2011-02-21_1143Inter­ac­tive ads often strike me as a next-generation “funny ad” — with the “inter­ac­tiv­ity” feel­ing just as gra­tu­itous as the humor in most funny ads.

And as any copy­writer worth his pay can tell you, gra­tu­itous humor hurts ad performance.

So as clever as many inter­ac­tive ads are, the ad pro­fes­sional in me usu­ally walks away from them with that same impres­sion: did this really help con­vey the mes­sage, or did it just show­case the “tal­ents” of the ad agency?

But that wasn’t the case with Spent from the Urban Min­istries of Durham (cre­ated by McKinney).

Spent lacks all of the “hey look at me, I’m dig­i­tal and cool” vari­ety of inter­ac­tiv­ity, as it’s a text-based game.  But Spent’s text-based inter­ac­tiv­ity forces the player to make the same soul-crushing and dilemma-filled choices pushed onto America’s work­ing poor.

As Ad Freak writes, “It’s a jar­ring expe­ri­ence, and sev­eral of the choices will stick with you long after you’ve played.”  Now that’s inter­ac­tiv­ity that works!

Inter­ac­tive Insight From the Heath Bros

And Spent reminded me of this exam­ple of per­sua­sive inter­ac­tiv­ity high­lighted in Chap­ter 5 of Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch:

  • Chil­dren com­plet­ing chemother­apy are sent home to com­plete their treat­ment by tak­ing a reg­i­men of antibi­otics and low-dosage chemother­apy pills.
  • But com­pli­ance is crit­i­cal to suc­cess.  Miss­ing 20% of your meds means a 200% higher chance of get­ting can­cer again.
  • To increase com­pli­ance HopeLab devel­oped a video game that let kids play the part of a sil­ver nano-bot that kills can­cer cells with chemo rays.
  • The game has 20 lev­els and is sup­posed to teach kids about their Chemo reg­i­men and recov­ery through between-game lessons
  • The game is a smash­ing suc­cess, boost­ing com­pli­ance by 20% and dou­bling kids chances for cancer-free success.
  • BUT, most of the kids only com­pleted 2 lev­els of game play, mean­ing they got lit­tle info and mostly game-play

The find­ings seemed counter-intuitive, until HopeLab’s research direc­tor asked a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor at Stan­ford to explain:

Think about this from a Mar­ket­ing per­spec­tive. We can change behav­ior in a short tele­vi­sion ad. We don’t do it with infor­ma­tion. We do it with iden­tity, ‘If I buy a BMW, I’m going to be this kind of per­son. If I take that kind of vaca­tion, I’m this kind of eco-friendly person.’”

In other words, the game got the kids to iden­tify with the chemo as their weapon for get­ting their life and health back, rather than as a reminder of their sick­ness. It dra­mat­i­cally changed how they felt about tak­ing chemo through direct involve­ment – an involve­ment made pos­si­ble through interactivity.

Got it? Inter­ac­tiv­ity should fos­ter imag­i­nary and emo­tional con­nec­tion to the per­sua­sive mes­sage. If it’s not doing that, it’s prob­a­bly a waste of resources.

How This Applies to Reg­u­lar Advertising

What you’re prob­a­bly think­ing is: That’s great, Jeff, if you’ve got the ad bud­get to cre­ate inter­ac­tive ads in the first place.

My first response: the costs of inter­ac­tive adver­tis­ing have dropped tremen­dously over the last few years. Plus the more you rely on message-based involve­ment and the less you require wizz-bang graph­ics, the cheaper it’s likely to be.  In other words, don’t dis­miss it; research it, and even if it is still too expen­sive, be will­ing to check back in a year’s time.

My sec­ond response: If text alone can be inter­ac­tive, no other medium has an excuse not to be.

Does that sec­ond response sur­prise you?

Here’s an exam­ple of inter­ac­tive text (not hyper­links) from Roy Williams’ Mon­day Morn­ing Memo, Reveal­ing the Vivid Unex­pected:

The thing about grow­ing up is that you get fewer scabs on your knees, but more inter­nal injuries. Do you remem­ber the day when that lit­tle yel­lowham­mer flew straight at the win­dow? You picked it up. It had a drop of blood on its beak. Iden­ti­cal color to ours. Just one drop, like a bright bead. And then there were all those brightly plumed kids who left school, fly­ing cheer­fully and didn’t get far. Ran smack into World War II. Lit­tle Tommy Nay­lor lying in Africa some­where, blood on his beak. Iden­ti­cal color to ours.”
– mono­logue of Peter Sal­lis as Nor­man Clegg, Last of the Sum­mer Wine; Get­ting Sam Home, (1983) writ­ten by Roy Clarke

We’re not told the yel­lowham­mer col­lided with the win­dow. Nei­ther do we read the words “dead” or “death.” Yet we know the lit­tle bird hit the win­dow and died because of the line, “You picked it up.“

We come to this con­clu­sion on our own. This tech­nique of “rev­e­la­tion by infer­ence” pulls us into the nar­ra­tive by mak­ing us fill in its blanks…

…Read the pas­sage again and wit­ness the bril­liant restraint. Roy Clarke flashes just a few slides onto the movie screen of our mind and we fill the gaps between them. We con­clude:

(1.) A yel­lowham­mer is a bird.
(2.) It hit the win­dow and died.
(3.) Tommy Nay­lor was a school­mate.
(4.) Tommy grew up and went to war.
(5.) Tommy died in Africa in WWII

But none of this is told to us directly. Yet we know it just as surely as if it had been.

Tony Schwartz and Evok­ing a Response with Old-School Media

As you can see, forc­ing your audi­ence to “fill in the gaps” is a form of inter­ac­tiv­ity that’s avail­able to all media, whether it’s bill­board, radio, or TV.   As Media Guru Tony Schwartz writes:

For an adver­tiser, the issue of con­cern should cen­ter on how the stim­uli in a com­mer­cial inter­act with a viewer’s real-life expe­ri­ences and thus affect his behav­ior in a pur­chas­ing sit­u­a­tion.” [Empha­sis added]

Now, Tony is most famous for his Daisy com­mer­i­cal, an inter­ac­tive piece of adver­tis­ing if ever there was one. Take a look:

YouTube Preview Image

Goldwater’s cam­paign com­plained bit­terly about the ad, claim­ing it was an attack ad and that it mis­rep­re­sented Goldwater’s remarks and poli­cies with regard to nuclear weapons, but oddly enough, the ad never men­tions Gold­wa­ter or his poli­cies. That was filled in by the lis­ten­ers as they inter­acted with the images and sounds.  They filled in the gaps.

And for those ask­ing the ques­tion, yes, the tech­nique works just as well for prod­uct com­mer­cials rather than polit­i­cal ads. Here’s a com­mer­cial where Tony Schwartz used his tech­niques to pitch Coca-Cola with­out ever men­tion­ing the product’s name:

Schwartz Coke Commercial

So the real ques­tion isn’t are you using dig­i­tal adver­tis­ing, but are you cre­at­ing inter­ac­tive adver­tis­ing, regard­less of your media?

If not, maybe you need a bet­ter ad writer.  Or maybe you need a bet­ter trained copy­writer.

P.S. As the Web holds all media, the impor­tance of mean­ing­ful, non-redundant inter­ac­tion between graph­ics and copy and video and cross-channel com­mu­ni­ca­tion is becom­ing more and more impor­tant.  Start think­ing about it, if you haven’t already.


  1. Grimaldo on 02.22.2011

    Imbed­ded in the 2/22 blog is this line:

    “We don’t do it with infor­ma­tion. We do it with identity …”

    At the top of this blog is this quote by William Bernbach:

    Noth­ing is so pow­er­ful as an insight into human nature… what com­pul­sions drive a man, what instincts dom­i­nate his action… if you know these things about a man you can touch him at the core of his being.”

    It appears the insight into human nature has more to do with IDENTITY than almost any other factor.

    Isn’t IDENTITY one of the deeper dri­ving needs that are being met in the Social Net­work sites?

    The need to belong, be part of some­thing or as Terry Mal­loy says ” I coulda been somebody”.

    Can you elab­o­rate on this topic of IDENTITY in future essays Mr. Sexton?

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