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?