision by providing a new perspective rather than new information.

Case in point: This print ad for BMW…

(The Good)


While I’m not out to make any claims about the ultimate effectiveness of the ad, I am going to say that this represents a far cry from a shameful or gratuitous use of sex.  It’s actually a very deliberate and pointed use of sex-appeal aimed at getting you to feel differently about the desirability of pre-owned cars.

An intellectual approach would be to talk about the inspection and refurbishment that these pre-owned cars go through and the warranty you’ll receive when you buy one.  But that’s been done so many times it’s probably already assumed by the reader.

Readers already know that pre-owned cars are a better deal financially, yet they still feel an irrational desire for “new.”  And irrational obstacles call for emotional advertising.  They call for creating new perspectives rather than providing new information.

Bottom Line:

When you’re contemplating the use of shock-appeal or sex-appeal in an ad, you need to ask yourself if the ad is merely shocking, titillating, and entertaining readers, or if it’s changing how they feel about what you sell.

Otherwise you’ll end up with the Ugly end of Sex in Advertising, such as this ad for… can you even tell?

(The Ugly)


Believe it or not, this is an ad for a vacuum cleaner!