A bit of common wisdom for lawyers goes something like:

“When the law is against you, argue the facts. When the facts are against you, argue the law. When both are against you, call the other lawyer names”

Great advice, but how does this translate into advertising terms?

Ah, to get that, you have to go back to the Rhetorical advice from which this common wisdom came. And when it comes to Rhetoric, I always look to Jay Henrichs, author of Thank You for Arguing and Word Hero. Here’s what Jay has to say in chapter 12 of Thank You for Arguing:

“If facts work in your favor, use them. If they don’t (or you don’t know them), then…

Redefine the terms instead. If that won’t work, accept your opponents facts and terms but…

Argue that your opponent’s argument is less important than it seems. And if even that isn’t to your advantage…

Claim the discussion is irrelevant.”

Redefining Terms

Ah, redefine the terms. If the car you’re selling is smaller than comparably priced cars, with a smaller, less tourquey engine, then you might try redefining the terms used to describe your car. Stop calling it a family car, and start calling it a “driver’s sedan” — a lighter more fun-to-drive car with an engine that requires a stick shift and a smart driver to wring the right performance out of it.

As you can see form that example, redefining terms happens as much at emotional level, in terms of word associations, as at the level of straight denotative, dictionary-esque definitions. Ultimately, ads aimed at redefining terms have abandoned the idea of providing prospects with new information (i.e. facts), in order to focus on causing prospects to feel differently about the facts they already know.

Volkswagen and DD&B’s “Think Small” campaign (along with DD&B’s “We Try Harder” campaign for avis) is probably The Canonical example of this in advertising. But it’s ultimately a technique favored far more by politicians than advertisers.

Want to oppose the installation of red-light cameras in your town?  Well, clearly you can’t argue in favor of running red lights, right?  Better redefine the terms and try arguing against “surveillance creep.”

Obviously the idea of redefining terms and reframing issues are subjects worth of multiple posts and even entire books.  So I’ll leave further examples till later in order to move onto the other tactics mentioned in Henrich’s quote, but interested readers are invited to check out my earlier post on Emotioneering Your Message.

Calling the Other Guy Names

So what about claiming a competitor’s argument is less important than it seems?  This is where you call the other guy names and belittle the importance of what he’s attempting to promote as his UVP. In other words, it’s a form of counter-branding. Here are three great examples:

1) One of my all-time favorite superbowl commercials actually employs no special effects, talking animals, or grand productions. In fact, it has no images at all, other than a black screen and Motel 6 logo.  So the ad starts and all you see is the black screen.  Then Tom Bodett’s voice comes on and says something like:

“This is what a Motel 6 hotel room looks like at night. Yup, it looks pretty much like every other hotel room at night, doesn’t it. Except this one costs hundreds of dollars less…”

I’m not saying that’s an exact quote, but you get the picture: Motel 6 wasn’t arguing the facts, nor were they overtly redefining terms. But on an emotional level, they were sort of calling other, more expensive hotels names. The ad did this by changing the viewer’s mental imagery of an upscale room into an image of extravagant waste — pretty decorations that’ll go unseen for 9/10ths of the time you’ll be in your room, and fancy-schmancy “complementary” mints and toiletries that you don’t really want or need and that the price differential makes some of the most expensive chocolate you’ll ever taste.

2) This MCI ad:

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ATt&T is no longer the tried and true provider, but the totalitarian monopoly, thwarting the “fruits of the free enterprise system.”  I love it.  MCI doesn’t even have to talk about lower prices directly because they’ve just motivated the viewer to find out for himself. Brilliant name calling.

3) An old Volvo Ad I can’t quite seem to find online. But if you know anything about Volvo, you know that “safety” is that brand’s calling card. And for a long time they trumpeted their use of roll cages, side impact door beams, 3-point safety harnesses for rear passengers, air bags, etc.

Except that safety standards for the rest of the automobile industry eventually caught up with Volvo’s pioneering efforts. Just about every new car on the road now has all those safety features as standard. So what did Volvo do?  They called the other guys names.

The ad basically said that Volvo built all those things into their cars decades before other manufacturers because they thought it was the right thing to do. While the other manufacturers only did it when the law (or market forces) REQUIRED THEM. So who would you rather trust to build your next car?

Making Their Argument Irrelevant

Let me just leave this one as “not recommended for marketers.”  In legal terms, this would mean arguing that the court has no jurisdiction in the matter, or, in an interpersonal matter, that the person has no right to judge your actions, that what you are doing or proposing is simply “your prerogative.”

The closest thing to an example of this I can think of is Clairol’s L’Oreal’s  “Because I’m worth it” campaign. But even those ads implied that there was a substantive difference in the quality of the product. So it doesn’t really fit.  You really don’t want to find yourself in a position of arguing that the only reason someone should pay more for your product is because they can.

Facts — Definition — Calling Names

So to circle back to our opening strategy statement: argue the facts when the facts are in your favor. Redefine the terms and reframe the issue when the facts aren’t in your favor. And call the other guy names with a bit of counter-branding when redefining the terms won’t work for you.

And if you have any favorite examples of any of these strategies, feel free to list them in the comments.



  1. John on 03.23.2012

    Sound like a politician’s play book.