on-a-mission-from-godEven a vicious criminal wants his gun manufactured by a virtuous man.

He most certainly doesn’t want the gun to have been made with cut corners, with an unscrupulous eye towards maximizing profit margins, and a sociopathic inconsideration for the end-user.

And so it is with everyone: no matter how much we may fail to attain virtue ourselves – no matter how much we behave as foolish children – we still want the things we buy and the people who provide our services to be virtuous.

For advertising and copywriting, this means that demonstrating or dramatizing virtue on the part of the product, manufacturer, or service provider is often enough to move the needle.

This is especially true in cases where proving superiority in performance is difficult or legally prohibited or impossible. In practical terms, demonstrating virtue means using your copy to indirectly show how the actions of  your client are driven by something deeper than economics.

Here’s an example demonstrating this technique of implied virtue:


In a previous post, I focused on the story’s ability to flatter prospective customers, but I ignored how the story implies that Mr. Beckley works on Mercedes because he has an affinity with the values that the car stands for – that he cares about how all that added engineering and build quality ultimately protect the driver.

In other words, Beckley’s  decision to focus on Mercedes and Volvos is a principled, virtuous choice, making him, by transference, a principled, virtuous mechanic (as opposed to a mechanic choosing to concentrate on a more lucrative or less competitive foreign auto market).

So Mr. Beckley not only becomes a mechanic you can trust, but one with whom you share a common brand affinity for Mercedes automobiles. Brilliant.

Taking WIIFY to the Next Level

Currencies_That_Buy-_CredibilityI touched on this emotional dynamic a bit earlier with my post on What’s In It For You (and on One Tough Mother’s Magical Advertising Secret),  But now I’d like to tie that idea to the work of my colleague Tom Wanek.

Tom’s framework of signaling theory, as described in his book Currencies that Buy Credibility, really functions as the missing link between credibility and WIIFY. Here’s how:

1. To show virtue, you have to show an unreasonable devotion to excellence or end-user satisfaction. You have to demonstrate extra-painstaking measures that go beyond the merely economic. And ideally, you want to do this with something other than an explicit claim.

2. Signaling Theory says that non-adaptive/non-economical expenditure of resources can be used to “prove” or signal mating fitness. The male peacock’s weighty tail feathers show off his vigor; they demonstrate his ability to survive despite the handicap, kind of like beating someone up “with one arm behind your back.”

3. In business, an apparently non-selfish investment of money, resources, time, etc. can signal the sincerity or virtue of your business offer. This is the crux of Wanek’s brilliant application of Signaling Theory to marketing. A money-back guarantee (supposedly) shows that you’re willing to take on all of the buying risk, ostensibly due to confidence in your product. Richard Davis’s willingness to shoot himself while wearing Second Chance Body Armor rather dramatically demonstrates how risking Safety and Wellbeing signals belief and trusts in a product:

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4. Ads can demonstrate virtue by leveraging one of Wanek’s 6 Currencies that Buy Credibility, namely:

  • Material Wealth
  • Time and Energy
  • Opportunity
  • Power and Control
  • Reputation and Prestige
  • Safety and Wellbeing

In the Beckley Automotive example, Mr. Beckley is sacrificing opportunity (the opportunity to work on any mark and make of vehicle) in order to signal his shared affinity for Mercedes.

My point is simply that layering virtue with Signaling creates a stronger overall effect than either strategy alone. And that this kind of implied demonstration of virtue is what most people are really after in most of the products and services they buy — that it represents what Ogilvy referred to as “a first class ticket” and “the positively good.

So what are you doing with your advertising? Are you using either or both of these techniques to maximum effect?

P.S. As previously noted, the Beckley Automotive example was used with the kind permission of the brilliant Chuck McKay, a marketing and business strategist with much to offer any business serious about pursuing increased market share and profitability.

P.P.S.  Tom will be teaching at Wizard Academy on the 26th of this month for those interested in an in-depth study of marketing through signaling theory


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