beautiful-woman-smokingDoes it really shock anyone that the tobacco industry-produced Anti-Youth-Smoking ad campaign, “Think. Don’t Smoke,” actually made kids MORE likely to smoke?  36% more likely to smoke, according to one study.  I’m sure the tobacco executives were heartbroken…

But avoiding the question of intent, why did the putatively anti-smoking message have a pro-smoking effect on it’s audience?

Because the ads pitted logic against emotion and tepid syntax against vivid imagery. They essentially introduced a pleasure and rebellion promising white bear into the minds of kids and then said: don’t think of a white bear.

The Truth campaign, on the other hand, sought to harness the power of imagery, emotion, and identity in order to direct it against both the tobacco industry and smoking.  Any wonder that kids exposed to the Truth ads where 66% LESS likely to smoke?

YouTube Preview Image

So to sum up: Imagery and emotion always outweigh logic and syntax.

Moreover, negative emotion tends to outweigh positive; no one needs to teach you to worry, but positive visualization is an acquired skill.

So what does this have to do with either Sex or Websites?


Ads for keep popping up on television.  Except that the ads seem to be far less for as they are against  Yet when looked at closely, the imagery and language of the ads is way more vivid when talking about Ashley Madison than it is when proclaiming the need for fidelity or  Just take a look at the ad and see for yourself:

My Marriage Matters V.2 from Ryan Hill on Vimeo.

So what were the results?  Traffic to Ashley Madison was UP 30% following the appearance of these ads on TV! [Hat Tip to Edit Weapon for tweeting this bit of info]


2010-11-03_2159Worse, when you actually go to, what you find is a replay of the ad, with no real call to action button. Not only is there no CTA in the ad itself, but there’s no CTA on the website either, except for the most muted, neigh-unto-invisible, dull-gray text link beneath the video asking visitors to sign a petition.

And to be clear, this is the main Website for the organization – not a landing page.  Can you imagine a main Website with no home page copy, no “About Us” pages, no “How We Can Help You” pages, no downloads, no links to other pro-marriage sites, and no real call to action other than one, small, dull gray text link.

It’s almost as if the site owners had designed the link NOT to be noticed – as if the owners of the site and the producers of the ad wanted to promote Ashley Maddison, not marital fidelity.  Then again, what else might you expect from a pro-marriage organization founded and run by a divorce lawyer with possible ties to

Valuable Website Optimization lessons you can learn from this

Whether the tobacco companies and Ryan Hill mishandled their messages, or deviously manipulated their audiences, you can use their experience to your benefit.  The same principles that led these anti-smoking and anti-affair ads to provoke the very behaviors they were (ostensibly) trying to suppress can be harnessed for your good – if you learn these Web Optimization lessons:

1) Don’t skimp on the imagery related to product benefits. Most copywriters write vivid and image intensive copy when describing and “agitating” the problems faced by prospective customers, but then they get all technical and abstract when describing the solution. The negative image sticks while the positive solution fades away – just like the “Think. Don’t Smoke” and ads.

The solution: write copy that’s at least as vivid in describing the benefits and future happiness that comes from your product or service as it is in evoking the problem.  Never rely on logic, syntax, or a flimsy verbal response to undue a vivid mental image. Make sure your positive mental images overpower the negative images.

2) Make your desired Call to Action visually prominent. It’s hardly unusual to find the main conversion point on Websites to enjoy less visual prominence than peripheral areas, 3rd party ads, unimportant links etc.  I also commonly see shopping carts and check out processes that give equal visual prominence to “delete” or “exit” buttons than the “checkout” or “continue” buttons.  Home pages often have call-outs for tertiary conversions more prominent displayed than the primary categories for shoppers.  And so on. Don’t let this happen to your site.

The solution: use proper graphic design to guide the eye of the visitor towards the correct actions. This correction is often the root cause of those “I changed the color of my add to cart button and got a 83% lift stories.”  It’s not the button color that crated the result so much as increasing the visual prominence and contrast for the desired call to action. So stop focusing on button colors and start focusing on guiding the eye through proper design and visual prominence.

Any other examples out there of copy, imagery, or design that gives emphasis to the wrong, counterproductive aspect of a message or request for action?  Let me know in the comments.


  1. Mike on 11.04.2010

    Insightful, as always, Jeff.

    Hope this isn’t too far off topic, but the word “don’t” has the opposite effect for parenting, too. I learned the hard way – “Don’t splash in the mud, son.” Son: “Splash in the mud? Great idea, Dad. Thanks!” “Son, don’t drive too fast.” And so on.

    In fact, any negative directive aims the recipient in the direction we don’t want him or her to go, even when death is on the line. For instance, from Genesis 2:17 “ …but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will certainly die.” Yes, I know about the snake’s influence, but the point is that it’s human nature to want to go where we’re forbidden.

  2. Jeff on 11.04.2010

    I quite agree, Mike. Although I might add that, speaking of Genesis, seeking out the forbidden has become human nature after, and as a result of, the fall.

    Putting the image in the mind of another leads to doubt and doubt leads to the urge to experiment/find out and then it’s all downhill from there…

    – Jeff

  3. Courtenay on 11.04.2010

    If I was a politician, I also wouldn’t put pictures and names of my competitors in my t.v. ads either….even Madonna said, any publicity is good publicity…or something like that.
    .-= Courtenay´s last blog ..Seven Ways Games Reward the Brain =-.

  4. Mike Reeves-McMillan on 11.04.2010

    This is a classic issue that I strike in practice as a hypnotherapist. We’re trained to be very careful about creating vivid images around the things people want to stop doing.

    It’s much more effective to create imagery around the positive consequences of change and the negative consequences of the current behaviour.
    .-= Mike Reeves-McMillan´s last blog ..Rewarded For- or Rewarded With =-.